Pink Fire Pointer Discovering Isabel Colegate

Discovering Isabel Colegate

Something very exciting is happening in the literary blogosphere.  Many book bloggers are writing about and bringing attention to women writers from the past, some of whom are not widely read or talked about and some whose books are not even in print.  These are excellent writers who deserve to be read and even though they may be difficult to find in a book store, you can always order them online.    Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, and Isabel Colegate are three that come to mind.  Because of Rachel's review of The Shooting Party on her wonderful blog Book Snob,  I recently had the pleasure of discovering this wonderful novel by Isabel Colegate.  If you haven't read this book, I urge you to do so immediately.  I just read the last pages and was so moved by the beauty and the sadness of this book that I hurried over to my computer to write about it.    

Those of us who were fans of Downton Abbey are familiar with the customs of country life for the English upper class during the Edwardian era in the years before World War I.  A family like Lord Grantham's would have tea every afternoon, wear formal dress for dinner, and organize a shooting party for the weekend.  

Who can forget the image of Lady Mary, elegant in her tweeds, striding between the two men who love her during the shooting party scene of the last episode of season two?  It turns out that Julian Fellowes was influenced by The Shooting Party when he created "Downton Abbey."

The Shooting Party is a beautifully written and touching novel about England during the Edwardian era just before World War, with a focus on the British class system.   It was published in 1981 and is the most famous of the 14 books written by the excellent English writer Isabel Colegate, a writer not widely known in this country.  The novel's theme is pre-World War I England on the eve of the catastrophic war, its countrymen unknowing and unprepared for what lay ahead.

The story takes place in the autumn of 1913 on the Oxfordshire estate of Sir Randolph Nettleby.  He has invited a group of friends to join him on his estate for the biggest shoot of the season.  As with "Downton Abbey," we get a microcosm here of the British class system, a self-contained world within the grounds and house of Sir Randolph.  We meet the servants and gamekeepers who facilitate this age old ritual of the house and the hunt.  They have dreams and opinions about making their lives better, as well as loyalties to the family.  Tom Harker is a thatcher by trade but on the shooting party weekend works as a "beater," one of the men who rouse the birds from their nests for their flight to death.  He is filled with class resentment, and yet admires the shooting skill of the men involved in the hunt.  There is Dan, the son of the gamekeeper Glass, who is very bright and an excellent student.  Sir Randolph is planning to send him to university and pay for his education.  Sir Randolph himself is a benevolent man with a devotion to keeping things the way they are and preserving the great land and house he has inherited.  He believes it is his duty to care for the men and women who work on his land.  He and his wife Minnie watch over the group of guests and attend to their comfort.

The guests are an eclectic group.  There is Lord Gilbert Hartlip, who is famous as an excellent shot but takes it so seriously as to adversely affect the experience.  Lionel Stephens is a successful lawyer who is also a talented sportsman (in fact he and Lord Harlip are serious rivals) but is more occupied with falling in love with Olivia Lilburn, the beautiful and intelligent wife of a man who doesn't appreciate her.  Sir Randolph's grandchildren are there.  Osbert is a sensitive and introverted child who spends the entire weekend searching for his pet duck, whom he is terrified will be killed in the hunt.  Osbert's older sister Cicely is having her first flirtation with one of the guests, a young Hungarian count.   An animal rights protester Cornelius Cardew wanders onto the estate, trying to talk to Sir Randolph about his cause.  

We know almost from the beginning that some one will die during the shoot and the discovery of who that person will be is the topic of suspense that dominates this book until the end.

The book is elegant and subtle, never hitting the reader over the head with any of the issues that are present throughout the story:  class tensions, the rights of women, anti-violence and animal rights.   These issues are there but are woven subtly throughout the book, coming up in dialogue or behavior.  
The elegance of the book comes from the way the time period, the country estate, the land, and this way of life are evoked.  The details and texture of things seem to be illuminated in a golden glow.    They are rendered so beautifully as to almost appear as a painting of a time long ago, an era that no longer exists but is given eternity though a work of art.

Here is the opening of the book:

"It caused a mild scandal at the time, but in most people's memories it was quite outshone by what succeeded it.  You could see it as a drama all played out in a room lit by gas lamps; perhaps with flickering sidelights thrown by a log fire burning brightly at one side of the room, a big Edwardian drawing room, full of furniture, tables crowded with knick-knacks and framed photographs, people sitting or standing in groups, conversing; and then a fierce electric light thrown back from a room beyond, the next room, into which no one has yet ventured, and this fierce retrospective light through the doorway makes the lamplit room seem shadowy, the flickering flames in the grate pallid, the circles of yellow light round the lamps opaque (a kind of tarnished gold) and the people, well, discernibly people, but people from a long time ago, our parents and grandparents made to seem like beings from a much remoter past, Charlemagne and his knights or the seven sleepers half roused from their thousand year sleep.
It was an error of judgement which resulted in a death.  It took place in the autumn before the outbreak of what used to be known as the Great War."

The book is not long, only about 200 pages, and it is to Colegate's credit that she was able to convey so economically this vanished world and its obsession with things that would no longer matter in a few months, when the ultimate "shooting party" of World War I destroyed so much of what these people valued.  It would take away the lives of so many of their young men, young men exactly like those in Colegate's novel.  The Shooting Party is a heartbreaking book, but one you will respect for not manipulating your feelings in an obvious way and truly deserving the emotion it creates.  

By the way,  Persephone Books reprints neglected classics by women writers, mostly English authors whose books were written in the twentieth century.  They are a great source for beautiful editions of many important books that have fallen out of print.
Also, if you would like to learn more about some of my favorite book bloggers, you can find out here.

Have you discovered a gifted writer whose books are not well known or widely read?  Please pass along your discovery, as we would all love to know!