Books

11.30.13

The Final Shoot: How an English Country Novel Set in 1913 Explains 2013

As we near the World War I centenary, few books offer greater insight into the world of 1913 than a novel about an upper-crust English shooting party—and its eerie parallels with today.

It is the late autumn of 2013, and publishers are rubbing their hands in glee: the first publishing spree of the First World War centenary has gone well. Next year, which marks the start of the four year horror, will probably be devoted to endless books on battles and the bloody awfulness of the war, but this year publishers have done well on setting the scene. On the one hand, there have been several books about the build-up to the war, in which 1913 is just the last stepping stone in a much longer process—Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 and Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 stand out because both reflect the immensely complex web of politics, power, and relationships that made war possible, if not inevitable.

Then there is another genre of pre-war books, which focuses on the year itself as representative of the era rather than the war. Charles Emmerson’s 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War and Florian Illies’ 1913: The Year Before the Storm, are possibly the most significant in this genre because each succeeds in recreating the period as it happened to those who lived it, unaware of the rupture about to occur.

These are all important history books, but there is another question to be asked in the autumn of 2013: is there a significance to 1913 beyond the centenary? Are we living through a parallel period – an end of an era before a rupture? Like those who lived a century ago, we cannot know the answer, but we can seek some possibilities in yet another writing genre: fiction.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate, originally published in 1980, is a novel that takes the themes of blood and sport, ritual and tradition, and weaves them into a consuming narrative. Set in the autumn of 1913 in England, the novel unfolds over a weekend in the last shooting season before the Great War, in Nettleby Park, a fictitious country estate in Oxfordshire. Hosted by Sir Randolph Nettleby, it is a meeting of British aristocrats and members of the upper classes, sprinkled with foreigners, who are obsessed with themselves and their ways.

All sports have their traditions and rituals, but shooting is, literally and figuratively, a game apart as observed in Great Britain. The game itself, the prey, is carefully selected, with fowls and animals allowed to be shot at different stages of the year, each in their season. The preparation of the guns, the attire of the shooters, and the timing of the hunt are all also a matter of meticulous preparation, and then there is the event itself: the heart of the ritual. The guns raised in unison, the sighting of the game, the rounds of shots, the thud as a prey is felled, and then the silence.

Like the sport itself, the shooting weekend too was an event of tradition: a house party in which the assembled company followed a detailed ritual of meals, social interaction, and dress codes.

But the others are there too: the villagers on the estate, the gamekeepers, and the servants who work in the manor house. And there is also a showing for the educated middle class, in the shape of Cornelius Cardew, a member of the Tolstoyan Community – and in effect a representative of all new factions of social thinking – who is walking through the land, seeking to promote animal rights.

Colegate sets the scene swiftly and clearly for her two core ideas: the significance of form, and the end of an era. Her upper class characters take their class and privilege for granted, and yet there is a slight air of desperation to them: one lacks money, another lacks love, and a third is desperate for respect. There is sex to be had, for some, and denied to others. There is already vague talk of war with Germany, and then there are social changes. The gamekeeper’s son is debating an offer to go to grammar school. The maid and the footman are contemplating marriage. There is a correct form for life, which is changing.

In a shoot, in order to ensure fair game, the shooters line up in the field in a specific order – decided at the start either by the host or by drawing numbers. Shooting is permitted only from the allotted spot, from the moment the birds are sighted to the one they disappear. Guns must then be lowered – once again, to ensure fair game for all. But what is fair game?

The Shooting Party is distinct in that it was made into an equally beautiful and engrossing film, suitably starring many of the nobility of English acting: Edward Fox, Dorothy Tutin, John Gielgud, and James Mason, in what was his last appearance. Isabel Colegate’s book is faithfully adapted, but it is probably the intersections of the eternal countryside setting with the specific details of the era, the ongoing ritual of shooting with the particular plot and outcome that gives the film much resonance.

In both book and film, Edwardian England is depicted as a land of excess: one in which privilege is immense, and guarded jealously – especially against signs and signals of social change. As Sir Randolph reflects: “The politicians are determined to turn this country into an urban society instead of a rural one and in the course of the change they think they’ve got to take away the power of the landed proprietor. … For generations we ran the country; it did not suffer from our rule. If the landlord class goes, everything goes. It will be the ruin of rural England.”

Replace “urban” and “rural” with “socialist” and “free”, and you have the slogans uttered by many on the right in the US election campaign last year. Moreover, instead of “landed proprietor” put in “CEO” or “super rich”, and you have the elements of the argument over raising taxes for the 1% (or possibly the 0.1% as Chrystia Freeland recently reflected in her book, Plutocrats).

In using the rituals of both shooting and the house party, The Shooting Party offers us a miniature of politics and war pre-1914: the intricacies of the house party are allegories of the alliances and interactions of the statesmen as they stumbled about more obsessed with their own interests than the consequences of their actions. And the rituals of the shoot can all be seen as reflections of war itself: the preparations, the uniforms, the arms, and the death.

The historical novelist has the luxury of perfect hindsight, and so Colegate can marshal her plot to resonate in light of the real events that followed. By setting it in 1913, she ensures the Great War is a permanent if unspoken presence in the novel until nearly the end, when she reveals the fates of the characters during and after the war. Historians do not have such latitude: all the works cited at the start of this essay are meticulous in seeing the events in themselves, not in light of the outcome. But reading them alongside The Shooting Party offers a unique bridge between 1913 and 2013.