I read about this over at Imani’s blog – I miss Imani! Where did she go?? – and today curled up in my comfy old papasan chair to read it. The Shooting Party is set shortly before the start of World War I, with a large group of British aristocrats and their spouses getting all together to shoot at Lord Randolph Nettleby’s estate. With World War I looming on the horizon, the reader is all too aware that they are gathering together to participate in a way of life that is passing and will soon be dying away entirely.
At first I found it difficult to keep track of all the characters. Lord Randolph has gathered together a fairly large group of people, and this is a fairly short book. I think if I’d been able to get them sorted out a little sooner, I would have been able to settle into enjoying the book sooner as well. Apart from that, though, The Shooting Party was excellent. It portrays with delicate clarity the ways in which this system of the aristocracy and their values has already been broken down. Spouses are unfaithful to each other, and people don’t abide by the rules of hunting. The way of life they are trying to preserve is on its way out even before the War comes along and disrupts everything.
In particular, I liked the character of Cornelius Cardew, who comes along and tries to convince the peasants of their rights, and the gentry that shooting animals is wrong. He’s a muddled sort of character, and there’s something tragic about him, because he’s fighting battles that the War will make irrelevant in a few months. I also loved the characters of the gamekeeper, Glass, and his son Dan. Lord Randolph wants to fund Dan’s education, possibly even up to the university level, and Glass is reluctant to let him go because he knows it will put himself and his son in completely different places. At the end he decides to let him go; and it’s revealed at the end that while Lord Randolph’s son Marcus is killed in the War, Dan survives. It’s just such a strong reiteration of the ways that the War equalized people who would otherwise have been irrevocably segregated.
(Not to suggest that class doesn’t matter in Britain anymore, because my God, does it ever.)
The Shooting Party was a lovely book. I recommend it. Here’s what it’s making me think about: Is it worth mourning a class system that was based on heredity rather than merit? Is it worth mourning the increasing irrelevance of the gentry when some of them were genuinely good people, trying to do what they perceived as their duty? Or, of course, I’m American, and the whole “gentry” thing isn’t so much of an issue over here – are the gentry as irrelevant nowadays as they seem to me, all the way across the pond?
P.S. Some of them were very crazy. Oscar Wilde’s useless boyfriend, Lord Alfred Douglas, had an ancestor that cooked a servant boy, roasted him on a spit, and ate him all up. It’s true.