I’m not sure how I heard about this novel, only that I had heard that there was an animal rights element to it. Yet in the early pages I struggled to find that element. This is a novel set in 1913 on a British estate in which a group of upper-class couples have gathered to participate in a shooting party.
And yet there is very much an animal rights element to this book, in the persona of a vegetarian named Cornelius Cardew.
When we meet Cardew, a socialist and anti-vivisectionist, he is making his way to the Sir Randolph Nettleby estate, intent on interrupting the hunt. As nears the estate he encounters Tom Harkin, the head-keeper. Tom attempts to make small talk but then realizes he has stumbled across someone with very curious questions about the upcoming hunt.
“Must we kill our brothers and sisters in order to eat?” said [Cornelius].
“I should hope not indeed,” said Tom stoutly but in total bewilderment.
“Until we can recognize the universal kinship of all living creatures we shall remain in outer darkness. In outer darkness.”
Tom dismisses the man as “bloody barmy” but they will meet again under very different circumstances.
Along the way, we get to know the participants of the party, the troubled marriages, simmering tensions as well as the children navigating this barmy world. Like young Osbert, who has befriended a duck and attends to her like a pet. When a guest threatens to shoot the duck during the hunt Osbert threatens to kill the man, which the adults find humorous but, later, two adults share the following dialogue:
“…[Osbert] will have to be educated and taught the ways of the world and made to be on the side of the guns and against the ducks. It seems such a pity.”
“We all have to learn to school our emotions to some extent.”
“Of course, but who invents the rules of manly behavior? Who says it’s the height of heroism to kill? For every hero does there have to be a living sacrifice?”
Sacrifice is a recurring theme of this novel, of the world that Colegate describes, one about to be torn apart by World War I. And yet how familiar is this dialogue even today? How many husbands tell their wives that they must take the boys out hunting to learn how to kill. To be tough. To be “on the side of the guns.”
On the final day of the shooting party, Osbert’s duck gets loose.
Elfrida Beetle is her name and Osbert, and his caretaker, go looking for her. And, yes, we will spend quite a few pages worried over the fate of Elfrida.
Colegate astutely contrasts the drama over the life of one Elfrida Beetle against the lives of hundreds of pheasants and other collateral victims.
Colegate captures the costumes, the suffocating small talk, and contrasts it with the lives of the laborers and one activist. By the end of the novel one can’t help but see World War I as not only inevitable but perhaps somewhat of a relief. To give these poor birds a break and let the men direct their pointless violence at one another.
Sadly, shooting parties did not end with the wars.
And as Cornelius thinks to himself at the end of the novel, after a tragic scene that I won’t spoil:
What the ritual was that required the sacrifice he could not exactly say, only that he was outside it, condemned by something in himself, some cowardice, some over-cerebration, only to watch, to comment, scold, diagnose, analyze, but not to cure; the cure could not come from a non-participant, from someone who was not part of the game, for how could a mere spectator be expected to be listened to when he wanted to tell the players not just that they were using the wrong rules but that they were playing the wrong game?
The Shooting Party