I decided to write about Isabel Colegate tonight because I fear I will not go quickly enough further with her to add to what I've recently read and seen to write a richer blog, and if I don't post about what I've experienced this month (with memories of previous readings) I won't post at all. I want to because I've discovered so little is written about her.
My recent renewal of deep engagement with her began a few weeks ago now when I watched an MP2 Jim made of a video casette recording I had made off of Bravo of last night I rewatched the film adaptation of her book (why it's still known probably), the 1984 The Shooting Party, directed by Alan Bridges, writer Julian Bond, starring James Mason, Dorothy Tutin, Cheryl Campbell, Robert Hardy (so he was young once), John Gielgud, James Fox and Gordon Jackson (he who Mr Hudson in Upstairs Downstairs).
The first landscape is the last we see in the film too
It's so moving and relevant to us today once again -- if it ever wasn't. It's literally about a group of wealthy aristocrats and gentry who meet in a country house to slaughter birds, eat, have love affairs, play games (charades) one weekend, and one of them comes to murder one of the poor workmen on the estate (in lieu of a bird he is trying to kill in order to kill more than another man).
Harket, the poacher is who murdered along with many birds
I couldn't find a good review of the movie, but did discover that she probably wrote the story with Chekhov in mind (I'm not surprized) and that there was a powerful film adaptation made of Chekhov.
Colegate's novella, The Shooting Party is a little masterpiece of art, profound in feeling and turn of events so carefully nuanced and detailed suggestively that the book is a kind of meditation on English history and culture seen through the prism of a small group of upper class gentry, rural working people and servants. It does what people claim for Austen (and is not quite true): take a tiny domestic set of happenings, and make them project out to universal statements.
This makes it sound so solemn. It's witty and undercuts its own thrust on behalf of deep loyalties to the ordinary rhythms of life, personal constancy, kindness, and (among other things) animal rights. She can somehow describe a bird dying on a shoot from the point of view of the murderer (the shooter) in such a way that she brings home the horror of each unfair death, each precious inch of life lost.
If I had not seen the movie, I'd say (and still do) one of its charms is I couldn't predict how it would end. It's probably accused of being conservative, wrongly I think but another aspect I like is it's lack of an overt agenda. I cannot predict her attitudes.
It seemed to fall off about 3/4s of the way through but then picked up strongly when the crisis (which was told of in the opening chapter at least a little) occurs: I'll say there is an accident where a beater is accidentally shot. At this it all comes together again with each of the characters reacting in some deeply characteristic way which projects all sorts of meanings, social, psychological, political, philosophical.
If I were to try to put what is so remarkable briefly here, it's this: Colegate is able to hold a steady gaze on the cruelties, injustices, absurdities, and utter egoism (intense) of each of her characters, at the same time as she dramatizes what is loving, tender and well-meaning in a few of them, enough to make life endurable for them all, not so painful. One of the most touching notes (found in the movie) is the maid and the little boy manage to save a duck's life, and we last see the boy and maid in the movie trudging through the wet grass with this (unconscious of all the fuss) duck in hand.
The novel goes beyond the incident to give us a sense of what happened to the characters and their fates are ironically appropriate and yet comforting for the most part. The whole thing is enmeshed in this beautifully fecund landscape, autumnal golden.
It reminds me of Summer of the Royal Visit which carries the reader through phases of history in Bath, into cultures and landscapes at different moments, all from the perspective orginally of a man standing high on a hill (perhaps Beechen Cliff I can't remember now) looking down and outward, like in a heroic couplet the expansion and imploisions are rhythmic. James Mason as the baronet, all compassion decency almost reconciles us to this world
Being kind to his dog
Renoir's Regles du jour would seem close, but I think not as the emphasis in Shooting Party is so strongly on the natural world, not so much the changeover of custom or custom as central to civilized life. The English have a long tradition of georgic poetry in which they celebrate landscape, and this book seems to me to come out of that poetry too. It's very visual. Margaret Drabbble has a fine book on landscape in British literature: A Writer's Britain. The title is not adequate for its content. It's heavy with meditations on Hardy as central to later 19th century British literary history for example. This kind of thing is also found on J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country (which I'm going to teach a little this coming fall, together with its film adaptation) who alludes centrally to Hardy. I feel as I read on it's this Drabble perspective turned into more civility of life (thus Renoir I see) that will elucidate this book best -- as well as Statues in a Garden (an earlier book I've sent away for from Amazon marketplace).
Old Bath as caught in the 1971 BBC Persuasion
The Summer of the Royal Visit: perhaps it is closest in technique to Eva Figes's The Seven Ages of Women (given me by a student in 1988 when I taught for one semester for the University of Va northern regional center -- a fine sensitive intellient yoing man , so idealistic, I wonder what happened to him). Figes has studied all sorts of autobiographical documents from the medieval through the 20th century (autobiographies, letters, those fictions known to be based on real lives, memoirs, histories from the period in question) and come up with a novel that moves back and forth in time from the 20th century through each of the centuries in question. I suppose it's like Woolf's Orlando in form. Not in mood. It's far more inward, more realistic, more dissolving.
Isabel Colegate presents us with a narrator who lives in Bath at the end of the 20th century; he has been a schoolmaster all his life, and is now retired. He loves Bath and whenever he appears we see the city from a new site. He has been reading old papers in the public library, and the book dissolves into a story of Bath set in the later 19th century. This is superbly well done. It is refreshing because instead of the tired 18th century perspective (it can be tiresome), we see Bath in its decline and from the point of view of people who care about, indeed are the lower orders, as well as familiar George Eliot and Webb types. Then what happens is from the point of view of the 19th century characters we move back into earlier eras: this is done in snatches but there is enough there to evoke myth, legend and depict realities, inward and outward.
She also has some characters from India or who fought in the 'Empire' and there are a couple of scenes which remind me of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust or Paul Scott's Staying On. At least at moments. She has also read much 19th century literature: one sequence seemed to me an imitation of Tennyson's Maid of Shallott. In another we get characters setting themselves up to be photographed. This allows for picturesque description of course.
The book has some thinnnesses. Occasionally I catch Colegate out in a line that comes too directly from piece of research I have read I recognise the work of Byran Little (1940s book on Bath); when that happens the book becomes a book again, and forced, manufactured. Colegate is not very good at menacing sex; it's just not believably done; she's embarrassed. She also has a highly moralistic attitude towards the use of sex by her manipulative villain, Casper Freeling (he uses beliefs in Druidical sites to insinuate his way into circles of powerful people). Still these are scattered moments, side issues, and sex is not at the center of the book. Bath is.
Pump Room, 1987
A few summers ago right around this time, very hot, I decided to take a few evenings to read sheerly for pleasure. Off its shelf came Isabel Colegate's Winter Journey. I began and it was a Colegate novel, and (now that I've nearly finished Didier) very much "écriture féminine."
Monet, Snow, Sunset, a favorite painting, I have a copy scotch-taped to one of the walls in my workroom sanctuary
The story takes place in rural southwest (or maybe it is southeast, it's not significant) England. A brother comes home after a long desperate life of many journies and his sister after two disastrous marriages and a "successful" career follows him. They are snowed and iced in. The quietude and intensity, the sheer controlled subjectivity of the narrative is typical of Colegate. I find it soothing, and know it belong to a subgenre of women's books which is a favorite with me. I'd have a hard time defining this except by referring to other books by women of this type: Valerie Martin writes them (Mary Reilly is a brilliant use of this subgenre as sequel); Susan Hill; Anita Brookner gets mocked for the obviousness of hers; you can find them across cultures: Bobbie Ann Mason, Kathleen Raines. Anne Tyler fits this beautifully -- and is respected for it, probably because of her distancing techniques. Also Annie Proulx (Shipping News). There are French versions beginning with Isabel de Charriere and her generation. Sand's books can fall into this type. A recent version was Chantal Thomas's Adieux a la Reine
I don't know where the type gets its start, probably Austen, but it is renewed in a new way in Woolf's era and by Woolf herself: it's the brief intensely inward story of someone in retreat. I've been thinking how unrated Woolf is in our century outside feminist circles. Endlessly we are now told of how this woman is Austenish or that. It's as if there's an attempt to wipe Woolf away and isolate her
as mad, eccentric or spiteful (from letters).
I see I've not gotten to Winter Journey. A man, Alfred, goes to live deep in Wales somewhere. He's had enough of the world. He is an ex-traveller and outsider. Never had a conventional job. As the book progresses we discover his companion-mate committed suicide. His sister, Edith, joins him: again as the book progresses we learn she's had two marriages and is living with a third man. She has a daughter, Sarah, whose marriage is breaking up because the daughter does not want to give up her world and move to where her husband has a job for him. Ironically the woman is against her daughter refusing to go with said husband. The plot-design is thin.
Not much happens. Instead we move deep into the past through cycles of memories(as with Summer of a Royal Visit, Figes's The Seven Ages). We learn a lot about the parents of this brother and sister slowly. Their mother who was cut off from a world she belonged to by marrying a man of a lower class than she; the man himself was highly intelligent and didn't fit in where they lived together.
Too cheerful perhaps, also on one of my workroom walls, Pissarro, Snowroad
What's beautiful and effecting about the book is where Colegate uses the winter landscape. The book occurs in winter. The landscape is continually evoked as cold, bleak, semi-wild (well as semi-wild as a small rural place in England can be in the later 20th century). When Colegate is writing out of reactions to this landscape and the stories are rooted it, the book sings. It's deeply melancholy-aesthetic. The life stories and presences emerging are effective.
The book has weaknesses when Colegate leaves the landscape and starts to fill in with details of the characters' lives. Then I'm in a soap opera, and some of her ideas are so cliched and also reactionary: she teaches us (really) how the sixties rebels are now hopeless and coopted and how young people today need to integrate: those who don't are losers, selfless and dumb. Worse yet the unravellings of Edith's life become irritating as does she since she is irritated with her brother who won't fall into her schemes for setting up a private school in the country. The brother is probably right. Shades of nightmare that.
I don't know if I recommend this one -- only if you like this sort of thing. The Shooting Party is finer, and much better than either is her dream-journey into the history/past of Bath through cyclical memories-imagination and inset stories occuring in stages of time (like Eva Figes's Seven Ages of Women), The Summer of the Royal Visit.