- A Polite Exchange of Bullets: The Duel and the English Gentleman 1750–1850
The last recorded fatal duel in England occurred in 1852, one year after the opening of the Great Exhibition and the laying of the first telegraph cable across the English Channel. It took place in Surrey and was between two Frenchmen who, according to Stephen Banks, may have been politically motivated, although ostensibly the challenge was issued because of an insult to a lady. One of the duelists was shot dead at first fire; three of the seconds were later found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to two months in prison. Eight years before this, at Gosport, two Englishmen quarreled in a card room, resulting in a duel in which one of them was mortally wounded. The survivor fled immediately to France, but eventually surrendered and was tried for murder on 16 July 1846. The Times reported that the jury returned a verdict of not guilty without even bothering to retire. In 1843, Colonel Fawcett was killed at first fire by his brother-in-law, Mr. Munro. The two seconds were tried for murder and found not guilty. Munro, who had absconded, gave himself up in 1847 and was ultimately tried for [End Page 149] murder. He was found guilty, but the jury pleaded with the judge for mercy. A strongly worded editorial in The Times supported the recommendation for clemency, and Munro was given a sentence of twelve months in prison.
Why were English courts so reluctant to prosecute duelists for manslaughter? A gentleman who killed someone in a duel in the 1830s was no more likely to be prosecuted than one who had done the same thing a hundred years before. After 1822, even with growing judicial intolerance for duelists and much stricter penalties, there were very few convictions; jurors were rarely willing to turn in a guilty verdict “where both parties had conducted themselves honourably and both had been at equal hazard” (141). The values of honor culture often trumped the due process of English law, even as British society entered modernity.
In A Polite Exchange of Bullets, Banks argues that the English duel played an important role in the construction of masculinity, in the use of violence as a social signifier, and in the attitudes of the aristocracy toward their own class. He begins with a brief history of the duel and the evolution of honor culture in England, explaining that Renaissance courtesy literature, such as Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (1528), linked Italian humanism with the manly virtues and aristocratic civility. The duel, it was argued, “disciplined social conduct . . . and prevented indiscriminate social warfare” (6). By 1750, though, the culture of courtesy was complicated by the bellicosity of everyday life. Any gentleman who walked through the streets of London had better know how to ward off a populace of prostitutes, hawkers, beggars—and other gentlemen. Grantley Berkeley wrote that in 1820, “the art of self-defence was considered to be as necessary to the education of a gentleman as dancing a minuet or speaking French. It was a rough time, when, if a dispute arose, a word and a blow became a matter of course” (30). Most English elites were fairly used to violent encounters: many duelists were military men, pugnacity was inculcated at Eton, and pugilism and Pierce Egan idealized violence as a manly pursuit. Gentlemen were expected to maintain dignity by controlling the space around them and to regard assertiveness as a sign of character and spirit.
Banks moves through this social context efficiently in the first three chapters. He then goes on to address some of the intricacies of dueling culture: the reasons for giving satisfaction, duels and the British colonies (particularly Canada), the under-examined role of the second, duels and the criminal justice system. Readers of Victorian Studies will be most interested in the last three chapters, in which Banks discusses the decline of the duel in England in the...