Dueling In 18th Century

.. ss was not honorable, but a man had to consider all aspects carefully before he refused. As Kiernan states “A man of good standing challenged by one of dubious status might hesitate to decline, for fear of being suspended of a discreditable motive” (103). This situation is found in Tobias Smollett’s novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. Smollett creates a contrasting pair of situations. The first occurs when a Jery Melford discovers that his sister is receiving letters from an actor, Wilson, a man definitely below her in status.

Jery has words with Wilson and offends him, causing Wilson to challenge Jery to a duel. Jery writes a friend about this stating “Though his rank in life (which bye the by, I am as ashamed to declare) did not entitle him to much deference; yet his behavior was remarkably spirited, I admitted to him the privilege of a gentleman” (8). Jery could decline the duel since Wilson is below him, but to do so may harm Jery’s reputation more than duelling with him. The duel would have preceded if not for the intervention of Jery’s uncle, Matt Bramble, who informs the mayor so that he may “interpose as a magistrate” (13). When the mayor finds them, Wilson is taken into custody, but Jery is not. This is presumably because of the difference in the status of the two men, for Bramble writes “the mayor observed that it was great presumption in Wilson, who was a stroller, to proceed to such extremities with a gentleman of family of fortune” (13).

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Jery is not thought any less of because of his decision to duel Wilson, but Wilson definitely is. The second situation in Humphry Clinker is the opposite of the first. This occurs after Jery and Bramble meet Lord Oxmington and accept an invitation to dine at his house. At diner, Bramble takes offense after the Lord, who is described as prideful to the point of fault, dismisses them without courtesy. Bramble issues a challenge to the Lord for insulting their honour. When the Lord learns of this, he cries “What! A commoner send a challenge to a peer of the realm! – Privilege! privilege!” (283).

In this instance the Lord believes that he is above Bramble and that Bramble is the one being presumptuous, just as they thought Wilson was earlier in the novel. In this case, the Lord does not duel with Bramble; instead he sends apologies to the offended party as they stalk around his house. In this situation, it is clearly the honour of the Lord that has suffered. As Kiernan states “To shirk a duel rendered an individual no longer worthy of his class” (15). It is clear that the Lord exhibited cowardice in his treatment of the challenge, just as Jery Melford does not in the first incident.

Several important changes occurred in the transformation of the duel from something medieval to modern. Perhaps the two most important changes were that it was no longer a legal practice and that it was no longer sanctioned by the church. As Truman states “duels, which had hithero been fought under judicial appointment, were freely indulged in without the interpretation of juris-prudence” (11). The nobility had created their own practice to which their governments often turned the other cheek. As Kelly states “the dissemination and embrace of the values of the code of honour and the rules of duelling were facilitated by the disinclination of European monarchs to take punitive action against those of their nobility that dueled” (17).

Literally, the nobility could get away with murder. Some were prosecuted though and there was always the fear of that. It was basically left in the hands of the victims family if they wanted to push the law into punishing the victor and this was not an entirely likable choice. To do so would mean another fall in honour for the victim of the duel. This situation occurs in Choderlos de Laclos’ novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses after the Chevalier Danceny kills the Vicomte de Valmont in a duel.

Valmont’s aunt, Madame de Rosemond, wants to press charges against Danceny, stating in letter 164 “the severities of the law cannot be too stringently invoked against this relic of barbarism which still infects the age” (372). In letter 164, Monsieur Betrand replies to this, stating “the complaint you intend to lodge against Monsieur Danceny would be equally injurious to the memory of Monsieur your nephew” (375). For Madame de Rosemond to go against the social codes of duelling, would be to go against one’s own class and the institution that it upheld. This action would be harmful to the honour of Valmont. The next letter after Monsieur Betrand’s reply to Madame de Rosemand is an anonymous letter to the Chevalier Danceny, which states “Although this sort of affair is normally looked upon with indulgence, there is always, none the less, a certain respect due to the law” (376).

This letter prompts Danceny to write Madame de Rosemond and work things out privately with her. For Valmont to have died in a duel is honorable, but to bring the law into it would betray these ethics and strip Valmont of his honour. Even though Valmont has been a key antagonist throughout the novel, he is at least partially redeemed by his death. Valmont’s female counterpart, the Marquise de Merteuil, does not have this option and the bulk of the blame for the dishonorable actions of the pair eventually rest mainly on her. The fact that Danceny convinces Madame de Rosemond not to prosecute, not only saves the reputation of Valmont, but of the whole class, who sanctioned duelling. Madame de Rosemond’s initial reaction to the institution of duelling, calling it “barbaric”, reflects the dichotomy in the opinions concerning duelling in the minds of the nobility. There was a hypocrisy which prevailed in the minds of the very peoples that sanctioned the phenomenon.

The biggest influence on this split opinion was the church, God’s edict “vengeance is mine”, providence (in the fact that is was believed to be wrong to speed up providence which is exactly what the duel did if one believed that the just party prevailed), and a general disdain for anything medieval. Billacois states “Churchmen saw duelling as a manifestation of infernal libertinism” (87). and “To set oneself up as a judge in place of the law-giving King and God of Justice was a profoundly impious act” (101). These sentiments are clearly demonstrated in the literature of the eighteenth century. It is fitting that Valmont dies in a duel, for he is a relentless libertine.

The same is true of Robert Lovelace in Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa. If this appears to be a paradox, that is because it is. There is an irrefutable gap between a general disapproval of duelling and the obligation to participate when it was one’s own honour at stake or somebody close. This catch-22 in the eighteenth century mind can be found in almost every piece of literature that duelling is a part of, no matter how small a part that may be. In Clarissa, Lovelace’s participation in a duel with Clarissa’s brother (who is also a scoundrel) is strongly held against him.

Yet, at the end of the novel, the doomed Clarissa, who is taking on saintly proportions by this point, implores her cousin, Colonel Morden, not to seek vengeance on Lovelace. Despite this, Morden is moved by principle and by Clarissa’s honour and kills Lovelace in a duel. Morden is clearly justified in doing this and is not brought down or thought less of for the altercation. Another example of this dichotomy comes from Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield. In this novel, the Vicar’s oldest son, George. fights a duel under the employ of Squire Thornkill. After this happens, Thornkill sends George to Sir William, Thornkill’s uncle, to supposedly be rewarded.

Instead George receives a strict rebuke for haaving participated in a duel at all. Sir William calls George “the instument of [Thornkill’s] vices” (125), for Thornkill is a conscientious opponent to the duel. George’s parent’s are equally shocked to hear of the incident. Despite this, later in the novel, after George’s mother believes that Thornkill has ruined her daughter, George’s mother orders him to challenge Thornkill for her daughter’s honour. The duel never takes place because Thornkill has his men seize George.

When Sir William learns of this, he again scolds George, but the more serious of his rebukes goes to his nephew, about whom he states “I find his present prosecution was dictated by tyranny, cowardice, and revenge” (187), for it is a greater crime in Sir William’s eyes that his nephew did not respond honorably to the challenge. Thornkill’s honour is clearly at a greater loss for having dishonorably backed out of a duel (by having his men seize George), then George’s honor is for having participated in a duel at all. Dueling was a complicated and intricate event, much more then it would appear to be at first glance in literature. Yet, when one looks closely into the literature it is possible to see a different story emerging; one that was torn between love and hate for the duel. It are these split sentiments that cause Viernan to call the eighteenth century “an era of divided souls” (165), for even those individuals who spoke adamently against the duel would become participants under the proper circumstances. Kiernan also reflects this when he states “There could be respect for a man who took the field only on valid occasion; and a properly conducted duel was orderly and dignified, perpetuating a privelege of blue blood without harming anyone else.

It might stir curiosity, even admiration, rather than dislike” (167), but the problem was, who decided which duel was honorable and which one was not? As seen in literature, it often seemed to depend whether the offended party was a close family member or a stranger. Other unwritten rules of the duel are found in the literature of the eighteenth century; such as dueling between classes, and codes of honour. It is through literature that the reader can see the unwritten codes and begin to understand the complexity and complications of the eighteenth century society that claimed the duel as its own.


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