Thursday, July 05, 2012

To "Drop One Pious Friendly Tear"?

The hero and the villain face each other at dawn in some woodland clearing or quiet heath, far from the notice of the local magistrates. Their seconds confer with quiet seriousness about the weapons – pistols or rapiers. A doctor, reluctant and grumbling in the cold morning air, waits by the carriages.
It is an affair of honour of course – an accusation of cheating perhaps, or an insult to a lady. Both men are calm and show no fear: if they have been lying sleepless most of the night while they mentally review their wills they show no sign of it.

The seconds declare all is ready, the men take their weapons, pace out the distance, turn and wait for the signal to fire or to cross swords. The hero will win of course, or contemptuously delope, firing into the air. The villain will skulk away, or perhaps attempt a cowardly shot when the hero’s back is turned, but right will triumph and honour will be satisfied.
The print to the left, from the Sporting Chronicle, shows the hero, calmly awaiting the shot of his opponent who appears to be holding a pistol in each hand. The waiting man is stripped to the waist in order to prevent cloth being carried into any gunshot. The doctor peers nervously from the cover of a tree above, the seconds stand by and a carriage waits in the distance.

But was it really like that? Perhaps it was sometimes, but often duels arose out of misunderstandings or drink and resulted in tragedy. The last duel fought in Norfolk was on 20th August 1698. Sir Henry Hobart of the great Elizabethan house of Blickling Hall called out Oliver le Neve over words le Neve was supposed to have uttered when Sir Henry lost his parliamentary seat in an election.
Le Neve denied having said the offending words but, despite being left-handed and considered much at a disadvantage in a sword fight as a result, he was quite prepared to defend himself. His letter to Sir Henry survives –

Honored Sir,
I am very sorry that I was not at Reepham yesterday when you gave yourself the trouble of appearing there, that I might not only have justified the truth of my not saying what it is reported I did, but that I might have told you that I wrote not that letter to avoid fighting you but that if the credit of your author has confirmed you in the belief of it, I am ready and desirous to meet you when and where you please to assign. If otherwise, I expect your author's name in return to this that I may take my satisfaction then, or else conclude the Imputacon [sic] sprung from Blickling and send you the time and place; for the matter shall not rest as it is though it cost the life of
Your Servant
Oliver Neve

They met on Cawston Heath. Le Neve was wounded in the arm but he ran Sir Henry through the stomach and he died the next day at Blickling Hall in great pain. Le Neve fled the country and lived under a false name in the Netherlands, but when he heard he was being threatened with outlawry he returned, stood his trial for manslaughter and was acquitted in 1700.

The duel is commemorated in the Duelling Stone (above) which stands in what was the garden of the Woodrow Inn beside the road to Norwich - a memorial to wounded pride.

At least Sir Henry was the aggressor in this and refused to listen to le Neve’s protestations of innocence. An even more tragic memorial is a tombstone in the old churchyard of Sawtry St Andrew, next to the old Great North Road in Huntingdonshire.

James Ratford. 25th Day of June 1756. Aged 37 years.
Near to this stone, who’ere you art, draw near
In Pity drop One pious, friendly Tear;
Far from His native Home, He lost His life,
By One who seem’d His Friend, Ill timed strife.
The best of Husbands; to His Children, dear,
Courteous to all, and to His Friend, Sincere.
Resigned to his Fate, well may the Wretch feel woe
While He in endless Bliss and Pleasure go.

The local archives confirm that this was a duel. James was far from his home in Leicestershire. What had happened between him and the friend to whom he had been so “sincere” to result in the death of the best of husbands and a dear father?

These two real-life tragedies haven’t stopped me writing about duels if they fit into one of my novels, but they have made me pause and think about the truth behind the dashing image of duellists at dawn.
What do you think? Is a duel a good opportunity to see the hero at his courageous best, or would true valour lie in walking away?

Louise Allen

11 comments: said...

Then they did it in breeches and with 'rules'. Now they do it in gangs. Isn't it something that young men have always done throughout the ages? On a big scale, they call it 'war'. On a small scale they call it 'honour'. On any scale, it is mad. (Sorry, pacifist since 1960's). Interesting blog! x

Barbara Monajem said...

I suppose a character everyone knows is fearless could get away with refusing a challenge...

Marguerite Kaye said...

I agree with Carol's comment, I think the reality would have been bloody, seedy and pointless - as the epithet you quoted proves, needless loss of life when thy could have just talked it over. But...

I do love a good duel in a story, all that sweat and muscle and thrust, there's nothing like it! And I have often fantasised myself about solving an argument with a duel - one that I was guaranteed to win, of course. Mind you, I took a term's fencing lessons and like every other sport, was absolutely abysmal at it, so it's maybe just as well I haven't tried to live my dream.

Lousie Allen said...

Oh yes, Barbara - with a contemptuous curl of the lip
In real life I have to agree with Carol, but like Marguerite, the fantasy does work in fiction for me

Sarah Mallory said...

I definitely think there is a place for duels in historical romances, Louise, but our heroes are reluctant to duel for the sake of it - they have a strong moral code about these things. I do remember one of Heyer's Regency comedies (or it may have been a short story) where one of her young bucks is ALWAYS calling his friends out! Anyone remember the title?

Barbara Monajem said...

Sarah, I think you may mean Lord Wrotham in Friday's Child. :) I would check, but my books are behind a pile of boxes because we're redoing the room where the stuff in the boxes belongs.

Sarah Mallory said...

I believe you are right, Barbara. George Wrotham, isn't it? Heyer making may-game (albeit affectionately) of the dark and brooding hero. My GH's are in the bookcase which has a mattress and bedstead against it at present - we are decorating, too. Must be something in the air.

John said...

I don't really see the difference between a duel and a fight between a couple of modern thugs because someone said the wrong thing, gave someone a dirty look or showed an interest in the wrong girl.

Despite that, a duel always make a fantastic story. I wonder what the greatest duel is literature is? Any ideas?

Cheryl St.John said...

I am a lover, not a fighter. I would be the one saying, "Why can't we all just be friends?" lol

Susan Bergen said...

I suppose the 'romantic' notion came from knowing a man was willing to die to defend a woman's honour. It must be a continuation of the old romantic chivalric code of medieval times. That is why it is valuable in romantic fiction. The reality is less clear. Any duel over such mundane occurances as debt or slander suggest recourse to the legal system of the time, was unsatisfactory. Although I would have imagined the combatants would have derived more satisfaction in the boxing ring!

Anonymous said...

It was superstition at its deadliest thinking that God or fate would reward the injured. Even so, dues with swords were deadly but somehow more romantic. There is nothing romantic about shooting a man in cold blood.
Several authors have had the men fight ot out at Jackson's or Angelo's or Manton's where little or no blood was spilt.