Duelling is a fascinating historical phenomenon: at one and the same time glamorous but sordid, gentlemanly but barbarous, and honourable but criminal. Behind the popular image of the gentleman duellists in tricorn hats and embroidered waistcoats – or, in later era, frock coats and top hats – meeting in a wooded glade at first light with sword or pistol lies a sinister cast of charlatans and bullies, drunks and cardsharps leaving in their wake a pathetic trail of grieving widows and fatherless children. But there are also many instances when duelling descended almost into farce, a terrifying pas de deux performed to propitiate the fierce Gods of social convention.
When I started researching the subject I soon realized that while there were a number of histories of duelling they amounted to little more than a series of largely disconnected accounts of individual duels. Apart from a generally standardized explanation of the origins of duelling there was no attempt, it seemed to me, to look at duelling in its wider context. Why was it tolerated, by social custom or, indeed, by the law? How did the rules which regulated it develop? How, and by whom, was it justified and opposed? How and why did it gain such wide acceptance? Why did it die out and, more interestingly, why did it do so in some countries before others? Generally, they seemed to concentrate on the dramatic, sometimes bloody story of the duels themselves at the expense of the wider picture, which seemed to me to be equally, if not more, interesting. Pistols at Dawn goes some way, I hope, to filling this gap.
I read many hundreds of accounts of duels of all types between all manner of men from all over the world while researching Pistols at Dawn but I have two favourites. The first is the ‘fighting parson’, a largely British and Irish eccentricity confined to the Georgian age. That clergymen were prepared to fight a duel to uphold private honour is both richly ludicrous and deeply perplexing. The Sixth Commandant is ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Of all categories of duellists, priests struck me, and still strike me, as the most unlikely.
The second is the late French duels, the encounters that took place before and after the Second World War, in which the last vestiges of knightly chivalry came face to face with the modern world. Thus we see the chairman of an oil company fighting a duel in a Paris velodrome and film producer squaring up to a film critic over a bad review. As late as 1967 two members of the Assemblé Nationale fought with swords over an old-fashioned insult. All three duels were fought in deadly earnest. These late duels, deeply incongruous relics of a by-gone age, for me capture the essential grandeur of the practice but also its pomposity, and its folly.
Pistols at Dawn is avaliable as a paperback from this Thursday. To find out more about Richard Hopton and his history of duelling click here