Gentlemen's relish

<strong>Pistols at Dawn: a history of duelling</strong>

Richard Hopton <em>Portrait Books, 435pp,

When Ken Livingstone compared the Evening Standard's Oliver Finegold to a Nazi commandant in 2005, he was expected to make a public apology, retract the statement or resign, depending on whom you agreed with. Things would have been much simpler if this insult had occurred in the 18th century. Mr Finegold would have sent a second to Mr Livingstone's office; the second would have asked him for an apology, and if he refused, Mr Livingstone would have been invited to name his weapons for a duel. By the time the newspapers were printed the following morning, one of the men would be dead.

How much more satisfying for the public, and particularly for the victorious duellist: the insult would have been vindicated and the honour of both gentlemen maintained. Instead we had weeks of statements, press releases, vague threats and spiteful comments in the Standard. To this day, no one is really sure who won in the end, and honour, if it were ever present in the first place, was certainly not restored.

Pistols at Dawn contains countless examples of duels fought between the 16th and 19th centuries, which, after the first half-dozen or so, you might expect to start wearing thin. Not in the slightest. To illustrate duelling's long and chequered history, Richard Hopton has chosen his duels well. Some were fought over matters of great import, such as Whig leader George Tierney's challenge to William Pitt, after the prime minister accused him of a lack of patriotism; while at the other extreme, in 1721, two Irishmen fought over the correct spelling of a Greek word.

My particular favourite is the duel between William Chaworth and Lord Byron, the poet's great-uncle. At a dinner in Pall Mall in 1765, the two men came to a disagreement about game birds and some heated words were exchanged. As he was departing, Lord Byron found Chaworth waiting for him on the stairs, sword in hand. Chaworth asked a waiter to show them into an empty room and to place a candle on the table. Within a few minutes of fighting, Chaworth received a fatal wound and died the following day.

Duelling, as Hopton explains in this comprehensive study, was the exclusive preserve of gentlemen. From its origins in the chivalric court, through Renaissance Italy and ancien régime France, until its demise in the mid-19th century, the rules evolved and became codified in an elaborate series of rituals. Leaving no stone unturned, Hopton also looks at duelling in Ireland, the rest of Europe, Russia and America, as well as its influence on politics and the military.

The real focus of the book, however, is the demise of duelling and the various attempts to criminalise it. This is not surprising, as the author is a former barrister, but for me it presents a conflict of interest. Duelling is a fascinating subject, but often, just as Hopton embarks on a juicy tale of gauntlets being thrown down at the opera, he sidelines the reader into duelling's journey on to the statute books. Rather than showing a great love of duelling, he seems to have a great love of seeing it stamped out. "Happily, a duel was averted when both men were persuaded to make 'equal' public apologies," he tells us of an incident involving James Boswell and an artillery officer. "The episode ended harmlessly but it illustrates the need for caution."

Let's not exercise caution when it comes to duelling! Let's not worry about whether it was wrong or right, but try to understand why it existed. This book could have done with a more thorough investigation of the concept of honour, over which every duel was fought. Honour was restricted to the upper classes, and formed a part of their duty as Englishmen. Honour was being true to your word; honest in your finances; faithful to your spouse; respectful to your superiors and generous to your inferiors; loyal to your King and country. It was essentially a moral code for gentlemen, who considered themselves superior to other mortals. Lesser men had the word of God to guide their morality, but gentlemen, while not irreligious, acted as if they themselves were almost godlike, wafting about in a stratum high above the rest of the world. They duelled because their status was so exalted that it was worth fighting to the death for.

Apart from this oversight, though, Pistols at Dawn is as thorough a study of the subject as one could wish for, and perhaps, without the legal parentheses, it would have proved too slim a volume. It ends with the final death throes of duelling, when Captain Fanelli, an Italian fascist, challenged Clement Attlee to a duel in 1935 over remarks he had made in parliament about Italy. Attlee declined the absurd request, but it makes you wonder whether the concept of honour is today even further from our grasp.

Had Livingstone accepted the challenge from Finegold, would it have been to defend his honour or merely to keep his job? These days, the 18th-century notion of "reputation" is tied up with someone's bankability as a public figure. If Michael Barrymore, for example, successfully clears his name, he will also have restored confidence in the "Barrymore" brand.

But the most entertaining contemporary duel would be the one fought between A N Wilson and Bevis Hillier. In the true spirit of 18th- century duels, it would be fought over a trivial slur - the publication of a fake letter in Wilson's biography of Betjeman, fabricated by Hillier so that its sentences' initial letters spelt out "A N WILSON IS A SHIT". Now, if that were not occasion to name a second, then the restoration of honour to our society seems highly unlikely.

Gustav Temple is editor of The Chap magazine

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran - Ready to attack