Why are there so many duels in literature?

John Leigh's Touché: the Duel in Literature wears its learning lightly.

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Touché: the Duel in Literature
John Leigh
Harvard University Press, 352pp, £20

Modern readers sometimes miss it, but there is even a duel in Jane Austen. In Sense and Sensibility (1811), Colonel Brandon tells Elinor Dashwood how he and Willoughby, the seducer of his ward Eliza, have “met by appointment, he to defend, I to punish his conduct”. Both men have survived the encounter “unwounded”. “Elinor sighed over the fancied necessity of this; but to a man and a soldier, she presumed not to censure it.” Colonel Brandon, a man of melancholy rectitude, has acted honourably. He and the villainous Willoughby can return to their respective stations in life and might come across each other in future without any further animosity.

The appearance of such a violent clash in the work of this reputedly restrained and bloodless author is remarkable – if you can have a duel in an Austen novel you can have one anywhere. Her characters talk as if it were a natural, even inevitable, event. Austen would have known reports of contemporary duels, but was also familiar with the duel as a common element of fiction and drama. It is the extraordinary prevalence of duels in literature that John Leigh explores in a study that ranges from the early 17th century to the early 20th century, and that moves confidently across the continent of European literature.

The material is almost too copious. “I was first surprised, then delighted and, at length, almost dismayed by the incidence of so many fictional duels,” the author ­confesses. There are plenty in English, French and German literature, and, as he observes, “there seems hardly to be a novel without a duel in 19th-century Russia”. Leigh has a remarkable range of reading to hand and is easy with the different proprieties of various European languages. He wears his learning lightly – with a nonchalance, one might think, that matches many of the duellists we encounter in his book. For, like the 19th-century French author and critic Charles Sainte-Beuve, who once appeared at a duel carrying an umbrella, lest he catch cold, the man who risks his life for a point of honour should perform with a certain insouciance.

Like Austen’s Elinor, readers and theatre audiences accepted duels in the knowledge that they were officially condemned. The duellist was an honourable rebel against the law of the land. Duelling was always punishable, in some countries by death. In 17th-century France, monarchs and moralists worried about its popularity. Perhaps it was a necessary release of violent energy? In which case, suggested François Fénelon, why not send would-be duellists to a ­remote reserve full of wild animals they could kill instead? In England in the early 18th century there was another anti-duelling moral panic. Sir Richard Steele inveighed against the habit in the Tatler and even wrote a play, The Conscious Lovers (premiered 1722), to show its pernicious consequences.

The case against duelling, Leigh finds, was put most powerfully by the eponymous heroine of Samuel Richardson’s tragic masterpiece Clarissa (1748), which begins with one duel and ends with another. Clarissa’s elder brother, James, cannot forgive the aristocratic rake Robert Lovelace for besting him in a “rencounter” at the start of the story – and then sparing his life. (The libertine may be a predator, but he likes his flourishes of magnanimity.) Near the end of the novel, Clarissa writes to her cousin Morden to argue him out of challenging Lovelace, her ravisher, to a duel. As Leigh notes, the low-born Richardson speaks of his own horror of this high-born habit. Yet Lovelace must die, and how else can he be killed? The very self-destructiveness of the duellist is his fascinating inclination.

Arguments about duelling are pursued in two other great 18th-century novels. In Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761) the heroine manages to dissuade her lover, Saint-Preux, from single combat. In Laclos’s Liaisons dangereuses (1782) we know that there is no averting the Vicomte de Valmont’s appointed end. Leigh thinks that Laclos treats Valmont’s death in a duel as almost “redemptive”. Duelling displays a kind of integrity. Yet the 18th century also gives birth to the comic duel, exemplified in Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775), the first play to feature a duel with pistols, with actors pacing out the designated distance between the parties (a scenario loved by film and TV comedians). Leigh mentions in passing that Sheridan himself had fought two duels, but does not pause to satisfy the reader’s curiosity about his reasons. Here is the book’s one weakness: it takes the social history of duelling for granted. Perhaps there is an academic habit of presuming that reality is always representation and therefore it is easy simply to stir fiction and social history together.

The “laureate of duels” is Aleksandr Pushkin, whose verse novel Eugene Onegin (1825) turns on a duel between the protagonist and the idealistic young poet Lensky, who challenges him after seeing him flirt with his fiancée at a ball. Pushkin, too, was killed in a duel in 1837 by his brother-in-law Georges d’Anthès, whom he had accused of having an affair with his wife.

Pushkin was a practised duellist (though oddly this fact is not investigated here). His great work was translated into French by Prosper Mérimée – who survived a duel before writing his own Romantic tale of a duel, Le vase étrusque (1830). The author may have adhered to a code of violent propriety, yet his tale mocks the self-destructiveness of its young hero, Saint-Clair, who seeks death in a duel because he foolishly heeds a false tale about his inamorata’s sexual history.

You might think that comedy would put paid to duelling where legislators failed. How could you take it seriously after Dickens’s comic duel in an early number of his Pickwick Papers (1836-37)? Mr Winkle desperately nudges his second, Mr Snodgrass, to intervene to prevent the impending stand-off with the ferocious Dr Slammer – but Mr Snodgrass hilariously persists in considering his friend a brave warrior who is committed to honourable combat. The duel does pass out of English fiction, but not French and Russian literature. It continues to be celebrated in France, in drama by Victor Hugo and in popular fiction by Alexandre Dumas. In The Three Musketeers (1844) the readiness to duel expresses a faith in “equality and virility”. D’Artagnan somehow ends up arranging back-to-back duels with Athos, Porthos and Aramis – a sure sign of his future fellowship with these three men. All four are still duelling away on our television screens.

Dumas was glamourising the honour code of a distant time, and Leigh shows how duelling has always been treated as an antiquated practice. Another historical tale, Joseph Conrad’s “The Duel” (1908), stands as a terminal précis of three centuries of duelling in fiction and drama. His story of two men, apparent opposites, who – despite the distractions of the Napoleonic wars – find themselves compelled to duel over and over again was based on real clashes between two French Hussar officers, and provides Leigh with a kind of summary for what he has illustrated exhaustively. It suggests that “it is ourselves we loathe when we oppose others; it is versions of ourselves rather than the opposites of them that threaten and that we feel the need to destroy”. Duels were thus the literary ­expression of internal conflict; no wonder writers couldn’t have enough of them.

John Mullan is professor of English at University College London. His books include “What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved” (Bloomsbury)

This article appears in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao