It was called killing with courtesy and involved all the passions that could raise blood pressure: family, race, wealth, sex, social class , honor and identity. ”On 15 November 1712, two leading scions of the British aristocracy met in a deadly duel in Hyde Park. After two minutes of brutal swordplay, the Whig Lord Mohun and the Tory Duke of Hamilton were dead and their seconds were fugitives from the law. This famous encounter forms the basis for Thackeray’s Henry Esmond. As in a classic western, where the culminating gunfight resolves tensions that ultimately lie deep in the culture, this duel brought to a head a host of convergent political, financial and cultural issues.”
”In a state of highly polished society, an affront is held to be a serious injury. It must, therefore, be resented, or rather a duel must be fought upon it; as men have agreed to banish from their society one who puts up with an affront without fighting a duel.”
—Samuel Johnson, quoted in James Boswell
For the first time, they had as a class, money in abundance. The landed gentry and aristocrats in England by 1750 formed a network as closely knit to their lands as the roots of their forests. Here, they had always lived and ruled, and married into families like their own. Secure in their wealth, confident of their position, indulged by their countrymen, the aristocrats of eighteenth-century England did pretty much as they pleased, and in so doing invented most of the ideals of what is considered civilized living. However, there were also less attractive lordly pleasures….
Arrogance and pride carried to the point of insanity, combined with adolescent boredom, produced outbursts of violence. Duels over trifling insults studded the century with corpses, but worse still were the cruel practical jokes and downright terrorism that the rich often practiced on innocent members of the lower classes. Rape, and other abuses, could be committed against servant girls and working women with near impunity. Some aggressive young noblemen found it practically impossible to bridle their appetites.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that eighteenth century England suffered from dueling mania. Dueling was an instance where the elite clearly committed acts declared criminal by their own code, and it was common practice for a combatant in a duel who had received a mortal blow to pardon his killer before he expired. Three eighteenth century English prime ministers fought duels; Fox with Adam, Shelburne with Fullerton, and Pitt and Tierney. The duel of honor was held in private, was attended by seconds and other members of society, and often arose from trivial incidents. Duels were fought according to strict codes, their lethality fell over time, and certain members of society were not allowed to duel. Dueling functioned as a screen for unobservable investments in social capital. Social capital was used during this period to support political transactions in an age when high civil service appointments were made through patronage.
”Many duellists refused to apologize for the insult which had led to the duel until after they had received their adversary’s fire, in order to avoid any implication that they apologized through cowardice. Similarly many duels were fought because the challenger felt that not to issue a challenge , after an insult would be taken as a sign of cowardice.”
After a slight, insult or dishonor, real or imagined, the offended party would challenge the offender to a duel. This could be communicated verbally, or by removing a gauntlet (glove) and throwing it at the offender’s feet or in other ways. If the challenged picked up the gauntlet, that was taken to mean that they agreed to a duel. This is where we get the term “Throwing down the gauntlet.” There were also cases of slapping the offender across the face with the gauntlet, in particularly bitter cases, but was not common. Unlike what you may have seen in the media, duels were not always to the death. There could be different terms agreed to by both parties. Often, just drawing first blood was enough to satisfy the duel. Or until one party was no longer able to fight. Sometimes, one or even both duelers would intentionally miss, and the issue would be settled without bloodshed. In dueling with pistols, the general rule was one shot each, and only one shot, unless another arrangement was made.
”Swords were still preferred to pistols in England, being usually worn by gentlemen, until after the middle of the last century ; but the dagger had been rejected since the time of Charles I. Duellists sometimes came with swords and pistols; after exchanging shots they would use cold steel. It was not unfrequent, however, that two gentlemen who had got angry with each other at a tavern or in a private house, would at once draw their swords and fight, without any seconds or witnesses or formal arrangements. Lord Byron, great-uncle of the poet, in 1765 killed Mr. Chaworth, at a house in London in an impromptu sword-fight. Examples of this kind, in the memoirs and anecdotes, or in the comedies and old novelists’ works of the eighteenth century, prove that “The world went very well then,” as Mr. Walter Besant ironically says. Comparing the England of George II with the England of Charles L, it looks rather like a relapse into barbarism, owing to the decay of religion and morality and domestic life.
In the method of duelling, we observe that pistolling found favour in Ireland as a gentlemanly pastime; indeed, it seems to have been the main pursuit of reckless men in the upper classes of society until. after the Union.The pistol-duels in England, during the reigns of the last two Georges, of William IV., and at the beginning of Victoria’s reign were often very serious; and some persons of considerable eminence, noblemen, statesmen, and distinguished military officers, ‘were engaged in them. The present writer, among the personal recollections of his boyhood in a provincial town, has that of the lamented death of a benevolent medical man, the Mayor of the city, who was shot by a certain Baronet in a silly quarrel about dancing with a young lady at a ball the night before.”
In defense of dueling, some aristocrats claimed the outcome of the duel was an act of God. “God, it was alleged, gave the victory to the just, not the most skillful”. Through this belief, one can claim that the duel is an act of punishment controlled directly by God, therefore surpassing the need for a trial. The person who wins the duel would not be a criminal. Instead, he would be quite holy for carrying out God’s will and undeserving of punishment, no matter what the laws state.
Fortunately, there were , nevertheless, aristocrats whose natural bent was for the more gracious and rewarding pleasures of life. There were bookish peers, and even radical peers, essentially amateurs doing what they did because it both fulfilled and pleased them. Charles, third Earl Stanhope, was as much obsessed with science and radical politics as Lord Barrymore was with gambling and theatricals. Even as a boy he had shown remarkable skill not only in mathematics but also in mechanical contrivance. One of his most spectacular triumphs was to fireproof floors and walls.
To show off his invention, he assembled Lord Chatham, the Lord Mayor of London, and the president of the Royal Society and served them ice cream ” while the most intense fire that could be made was raging in the room directly under it, and separated only by a common wooden floor.” Later, his own house was saved from a disastrus fire because he had used his methods, which, indeed, remained the preferred means of fireproofing for the next hundred and fifty years.
He also invented the first calculating machine that could multiply and divide and was among the first to attempt to adapt Boulton and Watt’s steam engine to the propulsion of ships. Turning to printing, he improved the stereotype plate and press, named after himself, upon which the Times of London was printed for a generation. Of course he loftily refused to derive any pecuniary advantages from these inventions, which he insisted must be free for all to use. He never stopped inventing; new methods for burning lime, a paste for healing injured trees, a pocket magnifier that remained in use for a century. Altogether he spent $100,000 on indulging his delight in invention which was no more than his fellow aristocrats might waste on girls or cards or horses.
Stanhope combined his love for practical innovations with a passion for radical politics. He denounced with repeated ferocity the repressive measures of his kinsman William Pitt. He approved of the American Revolution and welcomed the French revolution with joy. To celebrate Pitt’s failure to secure the conviction of a secretary on charges of ”treasonable practices” Stanhope gave a ball for over four hundred people that lasted through the night. He was a passionate supporter for the abolition of the slave trade; so extreme were his views that he found himself in a minority of one in the House of Lords, from which he then seceded.
Proud and self-indulgent, careless of the present because they were so confident of the future, these aristocrats not only explored the world of pleasure but developed patterns of livingso appealing that what they alone enjoyed in their own day is now available to all. And the English aristocracy and gentry were the first to bring the sophistication of city life to their country houses and combine the pleasures of country life with urbanity. After shooting in the wild Derbyshire hill, they returned to Chatsworth, replete with old masters and exquisite French furniture , to dine and drink as well as Louis XV did. In a house that could accommodate a hundred guests and their servants, np one could be bored with the isolation of rural life.
Their most important legacy, what they prized most, was the freedom to be themselves. Few societies until modern times have given such freedom to individuals. The old feudal concepts of the role of aristocracy had broken down in the revolutionary years of seventeenth century England., and by the time the aristocracy re-established its social status, it had freed itself from traditional patterns of behavior. There was no fixed image of itself. Individualism, the hallmark of bourgeoise society, combined with aristocratic confidence , allowed every variety of human temperament to flourish untrammeled.
What they desired, they sought, and fortunately, they were literary, scholarly, artistic,and scientific as well as frivolous. Their passion for a well-groomed countryside changed the face of England; their love of building adorned it with an extraordinary architectural heritage; their mania for collecting endowed England with an incomparable artistic heritage; their addiction to sport enriched the world. And of all the societies until at least the hippie era, the aristocracy of eighteenth-century England was the most permissive. Theirs was truly the pursuit of happiness.
The literature of the period also reflected these ideals, for the most part, before the industrial and commercial expansions of the nineteenth century manifested themselves :
”The ideal is the unostentatious, responsible aristocrat: “the father of Lord Bottom, who came in a plain napped coat” in Brooke’s novel. Brooke does not claw at the idea of rank—his little hero is, after all, an aristocrat himself—but he does redefine the role of the aristocrat in society. What C. J. Rawson says of Fielding in Henry Fielding and the Augustan Ideal Under Stress is true as well for Brooke: the “assumption is that it is more important for the highly-placed to fulfil the ideal responsibilities of their rank, than to relinquish their claims to high titles.” Both aristocrats and merchants can be fine men, and there need be no conflict between them. There is not even an economic class between them; one of the most affecting stories in The Fool of Quality is the tale of Mr. Clement, the gentleman’s son who, along with his wife and child, nearly dies of hunger because he has no skill with which to make a living. Holcroft’s Hugh Trevor feels inferior to the carpenter Clarke because the simple workman is more fit to make a living than the higher class Hugh.
Holcroft, surely a more radical writer than Brooke, in Ann St. Ives delimits the institution of rank in much the same terms Brooke had used. Social usefulness rather than rank determines the worthiness of a person. Coke Clifton is wrong to consider himself a better person than Frank Henley. But Coke’s rank does not itself make him reprehensible nor does it preclude his transformation into a valuable member of society. For Holcroft, rank is an irrelevancy between human beings, a premise that he exemplifies in the courtship between the plebeian Frank and the aristocratic Anna. As Anna insists, “The word gentleman .. . is a word without a meaning. Or, if it have a meaning, that he who is the best man is the most a gentleman.” Rank creates artificial distinctions among men, and it must therefore be ignored because it is only a prejudice, and rational men as they join in that “universal benevolence which shall render them all equals” will overcome prejudice and go beyond it. Holcroft, like the other novelists in this study, sees class schisms as irrational rather than irreparable.
In the nineteenth-century novel, the class question becomes a paramount concern; novels like Mrs. Gaskell’s Mary Barton chronicle the clash of irreconcilable forces, forces so powerful that it seems irrelevant even to attempt to fix blame for the resultant destruction. Godwin’s Caleb Williams presents a different premise, and in its uniqueness is remarkable not only in terms of its place within the eighteenth-century novel but as it prepares us for the nineteenth century…. Caleb Williams suggests that the flaw in the social structure is so deep as to be irremediable; for the first time in the protest novel, the flaw is seen as a schism of class.Godwin seems to show that it is not so much the fact of class as it is the inevitable corruption and inevitable collision between classes in the struggle toward equity that is profoundly destructive—socially, politically, personally…. This is a dimension of the protest novel that is without precedent before Godwin but very prominent a after him. ”