When Honor Was At Stake

When Honor Was At Stake

One reason we all love Jane Austen’s novels so much is because of the glimpse they give us into times past, when honor and reputation were almost tangible assets, worthy of being defended at all costs. No practice of the past more demonstrates the value of honor and reputation than the practice of dueling.


The famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. Hamilton was killed.

Dueling, a way of settling personal insults between two gentlemen by using potentially lethal means, was a common practice in Jane Austen’s day. Protocol forbade women from attending duels and so we do not know if Austen ever saw one in person, but she did mention a duel in one of her novels, Sense and Sensibility:

“Eliza had confessed to me, though most reluctantly, the name of her lover; and when he returned to town, which was within a fortnight after myself, we met by appointment, he to defend, I to punish his conduct. We returned unwounded, and the meeting, therefore, never got abroad.” Colonel Brandon, speaking of defending his father’s ward.

Although duels seem barbaric to us today (as they did to many people then), they did serve an important function: limiting the fighting to just two men, the one dishonored and the one who gave the insult, prevented feuds from escalating into much wider conflicts, thereby limiting the potential loss of life.

So duels were a serious business, and an elaborate code developed which governed how they were to be conducted. While there were small variations and changes in the “Code Duello” over time, there were certain elements common to almost every duel.

First, the duel could only be fought between gentlemen. Darcy, for example, could have challenged another born gentleman to a duel, but he would not have been likely to issue a challenge to Wickham, a mere steward’s son (many JAFF plots notwithstanding).

Secondly, the duel originated in response to a personal insult to a gentleman’s honor, reputation or character. Saying that Lord Whatshisname could not handle a sword, for example, was not a personal insult; saying that he was a coward was, and might well result in being “called out”- that is, forced to apologize for the insult or else answer for it on the dueling ground.


Duels were usually fought with pistols, but using swords was not unheard of.

Third, the duel was almost always illegal, but it was also almost never prosecuted. A man had a right to defend his honor, it was felt, and since juries were made up of a gentleman’s peers, they were reluctant to convict two men whose only harm was directed towards each other. Still, duels were generally held in remote locations with only a small crowd of onlookers, or perhaps just a few witnesses, in order to avoid any possibility of legal repercussions.

After a gentleman received an insult which he found insupportable, he would select a friend, called a “second,” to deliver a challenge to the offending gentleman. That gentleman then had the choice of apologizing and retracting his words or else doubling down and accepting a “challenge”- the summons to a duel.

From that point on the seconds would be busy. They would carry messages to and from both of the principals, negotiating the time, place and conditions of the duel. They would also negotiate what weapon would be used, who would shoot or strike first, whether the combatants would aim to wound  or to kill, and a hundred other details. Above all, they sought to diminish the possibility of fatalities, generally trying everything they could to keep the duel from happening at all.


A pair of antique dueling pistols, commonly owned by gentlemen. The pistols were a matched set and were bought and kept specifically to resolve matters of honor.

By the terms of the code duello, duels were almost always fought at daybreak, thus allowing the combatants one last night to “sleep on it” and hopefully find a less drastic solution.

After shots had been fired (or, in a sword duel, after blood had been spilled), the seconds would confer with their principals to see if honor had been satisfied or if more violence would need to take place. In many cases a combatant would aim in the air or at the ground, not wishing to take the life of his opponent. But in other cases a duelist would aim directly for his opponent, and the code duello condemned anyone who tried to dodge this shot as a coward. So fatalities did occur.

How common was dueling? In 19th century England, there were thought to be tens of thousands of duels held, but numbers are difficult know because of the secrecy involved. But we do know that the custom gradually faded in popularity and approval. Duels were still being held into the 1850’s and even later, but they had all but disappeared by the dawn of the 20th century. Today, of course, they are merely a curious relic of an earlier time.

Here is a page with an excellent discussion of the history and practice of dueling. Man Knowledge:An Affair of Honor- The Duel

You can also listen this song from the musical Hamilton, which accurately conveys the ceremony and drama of each duel. The Ten Duel Commandments

My story The Taming of Lydia Bennet contains a scene with a duel, and you will also find a handful of duels in popular JAFF. The duels in these books do not always conform with the normal practices of the day, but it is fiction, after all!

Next month, I’ll be sharing information about the upcoming release of my newest JAFF! Until then, remember to keep your duelling pistols handy and avoid any dispute where your honor might be at stake!

13 Responses to When Honor Was At Stake

  1. Hah! I’m considering a potential duel in the plot of my next JAFF so you’ve given me some very valuable information. Thank you!

    • Glad I could help! For a good look at how dueling worked in real life, I recommend reading information about the infamous Hamilton-Burr duel, which had practically every element of a good duel at the time. There were weeks of secret communications between the two men ahead of time via their seconds, there were complicated negotiations, each side hired a doctor to be close at hand, it was held at dawn in a different jurisdiction– you name it.

  2. Hi Elaine,

    Great post! I think you went into a nice amount of detail here. I hadn’t thought that much about dueling pistol sets.

    I love dueling. I mean, in stories. Preferably with swords. I’ll take most any chance to include a sword fight into a story.

    With the rapier or a similar weapon, death was likely only if the person using the sword was very skilled and wished to kill. As dangerous as swords are, it’s not that easy to kill with them (depending on the type). To maim is certainly easy, which would have been the fear of most duelists, especially when faced with an unskilled opponent who may swing erratically. Maiming is bad form, though. You know, not gentlemanly at all.

    I’ve always felt that, in addition to the opinion that massive wars cooled the desire to duel (which seems a little off to me as it was still popular after the Napoleonic wars), the choice of weapons greatly shaped the popularity of dueling. I think it increased in popularity when people moved away from swords and toward guns because, obviously, it was easier to duel and you could have more hope of succeeding with less skill. So, you could go ahead and duel over silly things, and, in a way, leaving it up to a higher power to decide the outcome.

    However, the better guns got, the more dangerous dueling became. So, once death became a greater and greater possibility, dueling became less and less popular. More lethal guns were combined with an increase in dueling, which was brought about by the introduction of guns. So, it sort of destroyed itself, in a way, which is likely a good thing.


    • I think you’re right, Summer. Some people claim that the Civil War was the reason for the decline of dueling in the United States, but that doesn’t make much sense when one considers other wars that were fought on U.S. soil before then. And you have a good point about the Napoleonic wars as well. I suspect that yes, the increasing accuracy and potency of firearms probably played a key role in getting rid of the practice. And a good thing, too!

    • I have never actually watched that. (Heresy, I know!) Is it good? Frankly, S&S has always been my least favorite of Austen’s novels. I probably need to try to get into it again.

Your thoughts are precious!