“‘we met by appointment,’” Brandon tells Elinor, “‘he to defend, I to punish his conduct’” (211). Willoughby, who seemed like the Good, turns out to be the Bad; he is challenged by Brandon, who seemed like the Ugly, but turns out to be the Good.1 In the early days of the duel, such anomalies were thought to be sorted out through Trial by Combat: the concept implies that God or Providence will strengthen the arm of the Good, and suitably punish the Bad. In this case, Willoughby should be punished, but the two return from the fray “unwounded.” What was the point?
Since it has been observable through the ages that the Deity can’t be relied on to step in, combatants who want to settle a dispute take to developing combat techniques that will avail them—in case the Lord doesn’t. The principles of good and evil come to be adjusted by the more aesthetic value of skill; and the successful duelist is less likely to be the one with a just cause than the one who handles his weapon most deftly. Seconds step in to negotiate; and right and wrong come to be submitted to minute protocols about “honor,” “giving the lie,” and so forth. The best result to be hoped for, morally speaking, was “satisfaction”—a shorthand implying that honor is satisfied. Aesthetically speaking, however, duels can afford high drama.
Should we imagine Willoughby and Brandon facing each other like Clint Eastwood and his enemies in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly?—with that memorable sound track playing; chewing cigars, sweat dripping, and fingers itching for triggers? No. The seconds would have arranged for more decorum and less accurate weapons; and the weather would of course have been—well, English, and polite. No rattlesnakes about.
Of course in the British Isles dueling had been illegal for centuries, and occasionally a duelist who killed his opponent was hanged.2 But the practice was often winked at, especially for aristocrats, who would be tried by their peers in the House of Lords, and usually let off. When Lord Talbot took offence against an article about him published by John Wilkes in the North Briton, Wilkes agreed to meet him, even though, he wrote, “I knew his Lordship fought with the King’s pardon in his pocket, and I fought him with a halter about my neck” (Baldick 75).
Even quiet Steventon wasn’t immune from rumors of duels. In 1800 young Earle Harwood of Deane, a Lieutenant in the Marines, was shot in the thigh and like to have his leg amputated. Was it a duel, the gossips of the neighborhood wonder? His own testimony would carry no weight on such a matter; but fortunately the angle of the bullet’s entry proved the shot had to have been accidental. So Jane Austen could reassure Cassandra that young Harwood was “only unfortunate & not in fault” (8 November 1800). Like her heroine Elinor—and like her favorite Sir Charles Grandison, who though an accomplished swordsman refuses a challenge on principle—Austen didn’t approve of dueling.
As the Harwood incident makes plain, despite being illegal dueling was quite common, especially in the military. (Mind you, officers were not allowed to challenge their superior officers: that would be too tempting a shortcut to promotion.) During the sixty-year reign of George III, which spanned Austen’s lifetime, 172 duels were reported, 91 of which ended fatally (Keirnan 102). But because of the code of secrecy, many more duels would have gone unreported, especially if there were no injuries, or only minor ones. If one or other of the duelists let slip word of a duel before it happened, he was deemed eager for the authorities to prevent it, and a coward; and after the fact, of course, both duelists would have reason to conceal their criminal activity.
Through the decades the duel became increasingly ritualized, from the kind of off-the-cuff scraps that we see between Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet, to the elaborate arrangements surrounding the offence, the challenge, the negotiation of seconds, the choice of ground, weapons, and rules, and the patching up after the encounter. Intricate protocols were attached to all these elements. Sometimes the seconds would fight too. Often a doctor was in attendance.
What happened between Willoughby and Brandon? This much one can gather from the text of Sense and Sensibility; and the knowledge we gain in the later volumes throws light on certain mysteries of the first.
In February in Bath, Willoughby seduces sixteen-year-old Eliza Williams, and subsequently abandons her. She disappears from her guardian’s ken for what must have been eight harrowing months. “‘What I thought, what I feared, may be imagined,’” Brandon says later; “‘and what I suffered too’” (209). (Hence the mournful demeanor in Devon that so disqualifies him as a suitor.) Then in October, destitute and eight months pregnant, Eliza finally writes to Brandon. The party assembled for the trip to Whitwell witness his shock as he recognizes her handwriting. He says it is “‘merely a letter of business’” “‘from town’” (63). He is (a) covering for Eliza, and (b) already plotting a challenge to her seducer, whoever he is. When asked when he’ll come back, he replies that his return is “‘so uncertain, . . . that I dare not engage for it at all’” (65). Read, “I may be dead.”
And right there in the company, as Brandon prepares to rush to Eliza’s aid, Eliza’s seducer whispers to his new girlfriend that Brandon is deliberately spoiling their day of pleasure: “‘I would lay fifty guineas the letter was of his own writing’” (65). Willoughby, of all people, should know about faking the authorship of letters. Here he adds insult to injury: first the dishonorable seduction, then giving the lie to the man he has injured. It’s a gratuitous piece of dastardliness.
Willoughby soon has to face up to his misdeeds. Once Brandon has got his name from Eliza, he writes his own letter, which Willoughly receives two weeks after Brandon’s hasty departure. Now it’s Willoughby who has to dash to town, again “‘on business’” (75-76). Again, when pressed to return, he mutters, “‘My engagements at present . . . are of such a nature—that—I dare not flatter myself’—” (76). He too is thinking, “I may be dead.”
Both principals, as decorum required, are highly secretive about the duel they know must be coming. Brandon’s “steadiness in concealing [the] cause” of his trip amazes Mrs. Jennings (70). Willoughby’s uncharacteristic secrecy disturbs Elinor. “‘[A] plain and open avowal of his difficulties would have been more to his honour I think,’” she says (81), little understanding that he is involved in a different “affair of honor” that absolutely demands secrecy.3
It’s worth noting that even in his late confessional scene with Elinor, Willoughby still doesn’t mention the duel. But his rich relative and hostess Mrs. Smith knows about it, apparently, almost as soon as he received Brandon’s challenge. Willoughby admits, “‘Mrs. Smith had somehow or other been informed, I imagine by some distant relation, . . . of an affair . . .’” (321). But for all his caginess, we must assume that it was Brandon who told her, at almost the same time that he issued the challenge to Willoughby. It might be considered unmanly for the Colonel to go whining to an elderly female relative of the man he is challenging. But Brandon’s first priority, like that of the Bennets and Gardiners in Lydia’s case, would be to save Eliza’s reputation by getting her seducer to marry her. First he actually does what Mrs. Bennet fears Mr. Bennet will do—that is, he tells the seducer, in effect, “Marry the girl or accept my challenge.” As “a man and a soldier”—a much younger man than Mr. Bennet, and single—Brandon takes this route. But, like the Gardiners and Darcy, he backs up this persuasion with a financial inducement. Wickham will get money if he marries the girl; Willoughby will lose his inheritance if he doesn’t.
Mrs. Smith certainly argues as Brandon would wish, for, Willoughby tells us, “‘in the height of her morality, good woman! she offered to forgive the past, if I would marry Eliza. That could not be’” (323). He would rather have the duel and marry Miss Grey, though he doesn’t much like her either. One element in his thinking would probably be that if he manages to blow out Brandon’s brains, Brandon won’t get the girl he had hoped to have himself.4
All this is of course off the scene, and to a degree conjectural. But Austen has given us clues enough to reconstruct some of the untold motivation. There are many passages that become heavy with irony when we know of the duel. When Mrs. Jennings greets Colonel Brandon in London she gabbles cheerfully, “‘I do not know what you and Mr. Willoughby will do between you about [Miss Marianne]’” (163). She doesn’t know they have already done it.
“‘One meeting was unavoidable,’” Colonel Brandon ominously tells Elinor. “‘I could meet [Willoughby] in no other way. . . .’ Elinor sighed over the fancied necessity of this; but to a man and a soldier, she presumed not to censure it” (211). Setting Elinor’s disapproval aside for the moment, we must ask in what way they did meet. The first question to be considered is: swords or pistols?
Through the 1770s, the fencing master Henry Angelo tells us, “every person with the least pretension to gentility wore his sword,” and a duel could follow swiftly on the offence (1:59). A gentleman’s smallsword was finely adapted for dueling; fencing, the practice sport for the duel, was a popular activity.
Schools of fencing, both in England and France, were thriving concerns. Brandon and Willoughby, particularly if they went to Eton or Harrow, could have learned the gentleman’s sport of fencing from one of the Angelos, father and son. Domenico Angelo (1716-1802), author of the classic School of Fencing, was England’s greatest master, and taught the Prince of Wales and his brothers5 His son Henry kept up his famous fencing academy by the Opera House on Haymarket. Domenico coached the boys at Eton, Henry the boys at Harrow.
Everybody who was anybody trained with these masters and made friends of them: Garrick, Sheridan, Reynolds, Rowlandson, Gillray, and Byron all frequented their schools (Cohen 81). When we see Colin Firth as Darcy working off his passion in a fencing bout, he would likely have been in the Angelo Fencing Academy.
Having been a fencer myself, I would like to think of swords as still the possible weapons for the encounter in Sense and Sensibility, even though by 1800 pistols had largely replaced them as the dueling weapon of choice. Swords pertained for longer in the military (Keirnan 142) and in France; Colonel Brandon is a soldier, and he has a sister in Avignon (63). Willoughby is fashion-conscious and romantically inclined, and would surely fancy himself with a foil. Both move in fashionable circles in London, where an afternoon spent at Henry Angelo’s salle in Haymarket would be a frequent recreation for men, and even occasionally for women.
But no, I fear I must concede that this duel had to be with pistols. Willoughby, as the party challenged, would have the choice of weapons; and we first meet him as “a gentleman carrying a gun” (42). Moreover we hear from Sir John that he is “‘a very decent shot’” (43). Swords required more skill than pistols, and against a trained soldier Willoughby would want every advantage available.
The clincher is the fact that Brandon and Willoughby return from the duel “‘unwounded’” (211). Pistols were still unreliable, and it was not unusual for both principals to miss each other. Of the early encounter between Wilkes and Lord Talbot, for instance, though they were only eight yards apart, Wilkes wrote that at the signal “both our fires were in very exact time, but neither took effect” (Baldick 75). A duel with swords, however, didn’t end until one or both principals were “blooded,” disabled, or dead.6 “First blood” would in general be the minimal cause for ending an encounter. The modern épée, for which the target includes arms, legs, and head, is the practice weapon for this kind of duel. But the foil, for which only the torso counts as valid target, is the practice weapon for the more deadly kind of swordplay.
In the famously savage duel in Hyde Park between the Duke of Hamilton and Lord Mohun in 1712, both combatants had multiple wounds on arms and legs, but kept fighting until it seems the Duke drove his sword right through Mohun’s body, “up to the hilt of the sword” (Baldick 71-72), and Mohun nevertheless managed to deliver a mortal wound to the Duke’s breast. This duel is very fully documented. Swift wrote about it, and comforted the bereaved Duchess. Thackeray included a fictional version in Henry Esmond. The testimony at the Coroner’s inquest following the deaths is still extant. There a labourer on the scene called Joseph Nicholson testified “he . . . heard the Duke’s second say By G--d My Lord Duke’s killed; and the other said, By G—d, My Lord Mohun’s killed; the Former then said, We’ve made a fine Mornings work on’t” (“Substance” 5). The homely and detailed testimony of footman and coachman, passer-by and inn-keeper, brings the encounter to life, and reveals the complex but clandestine arrangements: the Duke comes in his own coach, the lord arrives by hackney, both take pains to conceal their purpose and to keep their swords out of sight. At the end, with both principals dead, and London waking up to the sensational news, the hackney coachman keeps asking who will pay his fare.
With pistols, things were less bloody. But those determined to do damage could resort to the duel au mouchoir, as it was called. Here the combatants are close enough to hold a corner of the same handkerchief: more or less a suicide pact (Keirnan 144). One famous bloodless duel was in 1829, between the Earl of Winchilsea and the Duke of Wellington, who was Prime Minister at the time. The earl had publicly called the Duke’s political policies unconstitutional, and refused to apologize. “I now call upon your lordship,” the Duke wrote, “to give me that satisfaction for your conduct which a gentleman has a right to require, and which a gentleman never refuses to give” (Baldick 105)—the kind of formula that Brandon might well have used to Willoughby. At the command “Fire!” Winchilsea, unwilling to risk killing the Prime Minister and hero of Waterloo, kept his pistol pointing to the ground. Seeing this, the Duke fired wide; then Winchilsea fired in the air; and it was over—all but the press coverage, which was considerable (Longford 2:188).
Would Willoughby have played the Winchilsea role and been nobly ready to receive Brandon’s bullet without firing himself? Not likely. Clearly he feels little guilt about Eliza and blames not himself but “‘the violence of her passions, the weakness of her understanding’” (322). Nor would Brandon have held his fire, given his challenge and the reason for it. I believe the seconds would prudently have placed their principals well apart, in good missing distance.7
Who would the seconds have been? Brandon would undoubtedly get a brother officer; Willoughby’s second would probably be someone rather disreputable: he’s not likely to ask any relative of Miss Grey to act for him.
But the Brandon-Willoughby affair, I suggest, isn’t the only duel in Sense and Sensibility. Despite Elinor’s head-shaking disapproval of the “fancied necessity” of the men’s duel, she engages in a duel herself, a duel of words. Austen has quite deliberately used the terms and the drama of the duel for the encounter between Elinor and Lucy Steele.
Women fencers, and even women duelists, were not unknown. The famous Chevalier D’Éon, though actually a man, was required by the terms of his pension to dress as a woman, and he was no doubt an inspiration to actual women. In a much-publicized fencing match of 1787 against France’s best master, the Chevalier St. George, D’Éon won, though he was nearly sixty at the time and also “encumbered . . . with three petticoats” (H. Angelo 2:421). The young Prince of Wales was present on the occasion, as well as both Angelos, father and son, and the match was depicted in a painting and circulated in engravings.
But real women were learning fencing too. The eccentric Duchess of Queensbury donned jacket and mask to fence with her protégé the Negro Soubise (H. Angelo 1:224). And a lively watercolor by Rowlandson, a close friend of the Angelos, depicts a woman in white jacket and skirt, fencing with a white-clad male fencer in Henry Angelo’s Fencing Academy in 1816. The assembled company—more of them spectators than clad for fencing—shows that watching fencing was a popular entertainment.
The duel between Elinor and Lucy, however, is with words, not swords, or pistols either. There are notable parallels with the men’s duel. You could say that Lucy seduced young Edward almost as surely as Willoughby seduced Eliza. That seduction, and her exulting over it, is Lucy’s “offence.” And it is placed tellingly at the end of Volume I: “for a few moments, [Elinor] was almost overcome—her heart sunk within her” (134): a highly dramatic first-act closer. Volume II opens with Elinor meditating a challenge: “she was firmly resolved to act by [Lucy] as every principle of honour . . . directed”; and “she could not deny herself the comfort of endeavouring to convince Lucy that her heart was unwounded” (142). Her “comfort” sounds much like the “satisfaction” sought by male duelists. She briefly thinks about taking “counsel” from seconds—her mother or her sister; but she decides she is “stronger alone” (141). It is to be a thoroughly feminine affair, with even Sir John called away to Exeter (143).
Much is made of the protocol for achieving a venue for their private encounter. Since there are no seconds, the principals must work things out for themselves, and they do. Horrid little Annamaria’s filigree basket becomes the cover for their encounter. And Elinor is as devious and secretive as any duelist before the fact. “‘Perhaps’”, she tells her hostess, “‘I may be of some use to Miss Lucy Steele, in rolling her papers for her. . . . I should like the work exceedingly, if she would allow me a share in it.’” Like the persnickety work on the basket? Not likely!8 But it’s true that Lucy can’t “‘labour singly’” at this work. It takes two to duel, as to tango. “Lucy made room for her with ready attention, and the two fair rivals were thus seated side by side at the same table, and with the utmost harmony engaged in forwarding the same work” (145)—that is, their own affair of honor. The passage drips with irony in any case, but the duel analogy, involving the false camaraderie of deadly enemies colluding to achieve a venue for mortal combat, gives it an extra resonance. And Marianne at the piano screens the encounter as effectively as the secluded groves of Hyde Park or Leicester Fields.
The duel itself is introduced in a new chapter, and soon the combatants are engaged in the verbal cut and thrust that is one of the most loaded dialogues in Austen’s fiction. The stage directions carry on the suggestion of a barbed exchange: Elinor beginning in a “firm, though cautious tone”; Lucy’s “little sharp eyes full of meaning”; Elinor “careful in guarding her countenance,” and “with a smile . . . conceal[ing] very agitated feelings”; Lucy speaking “with some pique”; and so on (146-50). At one point, like fencers resting between onslaughts, “Elinor thought it wisest to make no answer . . . lest they provoke each other to an unsuitable increase of ease and unreserve” (150). It sounds as though she wants to avoid that interruption in the rapier and dagger match in Hamlet: “Part them, they are incensed” (5.2.245).
We as readers may smile at the “fancied necessity” of the two encounters. Do Elinor and Lucy get the “satisfaction” that a duel promises? No. At the end, “[N]othing had been said on either side, to make them dislike each other less than they had done before” (151), and Elinor has signally failed to convince Lucy that her heart is unwounded. The “unwounded” condition belongs only to the men in their more physical duel. (Incidentally, the word “unwounded,” applied in Sense and Sensibility in relation to both the men’s duel and the women’s, occurs nowhere else in Austen’s fiction, and thus forms another link between the two episodes.)
Where her famous contemporary Walter Scott provided dozens of duels in his novels, seriously pondered the ethics of dueling, and even “came close to a whiff of the gunpowder of honour” himself (Keirnan 228), Austen chose not to make a scene of the physical encounter, only of the duel of words. And she provides neither tragedy nor triumph. In Sense and Sensibility the duel has been just a social form, or a ritualized way of releasing aggression; not the defeat of the Bad, nor a means of establishing the Good . But it certainly makes for a satisfactory aesthetic experience!
I have reconstructed the off-stage action of the Brandon/Willoughby duel and explored the implications of the on-stage Elinor/Lucy encounter. While I’m at this business, I can’t resist a little speculation on after-events. Austen herself was interested in the after-lives of her characters, and when she went to exhibitions in London she looked for portraits of “Mrs. Bingley” and “Mrs. Darcy” (24 May 1813).
When Elinor has somewhat recovered from the influence of Willoughby’s personal charm during his nighttime visit to Cleveland, she is able to remind Marianne “‘that all Willoughby’s difficulties have arisen from the first offence against virtue, in his behaviour to Eliza Williams’” (352). This recollection brings Eliza and her concerns back into the limelight, and late in the novel. Will she be shipped off to Australia, drowned in the Serpentine, or otherwise swept under the carpet, like other fallen women? I believe we are meant to care something for her fate. Mrs. Jennings, who thinks Eliza is Brandon’s illegitimate daughter, and doesn’t know about her elopement, breezily dismisses this awkward appendage of Brandon’s. Once the Colonel is married, she says, “‘the little love-child . . . may be ’prenticed out at small cost’” (196). But there is reason to think Brandon will be more conscientious about his lost love’s daughter. Since his profession required him to travel, he sent her first to school and then into “‘the care of a very respectable woman’” (208). He tells Elinor that once he inherited his estate, Eliza “‘frequently visited me at Delaford’” (208). No doubt that is how Mrs. Jennings knows about her.
Elinor asks Brandon, when they meet in London, if he has been in town since his hasty departure from Barton. “‘Yes,’ he replied, with some embarrassment, ‘almost ever since; I have been once or twice at Delaford for a few days’” (162). His embarrassment suggests that his visits to Delaford may have been to arrange for Eliza’s lying-in there, and perhaps to visit her afterwards. Indeed, later he tells Elinor, “‘I removed [Eliza] and her child to the country, and there she remains’” (211). If he has installed Eliza at Delaford, what will happen to her and her child when the Colonel brings home Marianne as his bride?
In the second volume of Richardson’s Pamela (1741), the virtuous Pamela insists on adding Mr. B’s love-child, Miss Goodwin, to the family. That was in an earlier and more sexually tolerant time. But forgiveness of a spouse’s past misdemeanors, including tolerance of his illegitimate offspring, has been a moral test for many a heroine, including Elizabeth Hervey’s protagonist in Louisa (1790), and Charlotte Smith’s Geraldine in Desmond (1792)10—all the way to Jane Eyre (1847), where Jane takes on Mr. Rochester’s Adèle Varens. Can we suppose Marianne will be less generous?
Marianne’s case, I concede, isn’t quite the same. The transgression to be forgiven is not Brandon’s, but Eliza’s, and we all know that forgiveness for women comes at a higher price than that for men. However, the principle of not visiting the sins of the parent on the innocent child is the same. If the Vicar of Wakefield can welcome the return of his fallen daughter Olivia, would Marianne be less forgiving of a girl who, like herself, was a victim of Willoughby’s charms? Marianne is surely as warm and generous as those other heroes and heroines.
So I hereby advise any author who plans a spin-off sequel to Sense and Sensibility to include Eliza Williams as one of the denizens of Delaford. And let us not forget her baby. By an ironic turn of fate, and thanks to Brandon’s survival of the duel, Marianne is to become a sort of step-grandmother to Willoughby’s child.
1. This paper was composed for the plenary panel at JASNA Fort Worth in which the three Canadian panelists, Elaine Bander, Juliet McMaster, and Peter Sabor, connected with Fort Worth’s western theme in engaging Sergio Leone’s iconic film, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
2. For instance, Major Alexander Campbell, who killed Captain Alexander Boyd in a duel in Ireland in 1807, gave himself up in England, and was tried in Ireland, found guilty, and hanged in 1808 (Baldick 99-100).
3. In his article on this duel, Vince Brewton notes, “The silence surrounding the duel, a reticence kept by all of the participants, including Willoughby, is of considerable importance” (87).
4. Vince Brewton considers the duel as significant in revealing the “otherwise undisclosed depth of the rivalry over the possession of women” (84).
5. Critics haven’t decided on the date of the action of Sense and Sensibility, but Domenico, though in his eighties, gave lessons to within days of his death in 1802, and Henry remained active much longer.
6. “If swords are used,” read an eighteenth-century Irish Code Duello, “the parties engage until one is well blooded, disabled, or disarmed” (McNab 136-37). Disarming, though a tactic practiced in fencing, was not usually considered a satisfactory completion of a duel.
7. Since the accuracy of pistols had improved with the years, Wellington’s duel in 1829 (had the parties aimed at each other) would be more likely to have a fatal effect than Wilkes’s in 1762.
8. David Selwyn, in Jane Austen and Children, provides information on the work involved in creating this intricate and useless object (106-07).
9. For instance, after their interrupted affair at Pimlico, McD—t and Chevalier adjourn with Angelo to “a tea-garden, near Hogmore-lane, where the glass passed round pretty freely,” and Chevalier shows off the scars of previous encounters (H. Angelo 2:231-32).
10. I am grateful to Isobel Grundy and Susan Allen Ford for supplying these examples.
Angelo, Domenic. The School of Fencing with a General Explanation of the Principal Attitudes and Positions Peculiar to the Art. Trans. Henry Angelo. 1783. New York: Land’s End, 1971. Trans. of L’École d’Armes. 1763.
Angelo, Henry. The Reminiscences of Henry Angelo. Introd. Lord Howard Walden. 2 vols. London: Kegan, 1904.
Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.
_____. Sense and Sensibility. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. London: Oxford UP, 1953.
Baldick, Robert. The Duel: A History of Duelling. New York: Potter, 1965.
Brewton, Vince. “‘He to defend: I to punish’: Silence and the Duel in Sense and Sensibility.” Persuasions 23 (2001): 78-89.
Cohen, Richard. By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions. New York: Random, 2002.
Kiernan, V. G. The Duel in European History: Honour and the Reign of Aristocracy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.
Longford, Elizabeth. Wellington: The Pillar of State. London: Weidenfeld, 1972.
McNab, Chris, ed. Knives and Swords: A Visual History. New York: DK Books, 2010.
Selwyn, David. Jane Austen and Children. London: Continuum, 2010.
“The Substance of the Depositions of the Coroner’s Inquest the 17th, 19th, and 21st of November , on the Body of Duke Hamilton; And the 15th, 18th, 20th, and 22d, on the Body of my Lord Mohun.” Rpt. in The Thackeray Newsletter 16 (Nov. 1982): 4-6.