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Miss Osborne: Miss Ball’s recent Jane Austen Fight Club post got me thinking about duels in the Jane Austen world. Duels were going on during that time period (the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel was in the early 1800s), so why didn’t Mr. Darcy call out Wickham for a duel? Clearly, Darcy had the right. Were most duels just between equals? Or are there other reasons why dueling would not be an appropriate response to Wickham’s treachery? (It’s not like Darcy had to worry about looking like a dork—á la Mark Darcy versus Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones’s Diary—when all he has to do is walk a few paces and pull a trigger.)
Mrs. Fitzpatrick: Ah, dueling. I was once hailed by a passing stranger as “the swordsman’s girlfriend,” so I’m well-fitted to answer this. And the swordsman himself dumped five books on the history of dueling in my lap the instant I mentioned this query. The romance of the sword lives to this day, even when the sword is a gun (if you follow).
By the time Jane Austen was writing, dueling in Europe was an upper-class game of machismo on its way out—it was a game only among equals, though, yes, and taken seriously as a show of honor among them, though ridiculed in the press. In America, actually, dueling was much more serious (we had the Old West to prepare for, remember), and people died a lot more, like poor Hamilton. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it in 1831, “In Europe one hardly ever fights a duel except in order to be able to say that one has done so. . . In America one only fights to kill. . .”
In Sense and Sensibility, Colonel Brandon fights just such a European duel with Willoughby over his seducing Miss Williams (Col. Brandon’s not-daughter). “‘I could meet him in no other way. . . We returned unwounded, and the meeting, therefore, never got abroad.’ Elinor sighed over the fancied necessity of this; but to a man and a soldier she presumed not to censure it.” Some people have seen this duel as the crux of the plot, and it is part of the 18th century side of the novel, along with the seduction itself, Marianne’s dramatic illness, and Willoughby’s drunken declaration of love.
In Pride and Prejudice, remember, there is a question of somebody fighting Wickham, but it isn’t Mr. Darcy—it’s the ironical Mr. Bennet, framed nicely by his adoring wife: “And now here’s Mr. Bennet gone away, and I know he will fight Wickham, wherever he meets him, and then he will be killed, and what is to become of us all?” Nine pages later, “Sure he will not leave London before he has found them. Who is to fight Wickham, and make him marry her, if he comes away?”
Mrs. Bennet’s always so silly that I don’t think we’re supposed to take either proposition seriously. Pride and Prejudice has much less of 18th century flavor than Sense and Sensibility. Yet I really can’t tell whether Mr. Bennet himself would have wanted to duel Wickham or not, though I’m inclined to think not. He was too sensible, and the whole idea was to hush the thing up, anyway.
And this, I think is our answer to why Mr. Darcy doesn’t challenge Wickham over the honor of Georgiana. He did have the right, and he was of the class (and, I imagine, the temperament) to be dueling, but, he tells Elizabeth, on discovering the proposed elopement “You may imagine what I felt and how I acted. Regard for my sister’s credit and feelings prevented any public exposure. . .” Unless this is a coded indication that they did fight (as the fanfic authors no doubt go off on), his love for his sister overcame his ideas of his station in that way, just as (guess what!) his love for Elizabeth later overcomes his ideas of his station in another way.
Plus, imagine the scandal if it all did come out—too shocking! Mr. Darcy never revealed anything to anyone if he could help it.
For more on dueling, see The Code of Honor, by John Lyde Wilson, 19th century governor of South Carolina and avid duelist.