A Polish prince this week challenged Nigel Farage to a duel. The prince, Yanek Zylinski, blames Farage and Ukip for anti-Polish sentiment in the UK so he’s suggesting they meet in Hyde Park with their swords one morning. The Spectator of 1838 would be disappointed that 21st century princes are still throwing down gauntlets:
The pretence on which duelling has been defended – that it serves to polish society – is untenable. The witty Mr Whistlecraft, indeed, speaking of King Arthur’s Knights, avers that:
“Their looks and gestures, eager, sharp, and quick, Showed them prepared, on proper provocation, To give the lie, pull noses, stab and kick, Which is the very reason, it is said, They were so very courteous and well-bred.”
But, in really good society, the “proper provocation” would never be given; and this is the condition to which we must look forward, before we can hope to get rid of duels. Some approach to it has been made during the present century; and the time may come when to “go out” with a royal duke will be voted vulgar.
Vulgar or not, Charles Saatchi was so enraged by one of Taki’s columns last year that he called him out in a letter to The Spectator:
It was very hapless of you to spring to Nigella’s defence last week, as she always found you toe-curlingly vile, and would have been aghast at having you as her valiant supporter.
People tell me that in your unreadable column you also like to brag that you are a Black Belt at karate. Well, me too, old boy. But apparently your ‘fights’ are genteel affairs, against other soppy geriatrics rolling around the floor in crisp white outfits, in some bit of judokai nonsense.
Mine take place in cages, 20 feet square, unofficial little events with no gloves, no rules, and the loser being carried out, usually battered to bits.
Taki accepted the challenge but somehow they never did get into a cage together, so both are still in one piece. It’s not clear whether Prince Zylinski would have attempted a mortal blow on Farage, had the challenge been accepted. By the end of the 19th century, even in France – where duelling was much more popular than here – people were shocked when a duel resulted in death:
The Marquis de Mores, a fanatical anti-Semite, having in a recent article libelled the French Jews, accepted a challenge from one of their number, Captain Mayer. The two men fought with swords, and the Marquis ran his opponent through the body, wounding him so that he died in a few hours. As duels in France are not intended to kill people, but only to gratify their vanity, public opinion is disturbed, and M. Cluseret has introduced a Bill punishing all who take part in duels with short sentences of imprisonment. The Bill, of course, will not pass, and though the Marquis de Mores will be tried for manslaughter, his sentence will be nominal. There is reason to believe, however, that the opinion against duelling gains ground, and that heavy fines inflicted on the seconds would put a stop to it altogether. Already, it is stated, the readiness of French tribunals to compel the victor in a mortal duel to support the family of his victim operates to inspire combatants with a dread of inflicting dangerous wounds, and it would not be difficult to go some steps further in that direction. Homicide, you see, is a trifle; but when it seriously diminishes the hero’s spending-money, he becomes aware of its immorality.
The magazine advocated the same remedy for Germany after a sad tale emerged from there in 1901:
In Germany, it would appear, duelling is regarded at a great rite, to be reverenced even by disbelievers: A young Prussian officer named Blaskowitz gave on the day before his wedding a farewell bachelor party to his comrades. On his way home the wine he had taken overcame him, and he leaned against a wall for support. There two brother-officers found him, and endeavoured to assist him; but he flung his arms about wildly and resisted. Next day he had forgotten the occurrence, and when reminded of it by a challenge he offered an ample apology, which, it is said, his comrades were willing to accept. A Court of Honour was, however, summoned, and, after a long debate, decided that Lieutenant Blaskowitz must fight or leave the Army. His friends advised the latter course, but the Lieutenant was a keen soldier, he decided to fight, and was killed – a sacrifice not to a false notion of honour, for honour could not be involved, but to the system which in Germany makes of duelling a deity whose claim to his victims must be honoured even by the unwilling. The incident, we are happy to see, has stung public opinion even in Germany, but there will be no change in the system till the relatives of any one who falls or is severely wounded in a duel have a right to claim exemplary damages. It is a bourgeois remedy, but it would be an effectual one.