Cut…paste…fire! Victorian journalism, duelling and the fabrication of history

Margery Masterson
Bristol University

A letter to the editor of Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper in 1845
admitted that it was ‘somewhat late in the day’ to call public
attention to the issue duelling, but noted in their defence that one
duellist been found guilty of ‘wilful murder’ while a Member of
Parliament ‘only a few hours before’ had sought the protection of
the House after being challenged by another member. Why was this
mid-Victorian correspondent so apologetic about raising what was so
manifestly an issue of the day? Because, according to the press,
duelling was extinct. Victorian journalists trumpeted their role in
marshalling the ‘popular feeling’ against the practice. Thus
printed discussions of duelling from 1840s onward reemphasised that
duelling was a past issue even as they gave evidence of its continued
practice. It was not only contemporaries who hesitated to raise the
issue after the proclaimed death of the practice in 1844. For
historians of the period too, the end of duelling was the logical
result of the early nineteenth-century’s progressive social and
political achievements. And yet duels continued to be mooted in
Britain into the late Victorian period.

This paper will explore do more than examine the motivations and
biases behind the premature announcement of the death of duelling in
nineteenth-century Britain. It will show how nineteenth-century
journalistic practices created a false history by chronically
distorting the chronology of duelling in Britain. Firstly, a
high-profile case would prompt newspapers to write a retrospective
assessment of the practise – with the recent case forming the
necessary terminus of the narrative. Secondly, successive
‘histories’ of the duel did little to alter the ‘terminus’
narratives generated by the earlier high-profile cases. Indeed they
often reiterated older claims without much consideration for the
intervening years and its events. This type of ‘cut and paste’
popular writing, using editorials and court transcripts, made
significant revision impossible. In this way secondary and tertiary
layers of literature grew around contemporary reactions, creating
fabricated histories of the duel. In this way, to continue the
analogy, a study tree grew around the rotten wood. This cautionary
case study requires historians to reflect upon how we use popular
nineteenth-century journalism – and how we can avoid shoring up
misleading narratives created by the Victorian press.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900