“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?” — Mrs. Bennet, “Pride and Prejudice”
This reference to duels in “Pride and Prejudice” is fleeting, but it says a lot about the tradition of duels in society during that era.
Duels were usually fought after three instances: (1) disrespecting a woman or female relative; (2) unsatisfactory behavior, such as cheating; or (3) physical attack. They were generally fought between men, but women were known to duel, too.
A Code of Honour dictated the rules: The main parties (the principals) had 48 hours to duel. In the meantime, they chose their seconds, the men who would have their back. The principals agreed on the time and place, while the seconds chose the weapons and, on the day, loaded the guns and marked the firing distance. After the duel, if the principals were able, they would salute each other and leave the field.
Notable duels between men
Richard Brinsley Sheridan vs. Captain Thomas Mathews, 1772
The two dueled twice with swords over singer Elizabeth Linley, a famous singer at the time. Mathews had written a newspaper article disparaging her. Mathews lost the first duel but lived and challenged the playwright to another a few months later; Sheridan was seriously injured but survived.
Alexander Hamilton vs. Aaron Burr, 1804
Founding father Alexander Hamilton (you might have heard about him lately, thanks to a little smash musical called “Hamilton”; the musical even has a song laying out the rules of duels) and Burr were rivals before a newspaper article said Hamilton had insulted Burr’s character. Burr then challenged Hamilton. Reports are conflicted about the details of the duel, but Hamilton died about 36 hours after he was wounded.
Duke of Wellington vs. Lord Winchilsea, 1829
Wellington and Winchilsea disagreed over Catholic emancipation, prompting Wellington to issue a challenge. During the duel Wellington fired first but missed, as did Winchilsea.
Alexander Pushkin vs. George D’Anthès, 1837
D’Anthes was rumored to be having an affair with Natalya, the wife of celebrated writer Pushkin, when Pushkin received a letter saying he had been elected to “The Most Serene Order of Cuckolds.” Although Pushkin rescinded his challenge against D’Anthes, it was later renewed. In the ensuing duel, Pushkin was killed.