Sunday, February 14, 2010
Women as duellists (1)
I have been away from this blog for a while because my spare time has been spent preparing for whatever contribution I could make to a 'History of Duelling' programme forthcoming (as far away as May 25th) on Radio 4. I re-read edicts, and made myself acquainted with James I and Francis Bacon on the matter, also re-read Sir Edward Herbert's autobiography.
But the producer was also interested in duels between women, and asked me to have a little look for examples. Now the internet reveals a regular set of repeatedly cited all-women duels: the one Ribera depicted in 1636, 'The Duel of Isabella de Carazzi and Diambra de Pottinella' (depicting a duel 80 or more years before), and the 'petticoat duel' of 1792, in Hyde Park, between Mrs Elphinstone and Mrs Braddock, make particular favourites, copied from blog to blog.
The Illustrated Police News, a Victorian tabloid, faithfully covered duels of all kinds: between men, animals, boys, but particularly they liked fighting women. The format of this paper was settled: the title page featured lurid illustrations of the chief stories among the issue's contents, then the three remaining sheets (at least in the early years of the publication, for it expanded later) contained some kind of reportage. The Daily Sport of its day, provenance of some of the stories seems sketchy at best.
The illustrations tend to depict most of their lady duellists as fashion plate stunners: as much embonpoint as sword point. A pornographic intent is not far away, with more than a touch of sadism apparent.
Anyway, here in this engraving Madame Astie de Valsayre is duelling with an American girl, Miss Shelby. They had disagreed about the relative merits of French and American doctors, with the American girl calling the Frenchwomen an idiot. As if to give European doctors (at least) a chance to prove their merit, they agreed to meet and fight it out.
It's apparent that Madame Valsayre was an avid publicity seeker. She had just been thwarted in one attempt to fight a duel against a Madame Pierre, then Miss Shelby came conveniently to hand. The site of the duel was significant: on the field of Waterloo. Unable, as I guess, to find an Englishwoman, Madame Valsayre settled for an Anglophone, and fought for the honour of France.
The engraver here has cleverly represented both the sensational possibility (at first glance, one duellist looks to have been run through) and the less alarming actuality: Miss Shelby was wounded in the arm. At this point, Madame Valsayre accepted her apology, and then subsequently "warmly eulogised the conduct of the fair American", "and holds her up to the admiration and emulation of her sex".
Illustrated Police News, Saturday 10th April, 1886.