Excerpt from Wedlock by Wendy Moore, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore

by Wendy Moore

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  • First Published:
    Mar 2009, 400 pages
    Mar 2010, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Marnie Colton

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Print Excerpt

London, January 13, 1777

Settling down to read his newspaper by the candlelight illuminating the dining room of the Adelphi Tavern, John Hull anticipated a quiet evening. Having opened five years earlier, as an integral part of the vast Adelphi development designed by the Adam brothers on the north bank of the Thames, the Adelphi Tavern and Coffee House had established a reputation for its fine dinners and genteel company. Many an office worker like Hull, a clerk at the government’s Salt Office, sought refuge from the clamor of the nearby Strand in the tavern’s upper- floor dining room with its elegant ceiling panels depicting Pan and Bacchus in pastel shades. On a Monday evening in January, with the day’s work behind him, Hull could expect to read his paper undisturbed.

At first, when he heard the two loud bangs, at about 7 p.m., Hull assumed they were caused by a door slamming downstairs. A few minutes later, there was no mistaking the sound of clashing swords. Throwing aside his newspaper, Hull ran down the stairs and tried to open the door to the ground- floor parlor. Finding it locked, and growing increasingly alarmed at the violent clatter from within, he shouted for waiters to help him force the door. Finally bursting into the unlit room, Hull could dimly make out two figures fencing furiously in the dark. Reckless as to his own safety, the clerk grabbed the sword arm of the nearest man, thrust himself between the two duelists, and insisted that they lay down their swords. Even so it was several more minutes of struggle before he could persuade the first man to yield his weapon.

It was not a moment too soon. The man who reluctantly surrendered his sword now fell swooning to the floor, and in the light of candles brought by servants, a large blood stain could be seen seeping across his waistcoat. A cursory examination convinced Hull that the man was gravely injured. “I think there were three wounds in his right breast, and one upon his sword arm,” he would later attest. The second duelist, although less seriously wounded, was bleeding from a gash to his thigh. With no time to be lost, servants were dispatched into the cold night air to summon medical aid. They returned with a physician named John Scott, who ran a dispensary from his house nearby, and a surgeon, one Jessé Foot, who lived in a neighboring street. Both concurred with Hull’s amateur opinion, agreeing that the collapsed man had suffered a serious stab wound when his opponent’s sword had run through his chest from right to left–presumably on account of the fencers’ standing sideways–as well as a smaller cut to his abdomen and a scratch on his sword arm.

Disheveled and deathly pale, his shirt and waistcoat opened to bare his chest, the patient sprawled in a chair as the medical men tried to revive him with smelling salts, water, and wine and to staunch the bleeding by applying a poultice. What ever benefit the pair may have bestowed by this eminently sensible first aid was almost certainly reversed when they cut open a vein in their patient’s arm to let blood, the customary treatment for almost every ailment. Unsurprisingly, given the weakening effect of this further loss of blood, no sooner had the swordsman revived than he fainted twice more. It was with some justification, therefore, that the two medics pronounced their patient’s injuries might well prove fatal. The discovery of two discarded pistols, still warm from having been fired, suggested that the outcome could easily have been even more decisive. With his life declared to be hanging by a thread, the fading duelist now urged his erstwhile adversary to flee the tavern–taking pains to insist that he had acquitted himself honorably–and even offered his own carriage for the getaway.

This was sound advice, for duels had been repeatedly banned by law since the custom had been imported from continental Europe to Britain in the early seventeenth century. Anyone participating in such a trial of combat risked being charged with murder, and subsequently hanged, should the opponent die, while those who took the role of seconds, whose job it was to ensure fair play, could be charged as accomplices to murder. Yet such legal deterrents had done little to discourage reckless gallants bent on settling disputes of honor. Far from withering under threat of prosecution, dueling had not only endured but flourished spectacularly in the eighteenth century. During the reign of George III, from 1760 to 1820, no fewer than 172 duels would be fought, leaving sixty- nine dead and ninety- six wounded. The gradual replacement of swords by pistols in the later eighteenth century inevitably put the participants at greater risk of fatal injury. John Wilkes, the radical politician, survived a duel in 1763 only because his opponent’s bullet was deflected by a coat button. As the fashion for settling scores by combat grew, so too the perverse rules of etiquette surrounding dueling became more convoluted and rule books, such as the “Twenty- six Commandments,” published in Ireland in 1777, were produced in an attempt to guide combatants through the ritualistic maze.

Excerpted from Wedlock by Wendy Moore Copyright © 2009 by Wendy Moore. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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