The art of the insult was crucial to operating in high society. Knowing when, whom, and how to snub not only allowed you to show your dominance and climb the social ladder, but it was often a measure of self-preservation: if another person had made a social faux pas and became unpopular, not snubbing them could imply that you condoned their behavior and could jeopardize your own social standing. Snubbing was referred to as “cutting”, indicating that a social connection had been severed.
Sometimes, however, insults went too far and resulting in duels. Dueling had a strange and contradictory history in Great Britain. It had long been outlawed by the time of the silver fork genre and was therefore a punishable offense, which is why many young men went to the Continent where dueling laws were more relaxed.
Therefore, to be in a duel was simultaneously a scandalous and disreputable act, and also a way to assert one’s honor as a gentleman and conform to a large code of chivalric practice surrounding the duel.
- “When a gentlemen intends to shoot you, he refers you to his friend; when to persecute you according to the law, to his man of business” (Cecil 1:20).
- “After an immense deal of negotiation, and giving your opponent every opportunity of coming to an honourable understanding, the fatal letter is at length signed, sealed, and sent. You pass your mornings at your second’s apartments, pacing his drawing-room with a quivering lip and uncertain step . . . You have no appetite for dinner, but you are too brave not to appear at table; and you are called out after the second glass by the arrival of your solicitor, who comes to alter your will. You pass a restless night . . . You both fire and miss, and then the seconds interfere, and then you shake hands . . . The next day you are seen pacing Bond Street with an erect front and a flashing eye, with an air at once dandyish and heroical, a mixture at the same time of Brummell and the Duke of Wellington” (Vivian Grey 2:226-227).
- “my hand shook so that I could scarcely draw. But I was green then. Now, when I go . . . I wing my man in a trice; and take all the parties home to Pall Mall, to celebrate the event wit ha grilled bone, Havannahs, and Regent’s punch” (Vivian Grey 2:227-228).
- “’he divides his time between ridiculing his best friends and most intimate acquaintance, and shooting them if they are unreasonable enough to complain of him’” (Sayings and Doings, Second Series, Vol. II 69).
- “His attentions to Miss Flack at a race ball were such that her father said De Mogyns must either die on the field of honour, or become his son-in-law” (The Book of Snobs 31).
- “’don’t think of fighting the man; he is a tradesman’” (Pelham 1:83).
- “’We are the challenged, and therefore have the choice of weapons’” (Pelham 1:84)
- “a duel in France, is not like one in England; the former is a matter of course; a trifle of common occurrence; one makes an engagement to fight, in the same breath as an engagement to dine; but the latter is a thing of state and solemnity’” (Pelham 1:246).
- “Never argue . . . . If any person differ with you – bow and turn the conversation” (Contarini Fleming 1:280).
- “I believe he has fought twenty duels in his life; it is quite like eating his breakfast, a thing of course, he piques himself on having the best pistols in Europe, and best knowing how to use them” (Country Houses 2:139).
- “Marsham Purefoy had a right to choose his weapons; but on this point the usual difficulty arose. The French preferring the sword, and the English pistols. Much squabbling ensured” (The English in France 1:27).
How to Insult Women
- “Nothing in the world provokes a woman of the world more than that the man who . . . disdains the honour (that is, that he chooses to shirk the bore) of escorting her to her carriage. But to leave her alone in her glory, – to leave her, when the kindnesses lavished upon you have been the means of keeping more assiduous beaux from the field, – is an ‘ungrateful injury,’ past all forgiveness!” (Cecil 1:59-60).
- “Her husband, for the first time, was guilty of the rudeness . . . of not handing her to her carriage” (Victims of Society 177).
- “Mrs. Hornby comes into her fortune, and says to her old friends and family, “My good people, I am going to cut every one of you. You were very well as long as we were in the country, where I might have my natural likings and affections. But, henceforth, I am going to let Lady Fugleman choose my friends for me . . . I have no objection to you, but if you want to know me you must ask Lady Fugleman: if she says yes, I shall be delighted; if no, Bon jour” (Sketches and Travels in London 255).
- “The first requisite for a newly-initiated member [of high society] is, how to cut [snub] all friends and relations who are not deemed worthy of being of a certain coterie” (The Exclusives 2:136).