by Barbara Holland
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In Gentlemanís Blood, Barbara Holland provides an interesting, although flawed, examination of dueling through the ages. Beginning with Medieval tourneys, she follows the activityís progression through Europe and the United States until the twentieth century, noting that as recently as 2002, one of the vice-presidents of Iraq challenged George Bush and Dick Cheney to a duel.
Although Holland includes a bibliography, her lack of footnotes does raise questions. In the first chapter, she describes the winnerís privileges in a medieval tourney (p.12), yet there is no specific incident cited which may cause the reader to wonder at the veracity of her claim. A footnote would go a long way to helping the reader determine Hollandís reliability.
Because of her lack of documentation, many of the events she relates come across as anecdotal. In some cases, her assertions are flat out wrong, such as her statement that British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was Jewish. In fact, his father had been Jewish and converted before Disraeliís birth. While a minor point, and not directly related to the main topic of her book, it raises questions about the accuracy of Hollandís other comments. Similarly, she appears to deny Thomas Jeffersonís relationship with Sally Hemmings.
She frequently speculates on matters and often as not fails to note the speculative nature of her comments. The way in which these speculations are inserted in the text means that a reader who is reading the book in a non-critical manner, as the bookís writing style encourages, is likely to read Hollandís speculations as fact rather than opinion.
The society Holland postulates, from the Medieval period through the nineteenth century, appears to be one in which duels are of such primary importance that the reader wonders how anyone managed to do anything besides duel. However, it is also reasonably clear that Holland is only describing a certain strata of society and further that her focus on duels precludes the vast range of societal behavior during the period she covers.
The bookís type-setting is also problematic, mostly because someone apparently conducted a universal search and replace that resulted in all final apostrophes (such as those after a plural possessive) to be replaced by a double closed quotes. Not Hollandís fault, but it does detract from the bookís readability.While the relatively minor errors in the book call into question the reliability of the work as a whole, Hollandís writing is engrossing and anyone who approaches the book with a reasonable amount of skepticism will be able to glean a strong understanding of duels and the society from which they sprang. Gentlemenís Blood is an interesting and engaging account of a practice which is often enveloped in a sense of the romantic, a sense which Holland attempts to both dispel and embrace with varying degrees of success.
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