In The Quiet Gentleman a Georgette Heyer describes a practice sword fight
and during the bout the button is said to fall off the point (tip); a very confusing
statement since the button sits on top of the handle, doesn’t it? Where did this
odd plot twist originate? With Heyer or has it any basis in reality? It is of
particular interest as this plot device has been borrowed numerous times
in historical romances since then. Here, finally, is the truth of the matter.
The Origin - Six Inches of Steel
And the truth is – Georgette Heyer borrowed the button fell off the point idea as well! The origin of the dropped tip comes from 'Six Inches of Steel,' a Victorian short story published in Chambers’s Journal. b Here we read:
So far the sort story. Here, then, is the origin of the button falling off the tip mystery. It is, of course, fiction; not a true representation of a real practice fencing match. Several amazing feats contest to the fictitious character of the story, not the least how a young girl had the strength to break off tempered steel by her bare hands. Honing the blunt tip of a practice blade into a tip sharp as a needle isn’t much more believable. It’s not as simple as inserting the broken tip of a pencil into a sharpener, trust me.
True Character of a Button Tip
Before I found this short story and learnt that Heyer had merely borrowed the plot from elsewhere, not an uncommon practice by her, I thought it a simple misunderstanding. I still believe it a mistake, inherited from the anonymous short story writher. Blunt tipped practice foils are sometimes said to have a button point. Note that it’s the blade itself that is made with a blunt tip as opposed to fighting swords that have a sharp tip (point). Or, as Pantologia c explains it: "BUTTON, in fencing, the end or tip of a foil, which is generally rounded off, and covered with leather." This is different from today’s word usage when the small disk on top of the handle is called Button, while the rounded tip of a foil is referred to as the button-point.
Tip of an 18th century practice foil with forged button-tip
here shown without covering.
In A System Of Fencing, d MacLaren explains: “The blade of the foil, which is made of soft, pliable steel, in order that it may bend easily on encountering the adversary’s body on the thrust, is usually about 32 inches in length from point to guard. For the avoidance of danger in the practice the point is flattened into a small disk, which, for still further security, is covered with leather or gutta percha, thus forming a button, not so large as to offer any difficulty in the execution of the various movements of attack and defence, yet sufficiently so to prevent any degree of injury or discomfort.”
A foil is a practice weapon meant to teach the art without inflicting substantial injury to the opponent. As we can see both from existing prints and extant Georgian weapons, foils are thin, rounded and blunt. The equivalent deadly weapon of the duel is the rapier, which is slender and sharply pointed. Mounted on a wall they may well look similar to the uninitiated but, when held, one can not be mistaken for the other.
Heyer Twists the Button
While the anonymous author of Six Inches did his bit to mud the waters, there are of course new errors introduced into the plot by Georgette Heyer. Here are the relevant parts of her take on the fight: e
As we have seen, the button is not detachable from the blade but an integral part of it. However hard the impact, the button tip would not fall off. In Six Inches the point is deliberately tampered with to have no button end. At most the leather or rubber covering could come off, exposing the metal. Additional damage would be limited to bruising or, more probably, clothing ripping from getting caught in the imperfections of the exposed metal tip.
Angelo's Fencing Academy in Bond Street 1816
It is possible that Heyer never had a chance to finish reading the original story. The page ends with 'The button of your foil is off, mademoiselle.' The outcome, reason for the missing button etc. continues on the following page, which may well have been lost. It was after all even then a very old magazine.
The most likely source of confusion could be caused by never having seen foils in use. Sometimes sharp swords were as a safety precaution supplied with tip covers during storage. These were made of different materials, such as leather and/or metal, but at no time were these supposed to be used as protection during a fencing match. Either a match was fought with blunt tipped practice blades or regular sharp ones, not a combination of the two. Hence the plot twist with the accidental dropping of the tip protection - making one character fight with a practice foil against an opponent suddenly armed with a lethal weapon - has no basis in fact, however much it may take the author's flight of fancy.
Notes on the text:
a: The Quiet Gentleman, by Georgette Heyer, first published 1951 by William Heinemann Ltd.
b: Six Inches of Steel was published in number 269, February, 20, 1869 of Chambers’s Journal of Literature, Science and Art.
c: Pantologia. A new cyclopædia, Vol II Bar-Caz by J.M. Good, O. Gregory, and N. Bosworth et. al. First printed 1813 for G. Kearsley.
d: A System Of Fencing For The Use Of Instructors In The Army, the Introduction (p 1,2) by Archibald MacLauren (1820-1884), Adjutant-General’s Office, Horse Guards,
printed by W. Clowes & Sons, 1864. Archibald MacLaren was a pioneer within gymnastics and physical education. He left his native Edinburgh for continental Europe to
study fencing. At his return to Britain in the 1850s he set up a school to teach fencing and gymnastics - MacLaren’s Oxford Gym. MacLaren and his wife Gertrude opened
the Summer Fields school 1864, which still thrive today.
e: See note a, chapter V.