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Fencing Regency Romance Style

The Button Fell Off The Point Mystery

In The Quiet Gentleman a Georgette Heyer describes a practice sword fight.
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:

'Take off your mask: we need not always play like children, monsieur.'

I threw it off into the corner of the room, and we began. I was quite cool; she, evidently under the influence of some strong passion, with amazing energy. Therefore she lunged at me with all her force and skill, and I felt once, as the point of her foil glided down mine, that though the leather was there, the button at the end was gone.

'The button of your foil is off, mademoiselle.'

'I know it, monsieur; I have taken it off. Now, monsieur, you shall be married in a month, but not as you are. It is your fair, false face she loves; but it shall not be fair: she shall find marks on it that will change it! It shall not be the face that I know so well that shall be hers to caress! No, no.'

'But Julie'-

'Be guarded, monsieur; the foil has no button. I doubt if you shall live a month.’

And she attacked me with a fury that made me need every artifice she had taught me to ward off her thrusts. At last, it came carte over the arm; I parried badly, and the pointed blade ripped up my arm from wrist to shoulder.

The moment she saw the blood, she threw away the foil, and rushed towards me. I sank on to the couch fainting from loss of blood, with just strength enough to say: 'Break off the point, Julie dear,' and then swooned.

When I came to, my arm was bound up, and I heard her sob as I lay with my mind awake but my body motionless: 'Oh, my Arthur! My love! I have killed you! I have killed you, for whom I would have died! Oh, wretch that I am, he will die – he will die!'

maid fencing with gentleman

She laid her face on my breast, and shook me with her sobs. 'Don't cry, Julie, don't cry; it was an accident, I know, and' –

'No – you will live – you must live to forgive me. It was not an accident – I meant to kill you, wretch that I am!'

I could only say: 'Don't cry, Julie, dear. What do they say? Where is the point? Give it me.'

She gave me the broken-off part of the foil. I saw it had been rubbed on some stone till it was as sharp as a needle.

When M. de Bonheur returned, be brought with him his visitor, who by good fortune happened to be an old comrade of his.

'Well, are you better now? How did it happen?'

'The point of the foil broke off, and the edge took me on the wrist as I lunged.'

'Bah! – Julie, you must have guarded very badly to do that. Where is the foil? – Yes; I see the point is broken off. Where is the point?'

'It must be about the room.'

The visitor looked at Julie, and said: 'It does not matter; it can be found by and by, when this gentleman has gone. He will be strong enough in an hour to go – meanwhile, let him rest a little; Julie can take care of him.'

'Ah, Julie, but it was an awkward guard of yours, and the foil too must have been bad; I shall have to complain to the maker.'

So far the short 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.

forged button-tip of a foil
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.”

Note that the tip is blunted by the forger NOT by the leather covering. The cover is only there to further soften the impact and not to save the fencer from a fatal injury.

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

‘Then chose a foil and see what you can achieve with it… Gently! Don’t draw the blade through my hand!’ Gervase said, allowing him to take the foil he had chosen.

(The fight begins and then)
He closed the Earl’s blade, and on the instant saw that the button had become detached from his point. Gervase saw it too, and quickly retired his left foot, to get out of distance.

'Take care!' he said sharply.

(After the fight)
'Gervase, what happened?' Theo said. 'How came Martin to be fencing with a naked point?'

'Oh, he tried to cross my blade, but since I am rather too old a hand to be caught by such a trick as that, it was his sword, not mine that was lost,’ Gervase said lightly. ‘The button was loosened, I daresay, by the fall.'

cover of A Quiet Gentleman

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 1816
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.

Clearly she imagined a practice foil in the form of a rapier with some kind of detachable tip protection. That Heyer was thinking along the lines of a rapier with its sharpened two-edged blade is rather obvious from Gervase's initial comment. A rapier could indeed do serious damage merely if handled carelessly, contrary to a foil and its rounded edges.

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.

foil with covered button-tip

Next: Prince of Pleasure

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.


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