At 10.30am on 26 March 1822, a duel took place in Fife between James Stuart of Dunearn and Sir Alexander Boswell, prominent citizens and political opponents. It was the third-last duel to be fought in Scotland, and left Boswell dying of a gunshot wound and Stuart fleeing to France. "Duel Personalities: James Stuart versus Sir Alexander Boswell" by John Chalmers is an in-depth exploration of the duel, its causes and its consequences. It also examines the impact the duel had on Scotland and Britain more widely, and on the circle of prominent men who were, in one way or another, involved in the events leading up the duel, in the duel itself, and in its aftermath.
"Microhistory" seems to be something of a buzz-word these days. It is used to describe the "intensive historical investigation of a well defined smaller unit of research", usually a single event, or a small group of people or a family or individual. An important feature of microhistory, however, is that it uses the tight focus of a historical investigation to ask "large questions in small places", and draw much wider lessons and conclusions from the particular subject being studied. "Duel Personalities" is a perfect example of microhistory at its best. The singular event at its core is extremely well defined, and John Chalmers' exploration of how the duel came about and what happened as a result of it successfully illuminates many aspects of Scottish and British society at the time, especially the deep political divisions then prevalent, the role of the press and the legal profession, and the concept of honour.
The seemingly exhaustive depth of research underpinning "Duel Personalities" proves John Chalmers to be a skilled and determined historian. The book itself also proves that he is an excellent communicator. The extensive footnotes are left to the end of each chapter, and it is possible simply to read the book as an extremely well organised, well presented and well written account of an event that is genuinely interesting and engaging. Stuart is appalled by the seriousness of the wound he has inflicted on Boswell and his comment after the duel: "If I had taken aim I am certain that I would have missed him" could have come from the pen of a good novelist. But then truth is often stranger than fiction, and some of the twists and turns in this story are only credible because we know the events described actually happened.