You can’t do history without doing beards. Only a few have obviously starring roles, such as the one grown by Philip II of Spain to be ‘singed’ by Francis Drake, but even the most ordinary set of whiskers can insinuate its way into the history books – like the one Thomas More laid carefully away from the executioner’s block on the grounds that it ‘had not committed treason’.
|A flammable beard An innocent beard
It doesn’t even have to work that hard at it. Beards make a difference simply by being there, and through the centuries their presence (or absence) has been used to distinguish married men from bachelors, warriors from novices, clergy from laymen, Protestant from Catholic, Royalist from Parliamentarian, Jew from Gentile, Orthodox from Dissenter, and master from slave. In different times and places beards have been taxed, forbidden, and compulsory, and even in the 19th century a mistake could be costly. In 1830 a certain Joseph Palmer offended the people of Massachusetts by sporting a full beard, and his attempts to defend himself from forcible shaving landed him in prison.
|A beard in the wrong place
However we look at it, beards matter, and their presence is the very texture of the past. This next battered print is one of my very favourite historical photographs, depicting the Master of Peterhouse greeting the Master of Trinity outside the Senate House in about 1906 – and I defy you not to see what I love about it…
|Two Learned Beards
What would this picture be without the beards? These are beards of gravitas, as important as the ‘philosopher’s beard’ of Sophocles, and they define these two gentlemen even more than the gowns of their official status.
It has always been so. The mere style of a beard could advertise one’s status and pedigree – as in Ancient Egypt, where even a woman might wear a false beard if she was of royal birth. Their very fashion is history, and the greatest legacy of some historical figures can be traced in the styling of a ‘Franz Josef’ or a ‘Vandyke’ or the ‘Imperial’ of Napoleon III. Whole studies have been devoted to the significance and variety of historical forms, from John Adey Repton’s 1835 magnum opus ‘Some Account of the Beard and the Moustachio’ to Edwardian Upton Uxbridge Underwood’s ambitious little booklet on ‘Poets Ranked by Beard Weight’. Beards are truly the stuff of history, and we ignore them at our peril.
|The Stuff of History
So why do we? When we look at historical fiction on the bookshop shelves, how come so few of the covers depict men with beards? Is there a conspiracy on the part of publishers and cover artists to whitewash the whiskers out of history, and present only images of men that appeal to popular taste?
It certainly looks like it – especially when the potential readership is predominantly female. I googled ‘Mills & Boon Historical Romances’ and was instantly dazzled by the gallery of gleaming manly jaws. Period and subject matter made no difference. Even when it came to Vikings and barbarians, there was never a beard in sight.
Perhaps it’s defensible in this particular genre. The primary function of these heroes is to be sexually attractive, and history must bow to the apparently common modern view that facial hair is acceptable only on bikers, real-ale drinkers, and sandal-wearing ‘beardy-weirdies’. Beards may have been a fact of historical life, but so were bad teeth and personal hygiene, and you won’t find many of those in a historical romance.
The action-adventure and military genres are obviously a different matter. Beards have always held special significance for soldiers and warriors, and nobody would expect writers to steer clear of them in their novels. Indeed in some areas - such as Vikings, pirates or some periods of Crusaders – the beard is all but compulsory.
|Author Robert Low being told he can't have beards on his Vikings
But there are other ways, and even if the writer says ‘beard’, cover-artists still display considerable ingenuity in their determination not to show them. Whiskers are hidden behind helmets, lost in the distance, and done away with altogether by the use of symbolic artefacts. Every effort is made to ensure no-one could possibly look at the book and think ‘ugh – a beard’.
That’s not to say we’re not allowed them at all. Beards are perfectly acceptable in supporting roles like ‘hero’s friend’, while in villains or wise old men they’re actually desirable. Comedy can take the curse off even the beard of a leading man, as we see with George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman, who regards his manly whiskers as part of his allure. In other words, we can have beards on any character we like – except someone we might aspire to imitate or go to bed with.
It seems to have always been that way. We’re brought up to expect clean-shaven heroes, and I remember being shocked to discover that the Lt Chard who commanded at Rorke’s Drift actually looked very different from the Stanley Baker who tightened his jaw through ‘Zulu’ like an advert for Gillette.
|Now you see it........ Now you don't
But maybe there’s a whiff of change in the air. When Hollywood last did Vikings we were subjected to the violently naked chin of Kirk Douglas, but the History Channel’s series ‘Vikings’ is almost as hairy as history could desire. Improbable film actors are beginning to sprout strange growths, almost as if the age of the Pretty Boy is beginning to give way to a new fashion for Manliness. If it is, I think it started with one particular man, who’s been my own saviour whenever I’ve been challenged about beards on my characters. ‘Beards?’ says my agent doubtfully. ‘Aragorn,’ I reply smugly. ‘Viggo Mortensen. Like that.’ ‘Ah,’ says my agent, visibly relieved. ‘Like that.’
That’s good, I suppose – but I still can’t help feeling it shouldn’t matter. If the next fashion dictates that all heroes should have beards, does that mean we need to stick them on Julius Caesar and Winston Churchill? Fashion now should not dictate fashion then, and all I ask is the freedom to be true to my period.
Because it matters – and sometimes it matters a lot. It couldn’t be more important than in my present book on the Crimean War, when circumstances compelled our commanders to rescind the standing orders on shaving. By January 1855 every last root had been grubbed from the ground to feed the precious fires, men lost limbs to frostbite and froze to death in their tents – and I’m supposed to have a hero so vain he’ll use lifesaving hot water to shave?
I don't think so. And not just because it matters to history, but because it mattered to the men themselves. Those beards grew from endurance of life-shattering experience, and the men who came home went on wearing them as a badge of pride. A ‘Crimean beard’ was a proof of manhood and survival, and many men wore them right up to their deaths.
Maybe it didn’t suit everyone – and maybe that’s important too. We’re not writing fashion parades, we’re after character, and the levels of it in this single photograph are probably beyond anything I could ever hope to write.
This is Colour Sergeant Timothy Gowing of the 7th Royal Fusiliers, still showing the Crimean beard he probably ought to have removed as soon as he stepped off the ship. It’s a fine beard, but even years after the war it can’t disguise the fact that the face behind it is too young for such gravitas.
Or is it? The beard is of a mature man, the face of a young one, but behind the eyes is something sadder and older than either. This is the Gowing who wrote of the Grand Sortie ‘our bayonets were bent like reaping hooks’, and when we look behind the eyes we see an experience of hell itself.
And that’s what we write, isn’t it? What’s behind the eyes? I need the beards to capture not the look, but the experience, and there’s so much of it to be learned in Crimea. How did it feel for a lifelong clean-shaven NCO to have to allow the creeping growth of something he’s been trained to regard as filthy? How did it affect the rebellious soldier who revelled in the sudden independence of doing what he liked with his own face? Did discipline suffer? As officers and men grew physically alike, did the boundaries between them start to break – and did relationships change? These are all questions for individuals, but individuals are what I write, and if I’m to go there, be there, and feel it, then I can’t exclude so huge a part of what they experienced.
And that’s the key for me. Maybe Crimea is a special case, but whenever we write men then beards have to be part of it - if only because they have to be shaved. Ignore them, and we’re writing women in breeches. I use them constantly in the Chevalier series, and found they gave me another layer every time. I even liked the minor character of Thibault in ‘Honour and the Sword’, because I could show both his youth and his vanity in his concern for how his whiskers would turn out – then give the reader an extra stab at his death by recalling the weedy little bristles that would never now grow into anything at all.
Tiny things sometimes. The disgusting nature of one character from the things caught in his beard, the vanity of another from the way he shaves his sideburns, the sound of a man’s hand playing with the little bristles that line his jaw. I grappled for ages with a scene where a man meets the beloved brother he thought was dead – until I remembered the physical reality of what would have happened in their year of separation and knew what he had to say. Nothing emotional, nothing embarrassing, he says ‘That’s a bloody terrible beard,’ and I’m in.
‘In’. That’s where we want to be, and why we shouldn’t be bothered by what our characters look like to outsiders. I don’t mind too much what cover artists do (and for the next book I’m steeled to expect a back view of men in the trenches) as long as I can do what I do within the pages. And sometimes, just sometimes, I'm afraid that’s going to mean beards.
Thanks to Dr Jeff Meek for the recommendation to John Repton's book
At 7.30pm tonight A L Berridge will be at the Old Bell in Finedon with J.D. Davies - discussing warriors and possibly their beards.
Meanwhile her disappointingly hairless website is still here.