The physical attributes of historical romance heroes bear more similarity to male beauty standards of not only the decades in which they were written, but the author’s personal preferences. Then we have the covers, where the male models are sculpted, tanned, and chiseled–and manscaped within an inch of their lives. I recall seeing a few covers where the male model had chest hair, but I’ve never seen one with hair under their armpits or on their arms!
Readers also bring their own preferences to the table, which is possibly why the Regency setting is so popular: no facial hair, no heels, powder, and velvet, or anything else that *gasp* threatens to strip the hero of his masculinity (this is an issue for another day!). It’s also probably why publishers say blonde and red-haired men on covers don’t sell. Nevertheless, there’s been a small backlash, so to speak, against the ubiquitous of the Regency in the historical romance genre, and a few authors have braved their way into the Victorian era. Yay!, except for the fact that these 1840s, 1860s, 1880s heroes lack the key component to superb Victorian masculinity: the mustache (and beard).
There’s an old saying that “kissing a man without a mustache is like eating an egg without salt,” and in Anne Sebba’s biography of Jennie Jerome, there are hints that a sign of male virility was attached to the *ahem* size of his mustache. This thread on Paradox Interactive also assigns political meaning to the existence of facial hair (e.g.,”the typical bushy Marx-esque beard tended to be associated with political radicalism prior to the mid-century”; “growing a moustache and large sideburns was a fad of the pro-war with Russia people pre-Crimea. They also wore outlandishly coloured shirts with odd patterns.”). According to the Daily Mail, the mustache rose in status with the Empire–its crown jewel India in particular, since the highest and warrior castes sported fierce facial hair, and to assert themselves as the superior race, British gentlemen grew mustaches and beards just as fierce. “By the 1890s, the moustache was the mark of every successful dandy. As far away as Hong Kong, it was said to be social death for a man to forget to curl the ends of his moustache. At home, Edwardian gentlemen rebuked servants who aped the ‘fancy hairdressing’ of their betters.” To cement this source of social preeminence in stone, the Queen/King’s Army regulations made it compulsory for officers in the British army to grow a mustache between 1860-1916.
From Today I Found Out:
Command No. 1,695 of the King’s Regulations read:
The hair of the head will be kept short. The chin and the under lip will be shaved, but not the upper lip…
“Although the act of shaving one’s upper lip was trivial in itself, it was considered a breach of discipline. If a soldier were to do this, he faced disciplinary action by his commanding officer which could include imprisonment, an especially unsavory prospect in the Victorian era.”
“Poignantly, that edict was revoked in October 1916, because the new recruits were so young that some could not rustle up more than a thin, mousey streak.” — The Telegraph
Knowing this, I chose to give my hero a mustache despite its seeming unpopularity within the romance genre. For the most part, I did not have a fixed image of Huw Towyn (hero of Mine Is The Night) until being wowed by Matthew Goode’s performance in Dancing on The Edge. It was truly a light bulb moment, and the funniest part is that I had this image of Matthew Goode in WWI uniform and drove myself crazy wondering where it came from until I remembered that he was in Birdsong! Light bulb moment followed by a dim bulb.
Ignore the following picture if you’re one of those readers who hates authors fixing their characters to real people 😉
So what do you think? Should more Victorian heroes have mustaches and beards? If you read a romance where the hero was described as having a mustache, would you recoil in disgust? What does the popularity of buffed and polished romances heroes–in spite of our own real life preferences, or even the physical appearance of our past or present SOs–say about us? (sorry, sorry, I know I said it was a topic for another day…but I couldn’t resist!)