Untold lives blog

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09 February 2012

Dickens grows a beard

Dickens’ trademark ‘door knocker’ beard didn’t appear until he was in his 40s, but clues from his correspondence suggest he took to the cultivation of facial hair in earnest and in doing so was truly a man of his time.

Charles Dickens Charles Dickens from John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens  © The British Library Board  Images Online

The 1850’s saw the advent of the ‘beard movement’. The Victorians believed that manliness was directly linked to facial hair. Beards promoted impassivity, health and epitomised the successful and distinguished Victorian male. Household Words, a periodical edited by Dickens even ran an article entitled ‘Why shave’ – a veritable declaration of the rights of all men to shun the razor.

Dickens first began to experiment with facial hair around 1844 – with the addition of a moustache. He can be heard praising it in a letter to his friend Daniel Maclise: "The moustaches are glorious, glorious. I have cut them shorter, and trimmed them a little at the ends to improve their shape. They are charming, charming. Without them, life would be a blank".

In 1844 he can be found expressing his dismay in a letter to his wife Catherine that his brother Fred had grown a moustache: “He has a moustache … I feel (as the Stage Villains say) that either he or I must fall. Earth will not hold us both.”

A few years later in 1853 Dickens (sporting moustache and ‘Newgate Fringe’ (hair under the chin) was travelling in Italy with Wilkie Collins and Augustus Egg who, in the spirit of competition were both attempting to cultivate facial hair: “Collins’s moustache is gradually developing … He smooths it down over his mouth, in imitation of the present great Original …” Dickens compares Egg’s to those of the Witches in Macbeth and expresses chagrin that his valet has also begun to grow one.

Dickens’ friend John Forster took especial issue with the new moustache and called for a portrait of the author which he’d had commissioned to be delayed because of the ‘hideous disfigurement’. He mistakenly assumed it was a mere passing fancy on Dickens’ part but, as portraits from the time suggest, it was a stepping stone to greater things; the moustache foreshadowed the beard.

When friends expressed concern that it aged him, and disguised his precious expressions, Dickens responded that "the beard saved him the trouble of shaving, and much as he admired his own appearance before he allowed his beard to grow, he admired it much more now, and never neglected, when an opportunity offered, to gaze his fill at himself”.  He also joked that some people liked it because it meant they saw less of him.

By 1858 Forster had accepted that the beard was there to stay and quickly re-commissioned the portrait before the author’s face became covered entirely by hair.

Andrea Lloyd
Curator, Printed Literary Sources 1801-1914

Further reading:

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens (London: Chapman & Hall, 1872-74) [010854.e.22.]

Letters of Charles Dickens to his wife Catherine, née Hogarth [BL Add MS 43689]

House, Madeline & Storey, Graham (eds.). The letters of Charles Dickens (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965-2002) [X.0900/46]

‘Why Shave?’ in Household Words (15th August 1853, v.7, pp.560-563) [P.P.6004.g. and now also free to access online]


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