Last year I made up a list of my top hair cutting moments in literature and shared some rather glib conclusions about the significance of hair cuts for heroines (you can see the post here). I’ve been feeling mildly guilty about the gender inequality my list displayed; men do have hair-styling moments in books, I’m afraid I just seem to pay less attention to them. I’ve been trying to redress the fault though, and reading ‘Trouble on the Thames’ I was struck by the 1940s obsession with grooming. No designer stubble for these gentlemen, following an over-night adventure (without pausing for a shave) the hero is aware that he looks ‘revolting’. Fortunately after a few minutes with a safety razor ‘his appearance was so improved that Ruth raised her eyebrows. “What have you been doing to yourself?” She exclaimed. “Why, I hardly recognised you.” It’s not just classic thrillers though, for centuries, plots have turned on men’s hair styling and it’s only fair to mention a few of the highlights.
Probably the most famous hair cutting scene ever written. Ruben’s painting (from London’s National Gallery) shows Sampson and Delila just before the Philistines rush in. In this story, hair symbolises strength and the seductive Delila is not above rendering her lover impotent in exchange for huge amounts of cash from his enemies. You can read the whole story in the biblical book of Judges (chapters 13-16) where Delila is cunning and Sampson is unbelievably stupid. It’s a really a bad idea to give away the secret of your superhuman strength, especially as the hair is only going to grow back very very slowly. Poor Sampson is brought low through love, and it just goes to show that you can never take hair-styling too seriously.
Chronologically out of sequence, but thematically in the right place, thank you to Madame Bibilophile for recommending this most tragic of haircuts. Lewis was of course telling the story of Christianity through his wonderful Narnia novel, and so brought a wealth of biblical allusion to his fantasy world. Unlike the comedy touches that can be found in Sampson’s story though, Aslan’s humiliation as he symbolically loses his mane before being sacrificed is heart-rending. I’m not going to quote the section, because it really is just too sad, but if you want to remember how it feels to be completely in love with a fictional character then I really recommend re-reading this part of ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.’ It is impossible not to be moved by Aslan’s suffering and humility and it shows how the best children’s literature can deal with themes of love and loss as well as, if not better, than writing for adults.
For a much less serious hair cut, Jane Austen, with a clergy-man for a father, would have been well aware of the story of Sampson and clearly decided such symbolism had no place in her fictional world. Instead, when Frank Churchill leaves his friends and family to go to a London barber, it takes all his charm and savoir-faire to regain respect. Even the usually admiring Emma reflects: ‘There was certainly no harm in his travelling sixteen miles twice over on such an errand; but there was an air of foppery and nonsense in it which she could not approve.‘ As lovers of the novel will know, the haircut is actually a significant event, the understanding of which will show the reader where each characters’ affections truly lie. ‘Emma’ contains one of the great unacknowledged mystery stories in literature and it’s great to know that a major clue is hidden in a character’s unexpected decision to have a haircut!
There are loads of Dickens novels with great hair scenes, and I very nearly included the wonderful moment in ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ when the juvenile Mr Bailey has a shave, but I’m going to have to go with the brilliantly hideous Patriarch of ‘Little Dorrit’. This man is the cruellest of landlords and gets away with everything because he looks so biblically impressive. That is, until the put-upon Pancks “whipped out a pair of shears, swooped upon the Patriarch behind, and snipped off short the sacred locks that flowed upon his shoulders …Before the frightful results of this desperate action, Mr Pancks himself recoiled in consternation. A bare-polled, goggle-eyed, big-headed lumbering personage stood staring at him, not in the least impressive, not in the least venerable.” It’s a minor scene in the novel, but a major triumph in the world of dramatic literary haircuts.
E. F. Benson’s Queen Lucia made this list when I was writing about women’s haircuts, but her right-hand-man Georgie Pilson deserves his own mention if we’re talking about hair styles. Poor Georgie is, by vocation, a young man, and it’s a terrible shame that male pattern baldness insists on intruding into his happy fantasy of eternal youth. Throughout the Lucia novels he experiments with chemical mixtures and toupees, but I will always love him best when his hair-styling is at its least elaborate, such as when disturbed at night by ominous noises downstairs: ‘Naturally Georgie had not put his hair in order when he came downstairs for nobody thinks about things like that when he is going to encounter burglars single-handed, and there was his bald pate, and his long tresses hanging down one side …Georgie rose gallantly to the occasion, gave a little squeal and ran from the room.’
In my mind, male hair-styling then disappears from literature for decades. The next reference that I can think of is from 1997, but it does combine the bullying, humour and dramatic irony of its distinguished tradition. In the first Harry Potter novel, the orphaned Harry’s hair is a discussion point for much of the second chapter. We’re told that ‘about once a week, Uncle Vernon looked over the top of his newspaper and shouted that Harry needed a haircut. Harry must have had more haircuts than the rest of the boys in his class put together … Once, Aunt Petunia, tired of Harry coming back from the barber’s looking as though he hadn’t been at all, had taken a pair of kitchen scissors and cut his hair so short he was almost bald except for his fringe, which she left ‘to hide that horrible scar’ … next morning however, he had got up to find his hair exactly as it had been before Aunt Petunia had sheared it off.’ All very curious and dramatic!
Sadly, most modern male fictional characters don’t seem to bother with hair much. With an honourable mention going to the dreadlocks in Marlon James’s ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ I’m hard put to think of any modern adult novels that take the time to let their characters shave, style or visit a barber. Overall, unless you’re going Biblical, it seems literature hasn’t got much respect for men’s coiffures. Such indulgences show ‘foppery’ and ‘nonsense’ either on behalf of the cutters or cuttees. I suppose gentlemen spies must be my exception, or maybe it has something to do with the ‘safety razor’ and the fact that Bradwell doesn’t have anyone wielding blades near his neck or head. Either way, I’m paying special attention to male hair-styling in books from now on and it’s adding an enjoyable new focus to my reading. I am aware though that this is a new area of interest for me, so I’m sure to have missed out many classic moments. Please let me know of the books I should add to the list!