The existential issue facing men in 1850s and 1860s Victorian Britain was the beard question: to have one or not. The fad arose for practical reasons among British soldiers in Crimea, where it turned bitterly cold during the winter: a beard worked as nature’s scarf, and on their return many veterans chose to keep theirs.

Then, as now, civilians secretly envied soldiers. Where before beards had been associated with radicalism and anarchic French- or Irishmen, they now signaled decisiveness and manly vigor. Not having one suggested effeminacy and all manner of moral depravity.

The need to appear manly was more keenly felt by people in desk jobs, including churchmen and intellectuals. According to the Victorian critic T. C. Sandars, the kind of “muscular Christian” found in Charles Kingsley’s novels was able...


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