We Don't Need Another Hero - Debbie Bennett

But we do need our heroes.

I’m not ashamed to admit this will be a trashy post. A soap-post in a world of documentaries. Pulp fiction in a sea of great literary classics. What on earth am I talking about?

Heroes. Preferably the dark and brooding ones. Think Heathcliff or Mellors. The bad-boys we love to hate – or hate to love. Or even Mr Darcy – and now I’m struggling to think of a romantic hero we all know and love, as romance just isn’t something I read much.

But really this post is just an excuse for us girlies to consider and discuss the abundance of hot men on television. And I’m talking Aidan Turner and Luke Pasqualino here. When you think about it, Ross Poldark – if he was a real person – would have been some pox-ridden, lice-infested, smelly bloke with a chip on his shoulder. Nobody in the late 18th century would have been particularly hygienic, even in the upper-class (why do you think the Georgian era country houses had wooden panelling on the walls?). But we have the delightful Turner with his cute scar and artfully-styled bed-head look. Who cares if he apparently can’t hold a scythe correctly? I certainly don’t.

And the Musketeers. 17th century Paris. Our D’Artagnan comes from poor farming stock; he’d be some big sweaty young boy – again with a chip on his shoulder – trying to prove he’s as hard as the rest of the guys. All that leather is hard to keep fresh, you know?

Game of Thrones is at least a little more realistic. OK, so we’re in fantasy land here, but we’re pre-industrial, yet most of the characters are more-or-less clean most of the time. But the producers aren’t afraid to show the main characters wallowing in filth when the need arises. War is a dirty business.

But generally, translate a book to television and the viewers don’t want reality. Not on a Sunday night. They want the sanitised version, the cleaned-up, deodorised and touched-up version. The down-and-dirty realism wouldn’t look half as good on screen – at least not for our heroes. We can let the extras wander around in rags, but out heroes need to be … well, sexy, really. Because if they’re not sexy, the viewers won’t be back next week, will they? Not the women, anyway.

Teeth. Nobody talks about teeth in books. On-screen, how do you account for the fact that there weren’t any proper dentists and toothbrushes were far from common, and yet the heroes (and heroines) all have good teeth. Suddenly, kissing the hero loses a lot of its appeal, when you think oral hygiene was a concept as yet unheard of. In the 18th century, many upper-class nobles were sewn into their clothes, so daily washing wasn’t really an option either. But we don’t want to see all that filth on television.

In a historical novel, does anyone ever mention any of this? Or is it left to the imagination? On the screen, it’s glossed over, air-brushed out in the make-up department. Because, let’s face it, we wouldn’t watch it if it was realistic, would we? We like our heroes to be perfect – even the bad-boys. And what am I going to do with my Sundays, now Poldark has finished?

Here you go, girls....


GREAT post and it's been much on my mind! We clearly have the same taste in swarthy heroes. I can see Aidan as Finn in Bird of Passage, Luke as Piotro in The Amber Heart ... and this is after the fact of writing these rather than before. Spent a happy half hour last night posting pictures on a Pinterest Board labelled 'Heroes'. Mind you, 18th Century heroes would have at least tried to keep their linen clean. It's one of the reasons why Poldark might have taken his good linen shirt off to do his scything. Gentlemen, even fairly impoverished ones, and tenant farmers too had as many shirts and other pieces of underwear as possible and kept them reasonably clean. A curator of textiles once showed a group from the SoA an eighteenth century linen shirt - sexiest garment we had ever seen. You didn't need to be very rich to possess quite a bit of home made linen and at least try to keep it clean to avoid the bugs. Last night's BBC TV documentary about a Victorian coaching inn was splendidly dirty. Much dirtier than any drama I've seen! Leather though - that's another matter. As any hockey mom will tell you, and I was one for a few years, there is nothing quite like the pong of leather hockey gloves after the players have sweated on them for a bit. Unbelievably ripe. And you can't wash them ... The real musketeers must have smelled awful. Thanks so much for this post - quite cheered me up.
Jan Needle said…
When I first started writing historical naval fiction - from a large armoury of nerdy knowledge and an innate disbelief in the Hornblower myth of fighting manhood, I decided to dirty it down for the men, and then the women (largely ignored by the genre, except as fine-wife material and the odd suffering maid forded into (un)easy virtuedom.) Emma Hart rose to fame as Lady Hamilton by way of sub-teen whoredom, and apparently was once offered a few bob to have her teeth torn out and re-implanted in a lady's waiting jaw. Nice times.

The books, to be fair, have attracted a pretty respectable following, but with lots of letters from people who thought I was being gratuitously realistic (fine concept, that.) So much so that after four, I never got to write the final one.

Now, thanks to the ebook world, I will be rounding off the story of William Bentley and his Deborah, at last. He started life as A Fine Boy for Killing, but I'm not even tempted to have either him or Deb go topless among the shifting shoals of the American Sea Islands. If life on land was dirty in those days, just imagine countless hundreds of men cooped up in a warship in the tropics...
Jan Needle said…
The word is forced, not forded, obviously. And talking of ebooks, A Fine Boy Will be out with Endeavour very soon.
Lydia Bennet said…
Debbie really, what a filthy post! And all the better for it. Hard to be sure exactly what hygiene was like - eg if you live and work mainly outdoors, you don't get smelly sweaty in the same way we would now. There was a vast deal less sugar in the diets of many, so teeth might well have looked good. Even when I was a bairn, it was normal to have one bath per week, ditto hair wash. generation before, ditto, but one bath for entire family one at a time. yet kids didn't have all these allergies and stuff so many do now. In the past, I suppose you either died young or had immunity and were tough as nails.
Nick Green said…
Lydia's right, teeth in ye olden days would probably have been pretty good, albeit not brilliant white and occasionally crooked. Not only was sugar a rarity, but chewing lots of unrefined, fibrous food can serve as a natural toothbrush (in the same way that cats who eat mice have better teeth than those who don't... it's the fur!).

What amazes me is that if you look at societies today that would appear to have borderline 'medieval' standards of hygiene, you still see women dressed in dazzling bright colours that look straight out of an Ariel commercial. I mean, how?

Maybe the Dark Ages weren't so grubby after all.
Kathleen Jones said…
Thank you for making me smile on a wet and windy day here in the north, Debbie!
I like my heroes straight out of the shower ......
julia jones said…
And I thought you'd be writing about the General Election! Great post, thanks
Susan Price said…
General Election? What General Election? - My slap-dash research turned up the fact that people chewed hazel twigs to clean their teeth.
Leela Soma said…
A laugh out loud blogpost Debbie, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I believe it was arriving in India and watching the Brahmins taking a ritual bath( sun salutationas everyone who has done yoga knows) that taking a bath was introduced to British upper classes. Must check on this for historical accuracy!

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