Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Is This Man a Romance Hero?

I found this photo stuck in an old novel that had been in the basement of a neighbor. My neighbor’s late wife of half a century had gotten the book at a yard sale, he thought. But who was this youngish man in the photo? A family member? A stranger? He’s well dressed, in a three-piece suit and a high collar. I’m not an expert on dress, but I’d guess from his hair parted in the middle that we’re talking sometime before 1935. A costume expert would know for sure.

And was he young? Was he a “college man,” as they used to call them, home for the holidays, but nicely dressed because it was Thanksgiving? And because people did dress more formally eighty years ago? It’s an informal shot of a formally dressed man. He has some creases in his face, but I’m not sure if they indicate age, or merely that he has a thin, long face. He’s standing in front of a rock wall, and there might be a scarf hanging on a bare bush next to him. Or it might be part of a fence. His suit looks to be thick wool. Was he an accountant, a banker, an attorney?

I took the photo back to the neighbor, and his elderly sister thought it might be “Frank.” A cousin, or brother, or something. So I gave them back the photo. But I had already been captivated by this image from so long ago.

I’ve been captivated by images before, and in fact that’s a key plot event in many romances, especially in time travel, Gothic, and ghost stories. The heroine sees a portrait or a photograph of a person, and begins to wonder about the person and weave stories. And then investigate the person. And next thing you know, she travels back in time and has a romance with that handsome man in the portrait! Often in such stories, the portraits take on different aspects depending on the time of day, or upon some sort of ghostly possession of them. The eyes follow the heroine. The expression changes. Even the background alters.

But having seen many portraits of well-known kings, queens, and courtiers, I am not so sure that portraiture in real life is accurate. People who commission paintings of themselves usually insist on being made ideal. Their figure faults and facial flaws are obliterated. In an era when many people were pock marked, for instance, seldom are marks seen in portraits. And was George Washington really as well muscled as the painters portray him?

We’re so lucky to have photography now. We can see what a person looked like for real. Or is this true? Images can be manipulated by a skilled photographer even without air brushing and the myriad of computer retouching techniques. Just with the pose and the available light. So there’s a possibility that this man, who looks so seriously at the camera, was actually a fun-loving fellow who seldom was seen without a smile. Only this time, he was. We have all experienced instances of looking strange to ourselves in photos. It’s not so much the shock and denial of “Do I really look like that?” It’s more that the camera has created an image of us that we ordinarily do not project. A dark-haired baby can look blond. A doofus of a guy can look intelligent. With careful lighting, a person with a round head can appear to have a long head. Check out this early photo of Phil Collins, who despite the rock star treatment, persistently looks like a typical working class Brit with whom you’d raise a glass of ale in a pub anytime. But there was an effort to pretend he fit the skinny-faced mold of the typical rock star. When Garth Brooks had his flirtation with rock music, he did the same thing, trying to hide his full face half in shadows, so he would have the same familiar look of the alt rocker.

It’s the same with height. The heroic paradigm is to be tall. And you will find that in most romances, the hero is the tallest person in the book. If he is not described as very tall, but is specifically said to be of average height, then no one else is described as taller than he is. And forget a hero who is short. I’ve yet to run across a single one.

As for baldness, although I remember having a conversation with a romance writer who was pro baldness, I can’t offhand think of a single romance hero who is balding. Maybe today he’d have a shaved head. But no already-receded hairlines. It’s a hero thing. And it’s ironic, since baldness has to do with testosterone levels as well as with genetics.

So the typical romance hero is tall, dark, and with a long face. Is my mystery man a romance hero? Hopefully he was to some woman.
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