Friday, February 22, 2013

Critiquing the portrayal of disability in romance

While researching the portrayal of disability in romance fiction for my last post, I came across Emily M. Baldys's intriguing 2012 article, "Disabled Sexuality, Incorporated: The Compulsions of Popular Romance."* Noting that people with disabilities have often "struggled to be recognized as sexual beings" (125), Baldys finds the prevalence of disabled heroes and heroines in romance fiction worthy of study. In particular, she wonders if, or how, such novels "revise or channel oppressive attitudes" towards the disabled and their sexuality.

To answer her question, she analyzes five romances that feature cognitively disabled protagonists: Colleen McCullough's Tim (1979); Billie Green's A Special Man (1986); Peggy Webb's A Prince for Jenny (1993); Pamela Morsi's Simple Jess (1996); and Jennifer Ashley's The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie (2009). Ultimately, she suggests that such novels are not as progressive as they first appear; though they grant their cognitively disabled protagonists sexual subjectivity and agency, they "strictly limit the kinds of (heterosexual, marriage-oriented) romantic options available to disabled characters" and "showcase ableist commonalities" in order to "downplay, reinscribe, and rehabilitate disability" (130).

I've not read the first four books that Baldys discusses, but I have read the the most recent title, the Victorian historical romance The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie. And my memories of it did not at all square with Baldys's critique. So I decided to reread the book, to see which I found more credible, Baldys' argument or my own recollections. Readers who haven't yet read Ashley's book (and I'd recommend it, highly) might want to stop here, as spoilers abound below.

Baldys raises four major objections to the portrayal of the disabled. The first three focus on the way "romances featuring characters with impaired minds compensate by assigning an increased aesthetic, erotic, and metaphoric significance to physical bodies" (130). These arguments lose much of their persuasiveness, however, when one considers the fact that they can be applied not only to books with disabled characters, but to the majority of romance novels published before 1990. If writers are following genre conventions, rather than conventions specific to romances with disabled characters, then it seems redundant to critique these specific novels rather than the genre as a whole.

Even if this were not the case, the first three objections Baldys raises do not apply to Ashley's Lord Ian. Significantly, Baldys only quotes from Lord Ian once, and in an unconvincing manner, to support these claims, although her evidence from the other books is persuasive. These differences suggest that the portrayal of disability in romance may have changed in important ways over the thirty-year span the works she analyzes cover.

Baldys's first claim is romance authors are able to make disabled heroes and heroines viable objects of sexual desire by focusing first on their bodies, rather than their minds, bodies which appear whole and normal. "The novels' narrators, as though offering preemptive compensation, emphasize the disabled characters' physical charms before their disabilities are revealed, so that, in most of the novels both readers' and characters' first impressions are of physical wholeness and attractiveness" (130). This is certainly not the case in Lord Ian. The book's title openly proclaims the hero's "madness," while its opening chapter includes no physical description. Told through Ian's point of view, the scene reveals not only his unusual behavior, but the different way he thinks about and responds to the world around him. Contemporary readers generally read his behavior as stemming from Asperger's Syndrome, but in 1881 England, the condition would have more likely been thought a form of lunacy. Ian's cognitive differences, rather than his physical "wholeness," is what is emphasized here.

Baldys also points to the "blatantly hyperbolic language" typically used to describe disabled bodies in these novels (130).  Well, yes, romance heroes in general are often presented in such language; Beth, Ian's heroine, thinks he "had the body of a god" (Ashley 150). But for Beth, Ian's attractiveness lies not only in a "normal" attractive body. During their first meeting, although "her entire world stopped" at the sight of him, Beth finds herself intrigued not only by Ian's looks, but also by his behavior: his restlessness; the way his eyes can't quite meet hers, or anyone else's; his abrupt announcement that he wants to bed her, and will marry her in order to do so. Older romances may have relied on the normalizing power of an attractive body to undercut readers' potential negative reaction to a cognitively-disabled protagonist, but Ashley's novel does not.

Lord Ian also does not follow the pattern of Baldys's second objection: the way "sexual desire and activity are used to interpellate the disabled characters as 'men' and 'women'" (131). Ian does not become a "man" when he consummates his desire for Beth; Ian is already sexually experienced before he ever meets Beth. And their sexual joining is not portrayed as "natural, organic, or instinctual, arising from the essential 'rightness' of heterosexual relations," as Baldys' argues occurs in the other novels.

Baldys cites from Lord Ian to provide evidence for her third objection, the way these novels deploy metaphors of able-bodied lovers incorporating the disabled into themselves. Such metaphors are not just an allegorizing of of sex, she suggests, but also work to contain the threat disability poses to compulsory heterosexuality; "incorporation works to discipline and restrain disability by representing its threat as safely contained within normality" (133). The quote she cites from Ashley's novel seems to support this interpretation:" [Ian] hungrily took her mouth, wanting to pull her inside him, or himself inside her. If he could be part of her, everything would be all right. He would be well. The horror he kept secret would go away" (Ashley 214).

Yet Baldys does not provide the context for this quote, a context which undermines her interpretation. Ian's hope that by being "pulled inside" he'd be "well" is not a wish for his cognitive differences to disappear. It is a wish that the "horror" he has kept secret for five years (that he believes his brother committed a murder) would disappear. His desire to be "well" is a desire to escape the pain of the nightmares that his remembrance of that secret bring on.

Even if Ian had been wishing to rid himself of his cognitive disabilities, though, the text that immediately follows this inner monologue suggests that it is a misguided one, and that Ian knows it is misguided: "Except he knew it wouldn't" (Ashley 214). Ian knows that striving to achieve normality through sex with his able-bodied wife cannot accomplish the impossible: it cannot change the events of the past, nor the present reality of his mental state.

Older texts typically cure or kill off disabled characters, in order to remove their threat of deviance. But this "narrative impulse to reduce and erase disability" does not work in the genre of romance, where happy endings are de rigueur. Instead, Baldys suggests, romance novels with disabled protagonists "radically reconstruct disability in order to conform to a particular kind of fantasy, one that imagines a compliant model of disability amenable to both reinscription and rehabilitation" (134). In particular, they suggest that "the effects of the disability are mitigated or overcome by the effects of blossoming love" (134). Her prime example of such "recuperation" is Ian Mackenzie.

Ian's recuperation plays out, Baldys argues, "through the explicit attribution of moments of 'improvement' in Ian to the influence of Beth and/or their relationship. Beth's love serves to cure Ian's headaches, calm his fear of crowds, and lessen his bouts of rage" (135). A closer look at the novel suggests that this is not in fact the case. One of Ian's bouts of rage stems is the direct result of another man's apparent threats to Beth, a rage that Beth is unable to contain. Another, the one mentioned above, is a result of his fears of his brother's guilt being revealed, or being directed in violence against Beth.  Beth is not able to mitigate or contain these rages.

When Ian shares his fear with Beth that some day he will harm her in one of his rages, just as his father harmed his mother, Beth points out to Ian that his rages all stem from his desire to protect, not to harm. When he still insists "I have the rage inside me," she retorts, "Which you know how to control" (311). His ability to control his rage when it might unfairly harm another is not something that results from his love of Beth, but something he already had. She just allows him to see it for himself.

Baldys would have it that Ian, who could not look directly into Beth's, or anyone else's, eyes at novel's start, can once he acknowledges his love for her. But the text explicitly denies this:

     Ian cupped her chin and turned her face up to his. Then he did what he'd been practicing since the night on the train—he looked her fully in the eyes.
     He couldn't always do it. Sometimes his gaze simply refused to obey, and he'd turn away with a growl. But more and more he'd been able to focus directly on her. (Ashely 318)

Looking Beth in the eye is not something that magically happens because he now loves her; it is something that Ian struggles to accomplish, and not always successfully, in order to demonstrate to Beth his love.

A passage from Lord Ian that Baldys doesn't quote, but that speaks to the desire to "recuperate" disability, occurs toward the end of the novel:

"All of us are mad in some way," Ian said. "I have a memory that won't let go of details. Hart is obsessed with politics and money. Cameron is a genius with horses, and Mac paints like a god. You find out details on your cases that others miss. You are obsessed with justice and getting everything you think is coming to you. We all have our madness. Mine is just the most obvious." (Ashley 306)

Is Ian's statement an attempt to normalize disability? Or to disable normality? My view is that it does the latter, to quite positive effect.

Are there any readers out there familiar with any of the other novels Baldys discusses? Do they conform to the patterns she suggests? What about novels with physically, rather than cognitively, disabled protagonists? Are 21st century romances freer from the problems Baldys identifies than 20th century ones?

*Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 6.2 (2012): 125–141.

Next time on RNFF:
Miranda Neville's The Importance of
Being Wicked


  1. I have three of the five on my keeper shelves. I'm really surprised that Baldys includes A Simple Man here because there's a plot twist that upends the disability issue. Not saying more because I don't want to spoil it for you. It's a good story and I've reread it a number of times but not in recent years. Peggy Webb's story, A Prince for Jenny is a sequel to another book by her, which has Jenny's mom as the heroine. Jenny's a kid in that book and portrayed as having Down's Syndrome. In APFJ, she's grown up and gives talks on disability. She's on the high-functioning end of Down's Syndrome. It struck me as rather implausible so I haven't really reread it so I can't really comment further. I kept it though because I keep just about all of the disability romance books out of my own interest, being deaf myself. I hadn't heard of the two other books but I don't think I'll seek them out. I loved The Madness of Lord Ian McKenzie. The current trend towards writing books with Asperger characters is a very interesting one. Some say that Asperger-like disabilities are far more common that previously believed so this might be part of the rise of awareness in that area. Ashley makes Lord Ian very believable and human. I could believe in the romance and in Lord Ian's disability. Sometimes romances with disabled characters make them very stereotypical. Not this time. Hmm. What I like about these and some other books was that they showed the characters to be people who happened to be disabled and lived their lives anyway. The other characters have to grow beyond their prejudices in order to recognize the true worth of the disabled character. I'll be interested to see what others have to say.

    1. Thanks, Jenny, for adding your thoughts. I, too, am intrigued about the current trend of romances with characters with Asperger's syndrome, because my best friend has a son on the spectrum, and just recently my nephew received the same diagnosis. Baldys suggests that in some ways, Ian's disability makes him able to embody without problem some of the older alpha romance hero characteristics (being angry, acting dominant, etc.), that have been criticized in able-bodied heroes as un-feminist. I'm not sure I buy that argument, at least in the handful of romances that I've read with heroes with Asperger's-like behaviors.

  2. I've only read Morsi's Simple Jess. It's a while since I read either the novel or Baldys's article so the details of both are hazy in my mind but I have a feeling that Baldys focuses on a scene in which Jess is working outdoors, shirtless. It occurs quite far into the novel and certainly after the heroine's got to know Jess quite well. I remember it as a scene in which the heroine is forced to think more deeply about what she really feels about Jess. I would tend to think that, had she not already felt something for him, she wouldn't have responded to his body in the same way.

    Baldys may have a point about Jess's body compensating for his mind but I don't think it plays out in quite the way Baldys suggests. I think it comes back to the old idea about "show not tell" and Jess's body shows that he has a lot to offer the heroine (and I don't mean just sexually, though obviously that's not unimportant), even if he's not able to "tell" as effectively as other men. This is important because the heroine is a young widow with a dependent child and she needs help with her land. In this historical context, a man with a body that made him unable to perform the hard labour required would simply not be a good option for her to choose as a husband.

    Also, Jess is only one of three suitors she has and one of them is probably more handsome than Jess (he's a romance rake, really). The third suitor is a lovely man and I think the way the story deals with him isn't at all heteronormative.

    1. Thanks, Laura, for adding your thoughts. My library system doesn't have a copy of SIMPLE JESS, and I've been curious about it since hearing about it from fans of Morsi's other books. Your comments inspired me to order an e-version. I'm look forward to reading it.

      Really makes me annoyed when critics don't give an accurate account of a book, just in order to make it fit into a larger-scale pattern. But then I've always been more of a splitter than a lumper when it comes to literary analysis, looking closely at individual texts and historical shifts rather than on finding large-scale similarities...

    2. "Really makes me annoyed when critics don't give an accurate account of a book, just in order to make it fit into a larger-scale pattern."

      I wouldn't go so far as to say that her evaluation of the novel is inaccurate. Texts are always open to interpretation, and she may just be coming to these texts with different but nonetheless valid interpretative lenses from the ones I have. I've got a few ideas about Simple Jess and disability which I'd like to work on sometime. If I do, maybe when I come back to it and read it closely my interpretation will change.

    3. Really enjoyed this blog post, having just read Simple Jess last week. I agree with all of Laura's points.

      The second suitor was a dashing rake, gorgeous, charming, smart, and really the guy who would have been the hero in another novel (he gets his own HEA with a secondary female character). The third suitor is handsome, loyal, intelligent, kind, and gay.

      As Laura (I think) says, Jess's beauty and sex appeal was not made manifest to the reader until it became apparent to the heroine, which was at least halfway into the book. OTOH, several of Jess's physical attributes, such as his brawn, height, and virility were described very early on, and would signal to any romance reader his fitness, at least physically, to serve as hero.

      I also really appreciate Merrian's and

    4. Thanks, Jessica, for stopping by and joining the conversation. You're all making me so eager to read SIMPLE JESS...

    5. Jackie, I just checked and I can actually loan you my Kindle version for 14 days. Just shoot me an email at jessicamillermaine[at] if you ever want to read it!

  3. I've only read Simple Jess and I basically agree with Laura's points.

    Waterbound by Christine Freehan has an excellent depiction of an autistic woman and I don't think it displays the the issues pointed out here. There is definitely no recovery; the hero has to adapt to her needs.

    I kind of collect autistic/Aspie romance characters because my son is autistic.

    1. Thanks for the rec, Willaful. Titles with heroines with autism/Aspergers are not that common; I'm looking forward to checking this one out.

      FYI for other readers who might be interested, the book title is actually two words: WATER BOUND, and the author is Christine Feehan.

  4. I haven't read any of these books so can't comment on them or Baldy's article. I am interested in the way the books with disabled heroes have been analysed without reference to how bodies are presented generally in the romance genre. I think of that would be a necessary baseline.

    I also think it would have been interesting if she had considered Eloisa James "The Duke is Mine" in her article because the Duke's heir with limited mental faculties is killed off suggesting a eugenics approach to disability in my mind because everyone's resulting happiness hinges on this death.

    I have been active in romancelandia blogs at least 7 years now and I have seen an emerging discussion of bodies and disability and chronic illness representation over that time that has increasingly been informed by people who read romance and live with disability and chronic illness. All the usual issues of accurate representation and the prevalence of 'neat' disabilities such as a limp have been discussed but the two things that stand out for me in these discussions as being seen as most problematic are:
    1. Disabilities cured by love (hopefully becoming less common)
    2. Disabilities and hopefulness as a site of struggle. People with disabilities or chronic illnesses want to see themselves as worthy of loving and being loved as they are, yet somehow such a portrayal is often seen as too much like real life and perversely therefore unrealistic in genre terms. This comes down to how people define what is hopeful in a life and that can be very different when viewed from an able bodied lens than from the standpoint of people living a different embodiment.

    1. Merrian:

      Yes, one of Baldys' main objections is the "disability cured by love" trope. Again, this seems a trope common to many earlier romances (and even some still today), not just to romances with disabled heroes or heroines--love conquers all that is wrong with us and the world, that's the fantasy promise romance as a genre used to make.

      Can you say more about the second trope, disability and hopefulness as a site of struggle? Is this a struggle portrayed in the text? Or a struggle amongst readers? Or a struggle between readers and genre conventions? I'm not sure I understand how too realistic can become unrealistic...

    2. I think genre expectations of the HEA and what an HEA is shapes how and what is represented in stories with characters who are disabled or have chronic illnesses. Amongst readers - this can be seen in the comments threads or discussions about representation of disability on DA last year. There were commenters/readers who couldn't seem to believe that people with disabilities could be happy or be loved as we are. I also think it is also drawn out of texts because what else is 'being cured by love' but having your lived experience and embodiment being erased and denied? The reason to erase something is because you don't believe it is valuable or because it is seen to be a barrier to an HEA.

      When an author chooses a 'nice' or more manageable disability for their hero or heroine because this is a conscious choice to de-problematise disability which implies that anything more is too problematic to be dealt with in the codes and tropes of the romance story. Of course Romance genre books don't do problems and if disability and chronic illness can only be framed as problems, for some authors and readers this will mean an accurate representation of disability and chronic illness means an HEA cannot be believed.

      If we accept that romance as genre is telling stories about power and its negotiation in relationships and with the social culture, then a view taken of people with disabilities or chronic illness as people who powerless or not in control matters and constructs or disallows the sort of story that can be told.

      I've been reading the reviews of Heidi Cullinan's 'Dirty Laundry' whose hero Adam suffers from quite severe OCD and there have been comments about how this doesn't let up for the whole book. One reviewer noted how she found this wearing and marked the book down (she recognises that this is what it is like for Adam). I think this highlights how a realistic portrayal of disability can be seen as unrealistic in delivering a romance novel HEA.

    3. Thank you Merrian (and later, CG and Willaful)) for pointing the OP in the direction of some of the excellent discussions that romancelandia has had about this topic. The blogs have tended to be ahead of the scholars in some cases, and I often find a simple Google search will turn up rich and subtle discussions of political issues in romance on non peer reviewed open access blogs!

  5. I haven't read any of the books in question, but I'm intrigued now. My 14-year-old daughter has Asperger's; so does my father. It's good to know that's being represented in romantic fiction. People on the spectrum can have positive, healthy, romantic relationships with others.

    My daughter and I were just talking the other day about how she might someday be able to have a romantic relationship; she can't stand to be touched unless she initiates it, and even then it's difficult for her. She came to the conclusion that she'll just have to fall in love with another Aspie. (Now I kind of want to write a romance like that...)

    The reality is that, according to the most recent stats I've heard, something like 1 in 80 people is being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. 1 in 6 adults has some form of mental illness. (I have anxiety, depression, and PTSD; so do some of the characters in my books.) I don't know the statistics about other disabilities, but they definitely exist in reality, so why shouldn't they exist in fiction? Not *as* the disability, but with a disability as part of who they are? And why shouldn't someone with a disability or condition be able to find love as they are instead of being magically "cured?"

    1. Karenna:

      Mental illness seems even less commonly portrayed in romance (except perhaps in the form of PTSD for former military heroes and heroines) than does autism/Aspergers. Baldys's article argues that part of the cultural work romance does is to erase disability, or make it feel safe for the able-bodied reader by rehabilitating it, an argument that could definitely be extended to mental illness's portrayal in the genre. We definitely need more writers like you, who are willing to create fictions about characters with disabilities who fall in love.

    2. Karenna -- For some nonfiction, check out Mozart and the Whale. (The book, not the movie.) And when you feel your daughter is old enough for a book with a lot of sex in it, she might enjoy Water Bound. It's so hard to find depictions of woman on the spectrum. Also, I have a friend with a 11-12 ish daughter on the spectrum, and she would really like to meet others, if your daughter would be interested?

  6. I´ve read TIM and also Lord Ian´s book. I think Baldys is right about TIM and wrong about Ian´s story. I agree with you in considering the time of production of these books as the key to understand the way they depict disabled people. Our views about the subject are different now from what they used to be back in the 80´s. A perfect example of how disabled characters are depicted in the XXI century is Jojo Moyes´s Me before you, about a paraplegic guy. Moyes deals with all the issues Baldys indentified in her article and succeeds. It is not only a rich and complex story but also an accurate one. I highly recommend it!

    1. Thanks, Parchita, for stopping by, and for your book recommendation. Just requested it through my local library, but may have to wait a while, as 174 other readers before me also want it!

  7. Really enjoying and appreciate this and your previous post on disability in romance. I haven’t read the older books (and don’t plan to), but greatly enjoyed The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie. I think the Romance genre has improved since the last century, but there is still room for further improvement. I would especially like to see more books with a main character who has a chronic medical condition that will most likely never be cured. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Whisper Falls by Toni Blake. The heroine suffers from Crohn’s Disease; I haven’t read it yet, but Sarah at SBTB gives it a B.

    Regarding PTSD, I think it occurs fairly frequently and in a lot of sub-genres other than Military, it’s just not clearly labeled as such. Many a Tortured Hero/ine exhibits clear signs of PTSD, the author just doesn’t spell it out. For example, I’m pretty sure Zsadist from Lover Awakened would be considered to have PTSD, what with the flashbacks and angry outbursts and obvious signs of depression.

    Also, if you haven’t already seen it, here’s a link to a Guest Post by Ridley at Dear Author that you may find interesting, especially the comments.

    1. I had a reply disappear into the ether... anyway, I just finished The Best Man by Kristan Higgins, which has an epileptic heroine. I found her epilepsy more of a plot convenience that a real chronic disorder with an impact on her life.

      I liked the Toni Blake book.

    2. Yes, I saw your Goodreads review. Am usually a bit Higgans fan, so was sad to see your negative take on the book :-(

  8. Thanks, CG, for stopping by and adding your thoughts. The idea of a character with a chronic medical condition being the protagonist in a romance is a fascinating one; the fixity of the incurable disease, contrasted with the change and growth typically associated with falling in love.

    And thanks for the mention of Toni Blake's book. I've not read anything by that author, but will give her a try.

    Yes, I found the guest post by Ridley after I had written the first column. Lots to ponder there...

  9. I was going to mention Dirty Laundry too. It is an m/m romance with some BDSM elements and one of the heroes has severe OCD and anxiety. It is presented as very real and there is no magic cure. I did appreciate that he was getting treatment to manage the illness but there was inherent in the book, acknowledgement that he would never be "normal". I loved how it was dealt with actually. Denver (the other hero) was very accepting and he wanted Adam and saw his disability as part of the whole rather than the whole of him, while not actually resenting the disability either. He wanted Adam to succeed and they worked together to limit issues as much as possible. He also encouraged Adam toward more personal autonomy which I liked. Denver wasn't a saint so I found his reactions to Adam believable and I totally bought into their HEA. Adam's disability is wearing. It wears on him. That's the point - but he is as deserving of love and happiness as the next person and I loved it.

    I have Simple Jess on my TBR but haven't read it yet. I have both read and listened to Lord Ian and I agree with your view rather than Baldys' in relation to that one. I've seen he movie Tim but haven't read the book and I don't know the other books in Baldys' study.

    I heard some buzz about JoJo Moyes' Me Before You but when I did a bit of hunting on the web, it seemed to me that it wasn't a genre romance and I was seriously doubting there would be any HEA. In fact, I thought it was headed to just the opposite which would have made it a wallbanger for me regardless of how otherwise good it may be.

    I also read a book about a guy with a congenitally amputated arm recently (but it doesn't release until May). I had a number of problems with it but how disability was dealt with wasn't one of them.

    On the other hand, I also recently read a book which featured a hysterically blind hero farmer that drove me crazy. He was cured by the power of love and the book clearly sent the message (IMO) that he could only win the heroine if he could see. (Playing the Part by Darcy Daniel).

    I listened to a podcast recently where an eminent professor type in the area of Asperger's was talking and he posited that Darcy from Pride & Prejudice was an Aspie. I mentioned it on Twitter and there was some fun discussion about how he could just be a clueless male! LOL I don't know if he was or not, but it is interesting to consider some of his actions through that lens and I think it's certainly a possibility.

  10. It's interesting to me, as a woman with what is both a disability and a deformity ("hands" that are severely deformed and therefore uncomfortable for others to see and also not very useful in the myriad daily tasks--and pleasures--that require dexterity or at least working fingers and wrists) that this discussion was limited, very sensibly, to cognitive disabilities, and mostly to men (heroes). I think the lumping together of physical and cognitive disabilities into one category is problematic, to say the least, especially when it comes to romance.

    And that's even before we get to the whole male-female divide. From my experience, it's still harder to see a woman with a physical disability as a sexual being and a potential romance heroine than it is to see a man with a physical disability as a romance hero.

    I can't imagine a genuine, believable romance novel with a heroine who has a serious deformity, something that makes it impossible for a man to be attracted to her physically. I'm not talking about something that has little or no effect on her appearance, like being deaf or blind, nor do I mean the sort of thing where the heroine without a disability is dismissed at first for not being "beautiful" (think Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy).

    Yes, the most enduring love is based on knowing a person's character; I'm not saying it's impossible for such a woman to have a relationship with a man, including a good and happy marriage. But "romance," for me, involves that little spark of physical attraction as well, one that happens independent of whether we think the other person is a good person, or whether we even like them. It's natural for women (in my opinion) to develop this kind of physical attraction after we have come to know a man. But for men, if the physical attraction isn't there at the start, or close to it (again, think Mr. Darcy soon reconsidering his opinion of Elizabeth's beauty, yet still disapproving of her), while love may develop later, it will not be that kind of "romance" that evolves in the more usual way, from physical to emotional attraction.

    I think of Georgette Heyer's novel A Civil Contract, in which the hero, Adam Deveril, remains physically attracted to his first love whom he can't marry for financial reasons, even after his marriage to the heroine, Jenny Chawleigh, who is short and plump and not "graceful." By the end of the story, when Adam realizes that he "loves" Jenny, it is still *not* a physical, passionate love.

    I can't speak for others, but I would guess that most women would feel, as I do, that this is not a "romance" we would want for ourselves, however enjoyable it is to read, a sophisticated and accomplished novelist's wanting to try something different, perhaps an attempt at realism.

    BTW, I just checked the novel's reviews on Amazon, and saw that like most of Heyer's works it has a preponderence of four- and five-star reviews (deservedly so). I would guess this is proof that romance readers don't have to imagine themselves into the story any more than readers of other types of fiction do; that they enjoy a good romance novel simply as a well-written story.

    This trope of heroes and heroines with disabilities is still a very new one, and is perhaps the most difficult challenge for a genre that necessarily deals with areas, sex and love, that have been off-limits for people with physical and cognitive disabilties for as long as we (as a society) can remember.

    I'm guessing that there will be many developments in the next few years, as more people with disabilities write romance novels with characters like themselves, and people with disabilities find interesting stories to read. We don't *have* to "identify" with the heroes and heroines in romance novels, or see them as placeholders, but's nice when we can if we want to.

    1. I often think that the quest for an accurately represented experience of chronic illness or disability in the characters of romance genre heroes and heroines is not about having a place to project ourselves into but a desire to see that we exist in the world in a meaningful way as of right and not by sufferance. I note that the books mentioned in the comments above have neat and clean disabilities that can be hidden to some degree allowing the female characters to pass.

      I saw the movie Hansel & Gretel recently and the bad witches were not only all female or drag queens but all had some form of physical disability and were ugly (the same issue with the Persians in the movie The 300). The take home message for me was people with disabilities cannot be trusted and distorted bodies are the defining characteristic of evil people. The message under all that is that women/gays/people with disabilities who claim power independent of what society grants them need to be hunted down.

      I do wonder if the struggle we have with representation of women with disabilities is about (for one thing) women's caring roles - if you need assistance in your daily living you cannot by definition it seems be a carer. Is this dependence seen as infantalising? Then there is the dreaded baby epilogue or in historicals the need for an heir. A female cannot have any disability that gets in the way of the need to procreate. Is it all about gender essentialism still? Can we not be seen in terms of the differences and opportunities we bring to a partner?

    2. Interesting you mention that Merrian, because the hip injury in Fool for Love actually does -- intially, anyway -- prevent the heroine from procreating. James made it more interesting by having sex be the issue, though she did have it all turn out just fine by the end anyway. But the hero was willing to marry her and not have children, as long as they could still have sex.

    3. Merrian:
      Your comment about women's role as caretakers being in conflict with a disability, at least in fictional representation, is a fascinating one. I think that you're dead on in identifying the fear of infantilization that any smack of physical dependence seems to bring to the discussion. No matter that thousands, likely millions of women with physical and mental disabilities take care of children, spouses, and parents all over our planet. So interesting what social blinders studying romance can highlight...

  11. Ann:

    This post led me to Google "romance heroines with disabilities," which led me to this list on Goodreads: Only 22 books, so you're right that this is a topic that the romance community has not dealt with very often.

    Interesting to me that the list is predominantly historical romances. Are we better able to cope with the concept of a heroine with a disability if she is distanced from us via history? Or is it that those long dresses hide the physical deformities from our sight?

    I've read several of the historical romances on the list: Jo Beverley's HAZARD (heroine with a limp due to a deformed foot), Tessa Dare's THREE NIGHTS WITH A SCOUNDREL (heroine with a port wine birthmark on her face), Eloisa James' FOOL FOR LOVE (another limping heroine, due to a hip malformation), and enjoyed them all. But I'd have to go back and see if they stand up to the tests Baldys sets forth for judging the portrayal of disability.

    Unlike in A CIVIL CONTRACT, the heroes of all three of these books all grow attracted to their love interests, not just emotionally close to them. Again, I'd have to go back and look to see if the heroes were attracted to them from the start. Scientific studies have shown that men IN GENERAL do react more to the visual than women do, I think, but that doesn't mean that ALL men do. It would be nice to have a hero who falls in emotional love first, and physical love only second...

    1. The heroine of Three Nights With a Scoundrel is actually deaf. Not sure which book has the birthmark, though it sounds vaguely familiar. It's quite a lovely book, though I say that as a hearing person.

      None of the books really challenge Ann's point -- though the birthmark one potentially would. I have read books in which men come to appreciate the looks of women they didn't initially find attractive, and I'm particularly fond of that theme, not being conventionally attractive myself. My husband tells me the first thing he notices about a woman is her eyes, and I believe him. :-)

      But an obvious and unattractive disability is definitely a rare thing in a heroine.

    2. Isn't the heroine with the port wine birthmark from the book with Midnight in the title? I have it on my TBR but haven't read it yet.

    3. Yes, apologies for the incorrect title. The Tessa Dare book I was thinking of was A LADY BY MIDNIGHT.

  12. when you stop to think about it, there are a lot of books which contain a hero/heroine with disabilities. One of Christine Feehan's Dark Carpathian shorts does. Vivian Arend has a deaf alpha wolf. Dana Marie Bell's Belle had to have her hip pinned and walks with a stick. none of these are listed on the goodreads list, i think because the disabilities are simply a part of the character not a feature of the book. Disabled people have asked for years to be treated the same as everyone else, and to not be judged. that someone thinks in a romance, or any other fiction, they should be represented as different shows little understanding of disabled people.

    Sorry Rant over. I'm working on my dissertation about romance and its readers and two of the books, my work features include protagonists with some form of disability or illness.

    1. Hollie:

      Thanks for stopping by the blog, and sorry for taking so long to reply to your post. For some weird reason, Blogger stopped sending me emails when new comments were posted to older posts :-(

      Thanks for the paranormal recs featuring heroines with disabilities. I'm guessing you're right when you note that the books aren't listed on the Goodreads list because disability doesn't feature as a theme or plot thread.

      Your dissertation sounds fascinating. Keep us posted on your progress!