Friday, December 8, 2017

Disability and Historical Romance: Mary Balogh's SOMEONE TO WED

Protagonists with physical and/or emotional disabilities appear far more often in the Regency romances of Mary Balogh than in the books of perhaps any other historical romance writer. By my count, of her 86 novels published to date, at least thirteen feature a main character with a physical or mental impairment of some sort; other books (Slightly Married, Simply Perfect, A Secret Affair, and probably a few others I'm forgetting) include secondary characters with disabilities of various sorts. Some back of the envelope math suggests that characters with disabilities feature in almost 20% of Balogh's books.

Some critics have found Balogh's engagement with disability issues worthy of praise. For example, Reviewer Caz on Romantic Historical Reviews writes of Balogh's Survivors' Club series, which features protagonists who have all been seriously injured (physically and/or mentally) by war, "In each case, the author has approached her characters' injuries and disabilities sensitively and un-sentimentally, showing how difficult it has been for each of them to regain anything resembling a normal life following their terrible experiences." And although scholar Ria Cheyne cautions in her article "Disability Studies Reads the Romance: Sexuality, Prejudice, and the Happily-Ever-After in the Work of Mary Balogh" that she is not "aiming to fix these novels as 'positive' representations which should be played on some hypothetical list of 'acceptable' representations of disability" (212), her discussion of Balogh's Slightly and Simply series does argue that Balogh's romances with disabled protagonists "offer significant opportunities to challenge negative stereotypes around disability" (201-202).

In contrast, Meoskop, reviewing The Arrangement (book #2 in The Survivors' Club series) on Love in the Margins, finds Balogh's depictions more than a bit lacking: "There are authors that do disability well, and then there's Mary Balogh. Her disabled characters are more Matt-in-Downton-Abbey than Harold Russell." Her review concludes with a clearly ironic recommendation: "If you love inspiring stories about disabled veterans and the wives that don't leave them, then The Arrangement will hit all your Inspirational Story buttons."

Though Meoskop doesn't spell it out, she clearly objects to the way that Balogh's portrayals of the disabled barely skirt, or fall into, the trap of "disability as inspirational" for the non-disabled reader. As Deborah Davis on the web site writes,

Many disability advocates have expressed disdain for being viewed as "inspirational" in popular media and reject the premise that this emotion adds any positive value to their status. This often-used description associated with able-bodied individuals' emotions in connection with accomplishments or just daily living of those with disabilities is seen by some in the community as separating, objectifying, condescending and regressive in terms of equality and inclusion.

(Check out this great post on Everyday Feminism, "7 Reasons to Stop Calling Disabled People Inspirational" for more on what has come to be called "inspirational porn").

All of the above is to tell you that I come with a lot of backstory to my reading of Balogh's latest, Someone to Wed. Its heroine, 29-year-old Wren Heyden, has been a recluse for the majority of her life, and wears a veil to cover her face whenever she goes out in public. Wren has just completed a year of mourning for her aunt and uncle, with whom she had made her home since the age of ten. Having inherited her uncle's glassworks manufactory, Wren is now wealthy—wealthy enough to buy herself what she longs for, but believes she could never win or earn: someone to wed.

For Wren is "severely, cruelly marred" by a large purple birthmark on the left side of her face, which covers her from forehead to jaw (Kindle Loc 317). Although the descriptive words in quotations are the thoughts of the novel's hero upon first seeing Wren's face, they could just as well have been Wren's. For while her birthmark is not a physically incapacitating disability, some unnamed abuse Wren experienced because of it during her earliest years has created in her a major emotional disability: "In my own person I am not marriageable," she tells Alexander Westcott, the new Earl of Riverdale, the third man she's "interviewed" for the position of spouse.

In her joint review of the book on Dear Author, reviewer Janine points to structural similarities between Someone to Wed and Balogh's 1997 novel, Indiscreet. For me, though, the more telling comparison is to Balogh's 1993 category Regency, Dancing with Clara, which also opens with a disabled heroine who wishes to marry. In the twenty four years between the publication of these two novels, how had Balogh's depiction of disability changed? Had any of the insights of Disability Studies, which call attention to the problematic ways that the disabled are often "othered" and marginalized in popular culture, filtered into popular consciousness?

19th century Bath chair
Clara of Dancing with Clara is physically disabled: "crippled," restricted to a wheeled chair, unable to walk since contracting an illness in India as a child (Loc 85). While both Clara and Wren feel that "Only my money can buy me a husband" (Dancing 273), they go about their husband searches differently. Rather than openly declaring her wish for a husband,  Clara allows the gloriously handsome fortune hunter Frederick Sullivan (the villain of a previous Balogh book) to come to her. He flatters her, even tells her that he is in love with her. She knows he's lying (and so does the reader, as we are given his POV, as well as hers). But he's so handsome, and she's so lonely, Clara lets his deceptions go without challenging them, and agrees to marry him. She only tells him to stop calling her "my love" two weeks after they marry, when her own feelings start to become engaged, and his obvious overstatements make her feel as if he is spoiling the good relationship they have started to build. When Freddie gets upset by her request that he stop lying, Clara feels guilty for making him feel ashamed.

In contrast, Wren takes the active, not the passive, role in searching for a husband. It is she who invites Alexander to her home, and she who asks Alexander to marry her. Wren is a businesswoman, not a lady of leisure as Clara is, and she treats the husband search in as businesslike a manner as possible: "Perhaps we could combine forces and each acquire what we want" (263). Though the novel presents Wren's hiding her emotions as a problem she must learn to overcome, her business acumen grants her far more agency than did Clara's passive desires. Wren is also honest with Alexander from the start about what she wants, and what she hopes to gain from him. And he is honest with her about his pecuniary problems, a far different approach than taken by Freddie and Clara.

Both Clara and Wren desire a husband, in part to satisfy "needs," needs of the sexual kind:

She was lonely. Dreadfully lonely. And she had needs that were no less insistent than they could be in other women despite the fact that she had no beauty and was unable to walk. She had needs. Cravings. Sometimes she was so lonely despite Harriet's friendship and despite the existence of other good friends that she touched the frightening depths of despair. (Clara 124)

She had longings and needs and yearnings that were a churning mix of the physical and emotional. Sometimes she could not sleep at night for the ache of something nameless that hummed through her body and her mind and seemed to settle most heavily about her heart. (Wed 431)

But Clara wants Freddie Sullivan in particular, because of his beauty:

She wanted him. Mr. Frederick Sullivan, that was. She wanted all that health and strength and beauty to belong to her. Almost as if she could make them her own, she thought wryly. Almost as if she could transform herself by marrying him. (Clara 327).

Clara, longing to rid herself of her physical disability, imagines that she can "almost" annex Freddie's beauty and health by marrying. Marriage thus equates to being able-bodied, at least in some corner of Clara's mind.

In contrast, Wren is upset when she first meets Alexander Westcott to find he is "the proverbial tall, dark, handsome man of fairy tales" (Wed 448); she would have far preferred a plainer man, an older man, a man, the text implies, against whom she would not feel quite so ugly (Wed 184). Wren is used to being in charge, having a degree of power and control; the text suggests her dismay at Alexander's good looks is a fear of loss of control.

The two books are alike in one important regard: both Clara and Wren engage in satisfying sexual relationships after their marriages. This is in contrast to what Anna Mollow and Robert McRuer argue is a far more "pervasive cultural de-eroticization of people with disabilities" (Sex and Disability 4). But this depiction of the sexuality of the disabled may be as much of a factor of genre as it is a challenge to popular culture norms; sexual compatibility/fulfillment is typically one of several components that are required of any romantic couple who hopes to enjoy a romance HEA. Or in other words, it just wouldn't be a Mary Balogh romance if it excluded sex.

The two books differ as far as which of their protagonists—the disabled or the able-bodied—must learn a lesson, must change and grow, in order for the couple to achieve a HEA. On first glance, it may appear that in Dancing with Clara, it is Clara who has to change: by novel's end, she learns to walk. But the true emotional change comes within Freddie, not Clara. Freddie, a careless, even selfish, rake, a continual disappointment to his family, must learn to put others—in particular, his wife—before himself. This would be a fine, even feminist lesson—if Freddie's lesson did not center around helping Clara overcome her disability.

Freddie encourages Clara to move beyond the protective shell in which her fearful father had always placed her—to consult with a new doctor, to take exercise, to try to move from her wheeled chair. In some ways, then, even though Clara is a protagonist of the novel, she also serves as what Ria Cheyne terms a "yardstick character," a character who exists largely measure the worth of other characters. If you're nice or kind to, or protective of the yardstick character (a kitten, a child, a disabled person), you're a character the reader should admire. This is a problematic construction when the yardstick character is physically, emotionally, or mentally impaired, for the unintentional message is that disabled characters are more important for how others respond to them than important in their own right. From the start of Dancing with Clara, readers are introduced to Freddie as a fortune hunter, a bounder, a self-absorbed man. We come to care for him because he is kind to Clara, and is the impetus to her moving beyond her (falsely imposed) disability and learning to walk again.

Clara's learning to walk again not only rings that suspect "inspirational disabled person" bell; it also suggests that getting rid of one's disability might just be necessary if one is to be fully worthy of love, or is to enjoy love's benefits to the fullest. Abelism is writ large in this earlier book.

Wren, unlike Clara, is the emotional star of Someone to Wed. Alexander begins the story an upright, morally kind character, the kind of person who always puts others first, and this doesn't change very much over the course of the novel. Although he longs to marry for love, he feels it is his duty to marry for money so that he can support the estate he has just inherited. When Wren makes her forward proposal in the book's opening scene, Alexander doesn't immediately reject it; instead he proposes that the two get to know each other a bit first, to see if they could be compatible. And Alexander, the protective, help-others type of romance hero, feels drawn to Wren precisely because of the pain she has suffered in the past. So he ends up getting both to marry for money, and to marry for love, requiring little character change or growth.

In contrast, Wren's character arc includes far more change than Alexander's. Wren's physical blemish, unlike Clara's inability to walk, is not something she can change. And unlike Clara, she never dreams that she can change it, or wishes that she could even though she knows that she can't. But the story does insist that her emotional disability—the abuse she suffered as a child that convinced her never to go out in public, never to mingle in society, never to make a friend beside her aunt and uncle—must and should be overcome. Is this ableism, just writ on a smaller scale than in Clara? Or is this an insistence that viewing disability as only a social construction, and denying the embodied aspects of bodily impairment, is just as problematic? Part of me wants to cheer for Wren as she gradually overcomes her isolation, and becomes incorporated within Alexander's large, extended family. But another part feels more than a bit uncomfortable with the "healing power of love" message. . .

In the Dear Author review mentioned above, reviewer Janine points to her discomfort with what she reads to be lookism, more than (or as much as) ableism, in Someone to Wed. Though on its surface, the story insists that beauty is not skin deep, by dwelling so frequently on Wren's birthmark, and making Wren so isolated because of it, it inadvertently suggested the opposite.

In order to counteract the potential claim of lookism, the story provides a traumatic backstory to explain Wren's isolationist turn. The most problematic aspect of the book for me was this backstory, and its deeply sexist undertones. I don't want to spoil the ending for anyone, but would be curious to hear from other readers what your response was to Wren's meeting/confrontation with a key figure from her past near the book's end.

To sum it all up, then: there are clear and important positive shifts in Balogh's depiction of impairment and disability from 1993's Dancing with Clara to 2017's Someone to Wed. But if Meoskop were still alive and blogging, she'd surely have more than a few scathingly ironic critiques to make of it.

Photo credits:
Inspiration Porn critique: Medium
Bath chair: Wikipedia

Someone to Wed
Berkely, 2017

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