Okay, I’m as big a Downton Abbey fan as any of the rest of you. But when I saw the trailer with Matthew Crawley preparing to go over the wall, I immediately thought:
1) he’s going to get shot
2) he’s going to get shot in the leg and
3) he’ll be in a wheelchair. (Okay, I also thought how come all the guys in the trenches look so well-fed and not particularly stressed out? And also, am I the only one who’s noticed that the Downton guys seem to have their own trench?)
Back to the whole leg/wheelchair thing. How did I know? Because when romance writers get together there are few things they enjoy discussing more than “acceptable romance hero injuries and amputations.” (Trust me on this.) Dueling scars are fine. One or both eyes can go missing—hey, who doesn’t love pirates, Mr. Rochester, and the Hathaway shirt guy? But a missing nose? An amputated ear? Missing teeth? Fuhgettabout it.
I’m not a biologist, but I suspect its because facial features contain specific sets of sexual cues. The ways they’re put together not only “turns us on,” but also send signals about the potential health of our hero/lover/father of our children (and the potential health of those children). Missing ears and noses probably subconsciously remind us of a time when leprosy and syphilis weren’t so very rare. As for missing teeth? I’m guessing the signal is bad hygiene, poor nutrition and/or not the best warrior on the block.
Missing arms are a gray area; a sling is kind of sexy. But when we’re reading about a hero taking the heroine in his arms, I think most romance fans kinda want him to have both. After all, part of the fantasy is that romance heroes are good with their hands, that they use them to attend to a woman’s needs rather than the TV remote. Indeed, there are some fans who believe a romance hero can’t have enough hands. Just ask the tentacle sex fans spawned by Laurell K. Hamilton’s Merry Gentry series.
There’s something about a man on crutches or in a wheelchair that’s simply irresistible. Sexier than an eye patch, though they share a similar emotional appeal; while neither significantly reduces the physical appeal of the hero, both disabilities reduce his power. No matter how alpha the hero, (and I’d argue there are few more dominant, bordering on scary, than Mr. Rochester), a wounded hero is a man who needs a heroine’s care.
A strong man who needs a woman and won’t admit it is the romance equivalent of catnip. By denying his need for the heroine, the hero underscores that his alpha spirit has not been weakened, but try as he might, he cannot deny his vulnerability. His impairment creates an opportunity for the heroine show her strength; in Lady Mary’s case, she proves that she can be useful and that she is willing to sacrifice a future with children for Matthew’s love. The hero’s impairment also sometimes serves as an opportunity for the heroine to establish a partnership with the hero that might otherwise be impossible; here I’m thinking of both Jane Eyre and Laura Kinsale’s amazing Flowers in the Storm. (In Flowers, the hero, a powerful and brilliant “mathematical duke” suffers a paralyzing stroke and is cared for by a Quaker nurse.) For a time, the hero’s impairment may even tip the balance so that the heroine becomes the dominant figure in the relationship.
But she cannot remain so. Romance fans want a strong hero and a strong heroine in an equal relationship. The heroine may bring the hero around, but she cannot break him. Wounded is sexy, weak is not—or in other words, in adult romance there can be alpha, beta, but never Justin Beiber.
Which is why, even before the cliff hanging moment when Matthew Crawley sat up in his chair and said, “I feel something!” I somehow doubted his “permanent” spinal injury would be quite so permanent…
Before turning her hand to writing commercial fiction, Joanna Novins spent over a decade working for the Central Intelligence Agency. She does not kill people who ask her about her previous job, though she came close once with an aging Navy SEAL who handed her a training grenade despite warnings that she throws like a girl. Published in historical romance by Berkley, Joanna also writes YA spy novels as Jody Novins.