Feb 11 2012 2:00pm

Inspired by Downton Abbey’s Matthew Crawley: Literally Damaged Heroes

Matthew Crawley in Downton AbbeyOkay, 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.

Mary and Matthew in Downton AbbeyI’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.


Flowers from the Storm by Laura KinsaleA 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.

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Joanna Mikalis
1. Joanna Mikalis
Great topic. I agree with most of it, especially you reference to Flowers in the Storm. That is one of my keepers-- I still have my original paperback from oh, more than a decade ago.

Jerveaux was a suitable "wounded" hero because we saw him before his stroke, saw his frustration when they all thought he was mad, and saw him overcome his new limitations. He adjusted. He was still alpha enough to triumph, but he also learned a lot from his illness.

As the heroine, Maddy had the original challenge of making people understand that he wasn't mad, but was simply having difficulty communicating -- which led to his frustration and anger. But she also had to grow in order to help him and to leave her comfort zone. That scene towards the end with the dowager duchess was FABULOUS.

(I hope I didn't give anything away to anyone who hasn't read this book. It is a must read in the romance genre)
Joanna Mikalis
2. brontëgirl
Interesting post. Jane considers she and Rochester already equal as peeople, equal in value--cf. ch. 23--which is what riled contemporary reviewers. It's an inequality in role that Brontë resolves at the end of the novel, and so Jane tells Rochester "I love you better now, when I can really be useful to you, than I did in your state of proud independence, when you disdained every part but that of the giver and protector."
Joanna Mikalis
3. Decca Price
Very interesting. So how do you see Patrick/Peter fitting into this? (Talking burn injuries only, not his annoying whining.) A non-starter, no matter who he is?
Joanna Novins
4. JoannaNovins
Ah, Decca, interesting question. Off the top of my head, I'd say Patrick/Peter is a subplot, not a hero, so anything goes. (Which is what makes subplots/sidekicks so much more fun to write and read.)
Indeed, at this point, when it's not clear whether he'll be returning, he may just be a plot device to move the relationship between Mary and Matthew forward.

Lady Edith intrigues me--her flirtation with the farmer seemed oddly out of character; I sometimes wonder how well they've thought her out (and whether her actions are sometimes just plot devices.)

And, I also thought Patrick/Peter was whiny and irritating. And the non-English accent didn't make sense to me. Or that if even with terrible burns there wouldn't have been some physical attribute or aspect of his voice that would give the family pause (thought the hand gesture was weak.)
5. Rose In RoseBear
Neat topic!

One of the great damaged heroes (IMHO) is Syndham Butler, Mary Balogh's hero who is missing his right eye and arm, and is scarred all along his right side. Simply Love is possibly the best story Balogh's ever told ... my heart lifts when Syndham finally gets Anne's delayed letter and his life starts again, like a heart shocked back to beating. (Gotta go read that part again ...)

Balogh also wrote: Secret Pearl, another scarred war hero; Lord Carew's Bride, in which the hero was not wounded in war; and Precious Jewel, where the hero is probably dyslexic.

I also really like Sir Alistair Munroe, in Elizabeth Hoyt's Georgian-era Legend Of Four Soldiers series. Missing an eye and several finger joints, he has holed up in his tumbledown Scottish castle, trying to hide from what he has become.

The heroes are usually reclusive --- even Syndham, who had retreated from his family to work at a rather remote estate. The heroines are also societal outcasts, though usually publically so. Maddy is a Quaker, Anne a "ruined" teacher at a girls' school, and Helen a duke's long-term mistress who was shunned by all proper women.

You know, in writing this, I realized that Mary Balogh has spent a lot of her time in this particular sandbox. And, apparently, the new seven-book series is all about war survivors. Wow ... emotional rollercoasters await!
6. Rose In RoseBear
And let's not forget the physically damamged heroine, a whole other kettle of fish! Usually, they limp (Balogh again, Dancing With Clara and her new one, The Proposal, about Lady Muir) or are scarred under their clothes (Lisa Kleypas' Aline in Again The Magic), or are deaf-mute (Balogh yet again, in Silent Melody), but Edith Layton's Bridget Cooke in The Cad has a facial scar that she can't hide with a hairstyle. These heroines are usually virtuous and good beyond all reason --- except for Aline, who, when given the chance, colors outside the lines big-time.

I find myself fascinated by how handicaps were dealt with way-back-when!
Joanna Mikalis
7. Barb in Maryland
My favorite is an old Elizabeth Mansfield Regency : The Phantom Lover.
He is a very wounded survivor of the wars against Napoleon; she has been led to believe he is dead. A lovely meeting and romance ensue. Alas, he is engaged to someone who doesn't want a husband on crutches; she teaches him how to break free.
Absolutely the best thing this author has done, IMHO.
Joanna Mikalis
8. alisa be
I remember an old harlequin by Victoria Winspear from the seventies with a blind hero. The book set me on the path to loving the damaged hero archetype and ruined all those boring eighth grade boys for me. They were so callow, with two eyes and all their limbs.
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