How is disability, in particular visual impairment, used in romance fiction? The article explores the use of blindness and the loss of sight in two historical romances by American author Teresa Medeiros. While in The Bride and the Beast (2001) the inability to see is caused by darkness and leads to insight and (self-)knowledge, the hero of Yours until Dawn (2004) has been blinded in battle. Although the latter contains a number of similarities to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), a comparison with the Victorian classic shows that Medeiros rejects various dominant cultural stereotypes about visual impairment and disability such as the disempowerment and perceived helplessness of blind characters.
Teresa Medeiros is a bestselling American author of historical romance with over ten million books in print in more than 17 languages.1 One of the most popular and most beloved authors in the genre, she has written 22 novels to date. Two of them explicitly deal with the loss of sight: Yours until Dawn (2004) features a blind hero, while large parts of The Bride and the Beast (2000) are set at night, and the darkness makes the heroine unable to see the face of the male protagonist. In both novels the loss of sight is indicative of a psychological problem, an inner hurdle that the characters have to overcome in the course of the story in order to reach their happy ending. On the other hand, the loss of their eyesight enables the characters to gain new insights and becomes part of a process of initiation into a better understanding of themselves and their world.
Coding in Romance Fiction
David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder view the metaphorical use of disability critically as "an opportunistic [. . .] device" (47). However, it should be pointed out that romance fiction-especially the historical and paranormal subgenres- relies heavily on the use of metaphors and specific, stereotypical plot elements, and employs them as a form of code. Indeed, much of the characters' inner world is externalized. Some of those externalizations are literally written onto the bodies of the characters (e.g. the dark, tormented hero typically sports dark hair and dark eyes), while other externalizations take the form of inanimate objects. Thus, at the end of many romance novels, the house becomes more than just a place for the protagonists to live in, it becomes code for their unity as a couple. Given the romance novel's heavy reliance on symbols and metaphors, it can come as no surprise that authors often use disability in a similar way. Yet in contrast to "high" literature, where "the immoral or negative [character] is often depicted as having a physical disability" (Davis 542), in romance it is the hero who is often physically impaired, as is the male protagonist in Yours until Dawn. In many romance novels such impairment-either in the form of a physical disability or in the form of (facial) scars-functions as a further externalization of the dark hero's inner torment.2
Among the other codes that can be found in romance fiction are narrative patterns that are modelled on mythology and fairy tales. The two novels under consideration here both fall into the category of "Beauty and the Beast" stories and thus follow one of the most popular narrative patterns in romance. Beauty and the Beast stories amplify the darkness and danger that the romance hero exudes by connecting him to the fairy tale motif of the animal bridegroom, which is underlined by frequent references to wild animals.3 The heroine's task then is to tame the "wild man": to recognize the hero's true self, and specifically to recognize his inner wound and to heal it. The act of looking plays an important role in this type of romance, for the question that poses itself to the heroine is whether she is facing a beast or a man. She cannot rely on outward appearances in order to answer this question because these are clearly deceptive. Therefore, in order to redeem the beast, she has to be able to look beyond appearances and to perceive the hero's true nature. …