R is for Robin Hood

{For the full alphabet of diversity in romance, click here.}

Carrie Lofty’s What a Scoundrel Wants is a Robin Hood romance. Yes, technically the hero is Will Scarlet, Robin’s nephew (in this version of the mythology) rather than Robin himself — but we spend a lot of time in the woods, Scarlet’s a dab hand with a bow, he’s angsty because of his impossible youthful crush on Maid Marian (now Robin’s wife), the villain is the new Sheriff of Nottingham … You get the idea.

Cover image for What a Scoundrel Wants by Carrie Lofty. Forest background. A shirtless man with tan skin and folded arms faces us, slightly to the left, visible only from his chin to his incongruous belt buckle.If people know one thing about Robin Hood, it’s this: He robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Socialism, or at least a sense of wealth redistribution as a social good, is baked right in to the legend. But we don’t see a great deal of that in Lofty’s text. We’ve got a few peasants in Nottingham, some more in a smaller village, and a gaggle of refugees in the woods, but aside from a general sense of sucks to be poor there’s not a lot of social dynamics or even description of what the general public is supposedly suffering from.  In some ways this fits with Will Scarlet’s more ambiguous morality — but even when Robin himself shows up to help with the big battle scene at the end, the focus remains on a handful of larger-than-life heroes rather than the dismantling of an oppressive social system.

In fact, collective action in What a Scoundrel Wants is almost universally bad. The first scene  of the book involves Will being framed for the murder of a nobleman, purely because he was the only one of the guards not in on the conspiracy. Then a group of forest refugees try to hang him — it’s technically on the orders of their douchebag leader, our heroine Meg’s ex-lover, but it’s presented very much as the will of an angry mob. A second, much angrier mob later attempts to burn Meg as a witch — an epithet Meg is used to, since this amorphous mass of peasants has often persecuted her on account of her blindness and her mysterious alchemical talents. The reunion of Robin’s band at the end of the book seems to promise a positive scene of group unity, but then his men turn cowardly in the face of the Greek fire Meg has made for them to use in storming the villain’s castle, and only Robin’s personal bravery and charismatic leadership keep them from breaking ranks and running away.

Essentially, every group in this text is an amoeba. Heroes and villains stand out and can exert their will upon the group. The text’s world is divided between these two types of characters: leads, who have agency, and extras, who don’t.

It is in this context that we must evaluate our heroine Meg’s blindness.

(Side note: The Dear Author review from 2008 manages to get through 800 words without once mentioning the heroine’s disability. I suppose they did this to avoid spoilers, but it feels like an erasure, especially when slightly euphemistic language comes into play: “Meg has enough of her own troubles.” Translation: We shouldn’t talk about blindness: it’s not polite.)

First of all, Meg is a fantastic heroine of a very unusual type. She’s prickly, mendacious, and constantly horny. She gives fewer fucks than just about any other romance heroine I’ve seen, and I love her even more on this re-read than I did on my first time through. As a blind heroine, too, she avoids the most common pitfalls of disability in romance: she’s not a Magical Cripple or a litmus test for the moral purity of other characters. She’s accepted her disability to the extent that she has learned to cope with it in her daily life, but she is far from happy when it leaves her vulnerable or disadvantaged, and she’s not above using it as a verbal dagger to win points when she has to. The text allows her to be difficult and human, and that’s  worth celebrating.

However, Meg’s blindness exists in the text’s world of negative collective action. Her disability isolates her and forces her to depend on others for basic needs (food, shelter, translating ancient alchemy texts, not being stabbed with swords). She has worked hard to find ways around certain aspects of this dependence — keeping the inside of her cabin strictly organized so she can find her alchemy supplies, for example — and this is presented as heroic and admirable. But because she is a lead and not an extra, this dependence on others is presented as a problem in ways that seem ridiculous outside the plot context.

Such as when the hero drags her from her sickbed (literally, not figuratively) and ditches her in the woods. Because if she’s truly strong, she’ll make it back to the castle.

At this point in the narrative, Meg has been severely burned. On her hands, which are her primary tools for navigating a world. She has not regained feeling in her extremities since the injury, the skin is blistered and tender, and her hands are wrapped in thick linen bandages. This is not the first time Meg has been injured in the course of the book — the text beats up on every character at some point — but this is definitely a pivotal trauma. To make things worse, she’s being tended at Loxley Manor by Marian, who she knows Will had deep tortured pants-feelings for. So she turns quiet, and emotionally distant, and worries that her hands will be as useless to her now as her eyes have become.

Whereupon Will Scarlet hauls her into the woods with this justification: “If you’re strong enough to be my partner, come find me” (289).

She does, of course, because Meg is a heroine and a Lead With Agency. Tearing off her bandages, fueled by anger, using the moss on the north side of trees to orient herself (which: nope), she struggles back to Loxley Manor. Her hands are bleeding, her scabs open and painful. Naturally, she and Will fall instantly into bed, happy together at last: “He had hoped and gambled, and she rediscovered her strength in the forest, conquering the melancholy that hindered her recovery” (305).

Call me cynical, but it seems like groping through a forest with open wounds would hinder her recovery a lot more than a sulky attitude. It’s the year 1199 and not only do we not have antibiotics yet, but we’re not all that clear about bacteria or hand-washing, either.

But none of this is as important to the story as making sure that we demonstrate Meg’s heroism by showing that she can rise above the limitations of her disability. Because to do otherwise requires her to depend on the kindness of extras — of that amorphous, amoral mass of humanity that has no will of its own or sense of personhood.

If you’ve read much in the way of disability studies — and I am by no means an expert — you might have encountered two models of disability: the medical model (or individual model), and the social model. Lisa Egan at xoJane explains:

Someone with a medical/individual perspective would state that I am prevented from getting around my city because I’m a person with a disability and it’s tough luck that the Tube is so inaccessible. If I want to use the Tube then I’m just gonna have to find a new skeleton from somewhere.

The way I see it is that I’ve been disabled when it comes to travelling around my city by the architects that installed stairs and escalators instead of ramps and lifts at the majority of Underground stations. Stairs and escalators are man-made barriers put in the way by a discriminatory society that excludes me because I have impaired mobility.

The world of What a Scoundrel Wants very clearly adheres to the medical/individual model, not only because of its emphasis on Meg’s personal strength, but also because it removes any agency from the extras who make up this world. Notice in Egan’s description how the social model foregrounds the actions of non-disabled people in making the Tube inaccessible: the architects have chosen to use stairs and escalators instead of ramps, and that choice impacts Egan’s ability to travel through the city.

The emphasis on personal resilience somewhat undermines Meg’s strong portrayal, in my opinion: if only individual determination and heroism can make a disabled life manageable, if there is no room for a discussion of how society’s choices impact a disabled person’s ability, then there is no way forward. Indeed, at the end of the book, we’re left with no hint as to what Meg and Will are going to do next — where they will live, how they will earn their living, how they will afford to continue Meg’s alchemical experiments (all issues previously discussed in the text). The background lack of agency in Lofty’s world reaches up at the end to swallow even our hero and heroine.

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It’s a new blog to me, but the website Blind Spot run by UK researcher and lecturer Hannah Thompson has some excellent analysis of literature and media relating to blindness — for instance, the Lego Movie.

For other books featuring disabled characters, check out this Dear Author thread and the always incisive Love in the Margins.

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Lofty, Carrie. What a Scoundrel Wants. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2008. Print.

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9 thoughts on “R is for Robin Hood

  1. Wow, very very interesting read. I’ve seen this author at a conference before and did not know she’d written this (hard to keep track of everything every single author writes!). Very thoughtful response to the issues in her book.

  2. As a real live blind person, I remember being mildly intrigued when this book first came out. Ultimately, I decided I’d probably have to pass because I have been burned too many times by authors trying to write disabled characters in romances and failing in ways that are spectacular, and not so spectacular. (I end up reading those books with an eye to what details the author got wrong, which robs them of their fun factor.) That said, this was a fabulous post that made me fairly certain I’d made a good decision in skipping this book. My experience–which is, of course, not the authoritative experience of all blind people everywhere–is that for my life, here in the 21st century, to move merrily along, there has to be a lot of work with all kinds of people. The first time I was able to do online grocery shopping, where I could have everything delivered to my house, was a huge revelation. No having to wait for an employee who might or might not be able to provide good service as a shopping assistant. I could make whatever impulse buys I wanted. I couldn’t do my job without my employers collectively deciding they could hire a blind person and make sure I have reasonable work accommodations. I live alone, but I do need some occasional help with errands and outside chores. And that’s here in 2014. The idea of being loosed in the wilderness with burned hands and forced to find my way home seems more cruel and capricious than like a gesture of real romantic love. (TM.) And that’s not even getting into the medieval time period, when Braille hadn’t even been thought of, and the author is expecting me to buy that her heroine is a chemistry genius who learns everything via having stuff read to her? Nope. I really, really can’t.

  3. To briefly address the heroine’s backstory: she wasn’t born blind — she went blind as the result of an illness, so she’d been sighted and reading for years before her disability, and had her Important Alchemy Manuscript all but memorized already. Which had to help, frankly, because otherwise she’d have very little chance of survival without a robust family structure or village network. I’m sure those must have existed, even in this time period, but we don’t see them in this book.

    Now that that detail’s out of the way: I really appreciate you weighing in and sharing your experience! You’re certainly not the only disabled reader I know who has started avoiding romances with disabled characters out of sheer frustration and disappointment. It’s one of romance’s biggest Achilles heels, in my opinion; something to do with the genre’s essential optimism, that steers texts hard in the direction of Inspirational Disability or Pitiable Brokenness.

  4. @Olivia: Nope, still not buying it. But maybe that’s just because I’m the opposite of a science geek so the idea of memorizing hundreds of pages of chemical formulas seems so daunting. 😛

    I think the problem is one of privilege. Nondisabled people can only really imagine the experience as debilitating somehow, and so we have the inspirational cripple or the broken bird narrative. Clearly what we need are more PWD writing romances, and I wish I knew of people who were, because I’d love to support their work. Because disability simply is. It’s never a barrel of happy fun times, but it’s not a constant source of angst either.

  5. My post for T is by an author named Laura Curtis — she writes romantic suspense (among other things) and she has a disability (epilepsy). Her first book, Twisted, has two main characters with different disabilities. Not as a main plot point but just, you know, because people. It’s a refreshing change, though I have other issues with the book.

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