D is for Tessa Dare

{For the complete alphabet of diversity in romance, click here.} There's a lot to like about Lily, Tessa Dare's deaf heroine in Three Nights with a Scoundrel. Lily combines a fundamental optimism with the sympathetic resonance of grief -- for her murdered twin brother, for the best friend she slowly realizes she's fallen in love with but who has her on an uncomfortably high pedestal -- and a quiet practical side that keeps her grounded (she likes lists and accounting ledgers). Her deafness is real and palpable in the text, but is not the main focus of the story.

Cover image for Three Nights with a Scoundrel by Tessa Dare. Blue-toned landscape. Block of color in the middle has white text reading: THREE NIGHTS WITH A SCOUNDREL and, smaller, TESSA DARE. Above, a tan-skinned dark-haired woman in an apricot gown puts her hands on the shoulders of a tan-skinned, dark-haired man wearing apparently nothing at all.But the very best thing about Lily Chatwick's portrayal is that she's not the only deaf person in the book.

So many disabled heroes or heroines are the only ones so depicted in their stories. They labor under the burden of tokenism: how you depict your Significant Deaf Character reflects on all deaf people. But in real life the experience of being disabled is a spectrum of reactions, adaptations, limitations, attitudes, acceptance, and struggle that is exquisitely unique to each disabled person. In real life no single person is the One Deaf Person.

It happens just before the halfway point of the book. Lily and Julian, our hero, have dressed as commoners and gone to sit in the cheap seats at the theater (like you do for kicks when you're an aristocrat in a Regency romance). After the play, however, the suspense plot rears its head and Julian drags Lily across half of London to a run-down coffeehouse he partly grew up in, where nobody will think to look for Lady Lily Chatwick.

And then we meet the landlady:

Even inside the coffeehouse, they continued this way. Neither speaking a word. Not with lips or tongue, at any rate. No, Julian and the landlady were communicating solely with their hands. Rapid, precise, two-handed movements that Julian only belatedly -- after sending Lily an apologetic glance -- began pairing with speech. (159)

Unlike Anna the landlady, Lily wasn't born deaf, but lost her hearing after an illness five or so years back. She can read lips reasonably well, given the right conditions: adequate lighting, clear sightlines, no sudden tangents in conversation, help from gestures and expressions. But she cannot sign, and her experience of disability is not the same as Anna's  -- nor, we learn, is it the same as the experience of Julian's late mother, who was deaf and taught him to sign:

"My mother was born deaf. You were deafened by illness. It's an entirely separate thing. I can say to you, the pianoforte is out of tune, and though you don't hear it, you understand exactly what I mean. Not so with my mother. But she and Anna and the others downstairs, they notice things -- little subtleties of sights and smells and textures -- that you and I would never think to heed." He smiled. "If it helps, they don't see you as one of them either." (174)

It's somewhat radical that the born-deaf are presented here as rejecting association with Lily -- especially since she is a wealthy member of the nobility, and the born-deaf we see are all commoners. There is no big monolithic The Deaf in this book. There are only deaf people.

Of course, what becomes abundantly clear through the use of such a character spectrum is that the intersection of class and disability: Lily suffers plenty of microaggressions over the course of the novel, but her position as a lady (and her wealth) prevent her from being more thoroughly victimized. Julian's mother, by contrast, is raped while serving as a housemaid -- her illiteracy and the lack of people who know sign make her an easy target for predatory gentlemen.  She ends up pregnant, unemployed, and homeless. Julian recognizes the combination of  luck and determination it took for her not to abandon him in such straitened circumstances:

He'd been a help to his mother when he grew older. But Julian knew at any time in his infancy, she could have made life a great deal easier on herself by dropping him on the doorstep of a foundling hospital. She hadn't.  They'd always had each other. Most times, that was all they'd had. (166-167)

If disabled characters in historical romance are rare, depictions of a whole community of disabled people are unheard-of. I did a little digging based on the feeling that this background detail was based on real history, and it only took moments to turn up a Wikipedia page for Old Kentish Sign Language, which leads to a page on Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, and so on down the internet rabbit hole. The potential here for new ways of approaching familiar historical times is truly compelling -- imagine a small-town historical romance set in a village of people who are bilingual in spoken English and sign language -- if that doesn't get you at least a little excited, well, I don't know what else to say.


Updated because I knew there was a link I had forgotten: Matt and Kay Daigle produce the awesome webcomic That Deaf Guy, which is not only sweet and hilarious but also a great take on the day-to-day challenges of life as a deaf man and father.

For disability in romance, definitely follow the ever-marvelous Ridley at Love in the Margins: reviews, links, and thoughtful commentary abound. 

There is also this Dear Author recommendation thread for books featuring disabled characters, and this Smart Bitches thread for books with disabled heroines.


Dare, Tessa. Three Nights with a Scoundrel. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2010. Print book.