The Appeal of the Wounded Hero(ine)
I was asked a while ago who were some of my favorite tortured heroes in books other than my own. It was not easy to narrow down the possibilities, but I eventually came up with Mr. Rochester from Charlotte Bronte’s JANE EYRE; Christian, Duke of Jervaulx from Laura Kinsale’s FLOWERS FROM THE STORM; Darius Lindsay from Grace Burrowes’s DARIUS; Reggie Davenport from Mary Jo Putney’s THE RAKE; Lord Ian Mackenzie from Jennifer Ashley’s THE MADNESS OF IAN MACKENZIE; and Holden Caulfield from THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. And that was just the heroes. The question did not ask about heroines. I have created my fair share of wounded heroes and heroines. Why do I do it? Why do I write so often about men and women who are wounded in body and/or tortured in spirit—especially in books that are billed as feel-good love stories? Why would you read them or other books like them?
To a certain degree woundedness of body and brokenness of spirit are common to the human experience. We all suffer. No one is immune. Because I am an optimist, I am fond of saying that I have lived a blessed life, and indeed I have. Yet I have also known times of intense suffering, either in my own person or involving people near and dear to me—or concerning people worldwide whom I don’t know personally but only through media reports. Often the heart feels as if it must surely break. Sometimes it is hard to hold off the self-pity and the “why me?” or “the world is doomed” reaction. Now these facts don’t mean we have to read about suffering in the books we choose for relaxation and pleasure. So why DO we do it? Why do I write about suffering? Why do you read about it?
I think maybe it’s because we are all uplifted when we witness or hear of other people enduring pain and rising above it, conquering it, finding themselves capable of extraordinary achievements and acts of kindness and heroism and love, not despite their suffering, but because of it. Think of real life people such as Helen Keller, Stephen Hawking, Nelson Mandela, for example, and all the innumerable heroes and heroines, often nameless, who selflessly give of themselves and risk their lives and often lose them in the face of great calamities and tragedies. They are an inspiration to the rest of us. They can raise us above the sufferings that threaten to drag us down into despair.
Such people are irresistible (to me, anyway) as the heroes and heroines of love stories, for love can help them accept what they cannot change and find healing for what they can. It can help bring them the peace of acceptance for what life offers them. The healing and wholeness they find can enable them to trust the love that is offered them and to give love in return. Great love stories are about more than just romance and sexual chemistry and happily-ever-after. They are about two people who have lived long enough to have picked up baggage and to have constructed layers of armor and masks behind which they hide. They are about two people who at the start of a story are not ready or whole enough in themselves to take on the great risk of loving their way through life regardless of what the future may have in store for them. As a writer I love taking two such characters and showing the healing process, which must be both personal and shared. I love to take them to the point at which they trust love—trust that they are good enough to give it and worthy enough to receive it. I like to run them through the mill so that the happy ending can be all the more satisfying and believable. And I want readers to feel that yes, love works and suffering for the most part can be overcome.
In my book ONLY BELOVED, the final book in the Survivors’ Club series, George, Duke of Stanbrook, is a sad character. His only son was killed in the Napoleonic Wars and his wife committed suicide soon after. Since then he has devoted many years to helping severely wounded officers heal and recuperate on his large country estate. The stories of six of those people are told in the other books of the series. George is quiet and kindly and always ready to listen to other people’s sufferings. But deep inside is the raw wound of a far deeper torment than any of his friends suspect. Dora Debbins, whom he marries early in the book, saw the dreams of her young womanhood fade when her mother ran away from home with a lover, leaving Dora to bring up her much younger sister. After that sister married one of the other Survivors (in ONLY ENCHANTING), Dora was left alone, quiet and cheerful, seemingly content with her lot as an aging spinster giving music lessons in a country village but in reality deeply wounded. The marriage of the duke and Dora promises a placid sort of contentment to both. But the real suffering they hold deep and try to hide from each other must be confronted and dealt with if they are to know the full glory of love. In the course of the book I give them no choice, poor things!
As a reader, which would you prefer? To read about the placid contentment or to tackle the woundedness and the healing and the real, passionate love story to which it gives rise? To one person who leaves a comment below by Thursday, September 27, I will send a signed copy of ONLY BELOVED.
[The winner is CLAIRE GILLESS. Congratulations to her!]