Romances and Deaf Characters
I’m a volunteer for a literature project that aims to list every novel with a specific theme or trope in a reference database, and I’m involved with two databases: ‘Deaf Characters in English-Language Literature’ and ‘Non-Caucasian Characters in British Literature’.
When I joined the ‘Deaf Characters in Literature’ (DCIL) project years ago, there were only three listed in the Romantic Fiction section. American author Harper Lee’s iconic novel To Kill a Mockingbird (the Tutti and Frutti sisters), Italian author Dacia Maraini’s 18th-century historical novel The Silent Duchess, and British author Catherine Cookson’s it’s-all-grim-up-north family saga novel, The Mallen Girl. That was roughly seven years ago. Today, the Romantic Fiction section of the DCIL database has over 200 titles published last eighty-odd years. Yay! There are still more to log, though.
Anyroad, this database reveals some interesting patterns and tropes among romance novels featuring deaf characters. Here goes my casual observations:
The majority of deaf characters are found in Category Romance, particularly Harlequin Superromance, Silhouette Intimate Moments, and Loveswept.
These characters are more likely to be female, usually as heroine or female relative. When the heroine is deaf, the hero is more likely to be a doctor (Elizabeth August’s Silhouette Romance, Lucky Penny) or father of a deaf child (Sandra Canfield’s Harlequin Superromance, Star Song). However, if a deaf character is 10 or under, then the character is likely to be male; usually Hero’s son or orphaned nephew (Bobby Hutchinson’s Sheltering Bridges and Rachel Ryan’s Eloquent Silence). In those cases, the heroine is more likely to be a speech therapist, deaf school teacher or – for a historical romance – a governess or companion (Barbara Hazard’s Midnight Magic).
While Category Romance has its share of deaf stereotypes and tropes, there is enough variety that it could use to save its face. Such as Susan Drake’s SIM Hear No Evil with deaf heroine as a muralist and hero as a Greek hotel owner, and Suzanne Ellison’s Harlequin Superromance, Words Unspoken, with deaf hero Gunnar as a marine biologist and heroine Meredith as his ASL interpreter.
Candace Irvin makes it more interesting with her action-packed SIM The Impossible Alliance by making her heroine ARIES agent Alexis Warner deaf. Likewise with Mary Kay McComas’s popular Loveswept romance, To Give a Heart Wings, for making her deaf heroine a photographer and hero a racing driver. Also, Julie Miller’s Silhouette Intrigue Police Business features a deaf, rich heiress as a murder witness whom hero police detective thrives to protect.
There’s Kevin’s Story by Sally Goldenbaum and Adrienne Staff (Loveswept, 1986, no. 165). Not only our hero Kevin is deafened and a sign language user, he runs a successful biscuit company; surprisingly rare for a deaf character in fiction. I say surprising because there were quite a few deaf business owners and entrepreneurs in real life last few centuries, but it rarely happened in fiction. I find this odd. Deaf people in real life – especially during 20th century as a result of the International Milan Congress of 1880 – couldn’t get jobs, so they set up businesses of their own. Such as Irish born-deaf immigrant Michael O’Neal who founded a business that employed 100+ window cleaners across New York City between 1870s and 1890s. Kevin originally appeared in What’s a Nice Girl…? (Loveswept, 1985, no. 97) as a best friend of uptight hero Dr. Logan Reed who was falling for Susan, a perky Jewish woman. Apparently, Kevin was such a hit with readers that Goldenbaum and Staff decided to pen Kevin’s story, which they ultimately used as the title. FWIW, I thought Kevin’s Story was rather sweet and charming.
I don’t read Inspirational romances, but there is a listing of Arlene James’s The Heart’s Voice (Love Inspired, 2004) that features hero Daniel Holden who lost his hearing to an explosion during a military mission. I think there are more, but The Heart’s Voice is the one that was frequently recommended by Inspirational romance readers. According to some, deafness in Inspirational romance is generally used as part of God’s teaching as well as an emotional conflict between hero and heroine. Interestingly, the majority of deaf characters are male, usually as hero or a relative.
For Traditional Regency Romance genre, almost all deaf characters are female and widowed. Deaf heroes are as common as hen’s teeth. Also in this sub-genre, the two most popular causes of deafness are a childhood fever (typhoid fever, meningitis or scarlet fever) and domestic violence. I found the latter rather interesting because a beating usually leaves a person deaf in one ear, not in both ears. As one audiologist pointed out, if the beating was severe enough to render a person deaf in both ears, the person would be already dead. Heh!
For Historical romance genre, it’s fifty-fifty, but deaf heroes are more likely to be found in Medieval-era historical romances while it’s the 19th century setting for deaf heroines. However, all deaf characters in American historical romance genre found so far are female (Catherine Anderson’s Annie’s Song). In fact, quite a few romance readers have recommended Mary Balogh’s Georgian-era historical romance, Silent Melody, and Catherine Anderson’s American historical romance, Annie’s Song.
For what it’s worth, I generally find Catherine Anderson’s books a tad too manipulative for my taste, which is the case with Annie’s Song. However when she stated in an interview that she did extensive historical research for this novel, I believed her because I didn’t come across any major clangers and common misconceptions, usually found in other romantic novels featuring deaf characters, in Annie’s Song. Kudos to Anderson. I’m sorry that I can’t say the same for Balogh’s Silent Melody, though, but it found a place in many Top 100 Romance Novels lists, so you might enjoy her portrayal of deaf heroine Lady Emily.
It’s interesting to note that romance authors tend to associate deafness with music or sound in their stories. Such as pairing a musician character with a deaf character, or use sounds to highlight a deaf character’s solitude. Seeing that it’s appeared in at least 80% of romantic fiction featuring deaf characters, it suggests that the majority of romance authors thought music and sound mattered more to their deaf characters.
A pity really, because the majority of real-life deaf people were historically more interested in art, literature, crafts, sports or other fields than sound-related fields, such as music. Notable people: our failed Scottish painter Walter Geikie who’s still regarded as a hero in the Scottish community for his biting social commentary and black-line illustrations of Scotland’s class system; 18th century French publisher and author Pierre Desloges who wrote and published several political books during the French Revolution; Irish 19th century watercolourist Sampson Towgood Roch who set a trend with his 1820s portraits of ordinary lives; 15th century Spanish nun and feminist writer Teresa de Cartagena and French sculptor Hippolyte Montillie who created a bronze statue L’Honneur dominant la Discords before moving to America in 1901. I must give a little shout-out to English carpenter Robert ‘Mouseman of Kilburn’ Thompson, who included his signature – a little mouse – on every furniture item he created. I find this adorable. Other favourites: American major league baseball player William “Dummy” Hoy and human anatomy illustrator Katherine Jane Gilmore in Victorian London. I nod towards MacCoinnich Bodhar (Deaf Mackenzie), AKA Francis Humberstone Mackenzie the 1st Baron Seaforth (1754-1815), who was a reformist in favour of anti-slavery, parliamentarian, and all-round pompous ass. But I digress.
Across the sub-genres of Romance, almost all deaf characters could lip-read with ease and have no problem communicating with a wide range of people and often all day (lip-reading is as demanding as playing a fast-paced video game). It’s well known that lip-reading in a candle-lit or dim room is near impossible and yet, many authors had their characters lip-reading with ease in that condition. Authors occasionally forgot that their characters were deaf as many had those characters conversing in the dark, which amused me so much.
There is also a solid belief among authors (and readers) that deafness goes hand in hand with mutism, which I found frustrating because it’s the biggest misconception that Deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people are still battling against today. Mutism is a separate disability, which has nothing to do with deafness. The old terms ‘deaf-mute’ and ‘deaf and dumb’ refer to deaf people who chose to communicate in finger-spelling or sign language, not speech. The frequency use of these terms in 19th-century news and Victorian fiction had unfortunately created and fostered an incorrect belief that it meant deaf people literally couldn’t speak. It’s a shame that this belief is still very much alive in today’s fiction and, of course, the media.
There’s also a belief that there is no degree of deafness as almost all authors have made their deaf characters completely deaf*. Complete deafness in real life is as common as violet eyes, e.g. it’s a rarity. However, there are some authors who chose to go against that. As far as I can see, Catherine Anderson, author of Annie’s Song, is the only one who showed that her deaf heroine could hear some sounds, but couldn’t identify them anyway. This is very common among deaf people in real life, the past and the present.
*There are some authors who opted for the cochlear implant route, such as Neesa Hart’s contemporary romance, A Kiss to Dream On. All right, it’s getting a bit awkward now. Generally, a cochlear implant cannot restore hearing as it’s just a permanent form of a hearing aid, but many romance authors chose to believe it can restore full hearing and portrayed it as such, accordingly. However, it’s a sensitive – and often, controversial – topic for many, particularly Deaf people and parents of deaf children, so I won’t discuss those books here because I don’t want to be dragged into a debate about the ethics of cochlear implants. Anyroad, it doesn’t change the fact that complete deafness is a rarity.
Speaking of rarity, we still haven’t found a SF romance, futuristic romance or – apart from Vivian Arend’s Wolf Signs (Samhain, 2009) with deafened heroine as a werewolf – paranormal romance that features deaf characters. Does anyone know any?
There are deaf characters in LGBT fiction, but the cataloguing is still rather chaotic because a few suggested titles with those they characterised as deaf when in fact they aren’t. Their disability is mutism which, as I said earlier, has absolutely nothing to do with deafness. In gay fiction, there are 12 titles listed and for the m/m genre, about eight. I read only two, though, which are St. Nacho’s – Z A Maxfield (Loose ID, 2009, contemporary m/m) and Learning to Dharn – Ann Somervile (2011, alternate historical reality m/m). I suspect there are more, so I welcome suggestions and recommendations.
Surprisingly, there is no romantic novel that features a deaf lesbian, deaf asexual person or any other LGBTIQ person. Believe me, we’ve trawled through the Pink Library on our knees with a fine comb. All we could find is a couple of casual references, found in an avid reader’s diary, to an unidentified short story. Rather strange, don’t you think? But if you know there is one out there, please do let us know.
I think I have rambled long enough. Here are some books that may interest you:
The Raging Quiet – Sherryl Jordan (Simon Pulse, 2004, YA historical fiction)
Set somewhere in medieval-like England, farmer’s daughter Marnie marries a lord’s son to ensure her mother could continue living at their farm after her father dies. Her husband, who’s older than Marnie by twenty years, takes her to a coastal village to live at his beloved cottage. As she struggles to settle in her new life, she’s treated as an outcast by suspicious villagers. She makes a daily escape to the countryside where she one day meets Raven, a seemingly wild-natured handsome boy her age.
Marnie eventually discovers he’s deaf, not a devil-cursed lunatic that the village thinks he is. This prompts her to learn hand gestures to communicate with him, which helps to deepen their friendship and ease their loneliness. It’s Happy Days for them, until her husband’s killed in an accident. This prompts the village to believe that Marnie had used witchcraft to kill her husband, to make room for Raven in her life. Marnie pretty much goes “Are you really that stupid, villagers?” while Raven nods in support. That’s when everything goes to the dogs for all involved.
Although it’s a YA novel, it’s one of the most compelling I read. To be honest, I can’t even articulate because basically, it has to be read to believe. I felt Sherryl Jordan did a decent job with her portrayal of a deaf character. And frankly, by making dates and places as vague as possible, Jordan got away with certain details she wouldn’t otherwise have with a straightforward historical novel.
Mouth to Mouth – Erin McCarthy (Brava, 2005, contemporary romance).
See Jane’s review of the 2009 reissued edition here to find out why it won a B grade off her. https://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/review-mouth-to-mouth-by-erin-mccarthy/.
Ashblane’s Lady – Sophia James (Harlequin Historical Romance).
In spite of my dislike for this (not only because it’s set in Scotland, I wasn’t keen on James’s portrayal of a deaf character), author Jane Beckenham gave Ashblane’s Lady a grade A, as seen in her DA review here. https://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/guest-review-ashblanes-lady-by-sophia-james/
The Tailor’s Daughter – Janice Graham (St. Martin’s Press, 2006, Victorian historical novel).
Gifted seamstress and trader’s daughter Veda Grenfell falls in love with Harry Breadalbane, a viscount and heir to Earldom, but she believes she could not marry him because of a huge class gap between them. And yet,
I know zero about Victorian fashion and all that sort, but this story – told through Veda’s eyes – had my attention from its opening line – “We all believed I had passed through the worst”, which goes on to describe how typhoid fever almost took her life but left her deafened instead – to the end. Not a typical historical romance either. I agree with one GoodReads reviewer who describes this novel as “schizophrenic” for not being able to make its mind up whether it’s a historical romance, historical fiction or historical mystery. This leaves an impression that it’s a mildly messy hybrid of all three. In spite of this and the occasionally modern voice, I enjoyed it all the same. Must be one of those rare days when I’m not so nitpicky. I’d tear it into pieces if I dared to re-read, I bet. Silly, really.
Baby, I’m Yours – Susan Andersen (Avon, 1998, contemporary road romance)
Bail enforcer Sam McKade mistakes deaf school teacher Catherine MacPherson for her twin sister Kaylee, who’s wanted for grand auto theft, and takes her on road from Seattle to somewhere in Miami. It’s been a while since I read it, but I remember enjoying it quite a bit.
Technically, it’s not a ‘deaf’ book but Catherine is a CODA (child of Deaf adult) and a deaf school teacher. There is a brief scene in which she communicates with a deaf stranger in sign language, which was a pleasant surprise. At least Catherine is a lot nicer than Judith Lee, also a deaf school teacher, from Richard Marsh’s Edwardian-era detective novel, The Adventures of Judith Lee (1916). Well okay, Judith Lee is cooler for knowing Jujitsu, which she used on baddies without qualms.
I haven’t read those books listed below, but they were recommended by romance readers over last few years:
Sweet Talk – Susan Mallery (HQN, first book in the Keyes Sisters trilogy).
It won a grade B from Jane who reviewed it here. https://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/overall-b-reviews/review-sweet-talk-by-susan-mallery/
Heart Sounds – Michele Johns (Harper Monogram, 1993, American historical romance).
A friend swore on her family’s fiercely protected recipe book that this American historical romance features the best portrayal of a deaf character she’d come across.
Beyond Paradise – Elizabeth Doyle (Zebra, 2004, pirate historical romance).
Somewhere in the Caribbean during the 1660s, the legendary but imprisoned pirate hero Jacques has somehow turned posh girl Sylvie Davant into his hostage during a bid for freedom from his dank prison.
The Gate to Eden – Cathy McDavid (Dorcester, 2006, American western historical romance)
Widowed Maddie Campbell solicits donations from the rich (translation: steals from the rich) on the behalf of a struggling coal-mining community and her young deaf daughter. It gets dicey when a mysterious lawman turns up in their town to investigate robberies.
A Hearing Heart – Bonnie Dee (Liquid Silver Books, 2009, American western historical romance)
It does enough to win a B grade from Jayne, as seen in this review here https://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/review-a-hearing-heart-by-bonnie-dee/
On my current deaf/romance reading list, I have Tessa Dare’s Regency-era romance Three Nights With a Scoundrel (2010) that tells a tale of Julian Bellamy craps himself when he realises he has feelings for Lily, his dead best friend’s deaf sister. I also have Antony John’s acclaimed YA novel, Five Flavours of Dumb (2010), featuring a deaf school student who somehow become the manager of a rock band called Dumb.
Do you have favourites you would like to share? Quite a few recommended Suzanne Brockmann’s military adventure romance, Into the Fire, and Tessa Dare’s Regency romance, Three Nights With a Scoundrel, actually. Did you enjoy those? How about Kristen Hannah’s rather unconventional handling of her heroine’s deafness in her time-travel romance, Once in Every Life? How do you feel about the general portrayal of deafness in fiction? Or other disabilities if you like.
Cheers for now.