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About Face – thoughts on disability in fiction

Too often in fiction we like to see characters with a disability as “brave” or “tragic” – something that can be mended, or magicked away, or ignored, or overcome. Sweet, and gender-neutral, and slightly romantic, but broken: a thing not quite right, that can be made “right” – and socially acceptable – by an external agency, under the right circumstances. Because that’s the point of fiction, isn’t it? We can edit out the things we don’t want to know about, airbrush over the horrid bits, especially in historical fiction.

Well, I’ve been reading a lot lately about the soldiers in the first World War who suffered facial disfigurement, and the reconstructive surgery they were (and weren’t) offered. It’s been an ongoing battle in my head, around Thankful Russell, hence the research around facial disfigurement. Because it’s so hard not to slip into romantic hero mould and have him just lightly damaged but noble, like a sort of 1640s Heathcliff – dark and brooding and, well, Ross Poldark. After all, he’s handsome, right, our Russell? Fair and elegant and rather stunning from the right side – he can’t be too disfigured, not so it shows: that’s not how it works in books, he’s got to be just a little bit enigmatically damaged.

And he ain’t. The stories of those young men in the early twentieth century were heartbreaking – young men who’d lost their beauty by shrapnel, by machine gun, by fire, and who came home to find their sweethearts turning away, or that nurses didn’t want to remove their bandages because they didn’t want to see underneath. Their children cried to see them. Many of them turned to drink, many committed suicide because they were –
“..not meek and biddable, He was not grateful. He was sullen-mute and his cheek was an agony for most of his waking hours, itching and burning and throbbing. He whimpered and sobbed through most nights. He was barely worth the pennies Parliament paid for his care.” ( -A Cloak of Zeal)

I used to work with a man, some years ago, whose face had been badly burned in an incident at his old workplace and who had ended up having to be redeployed because he could not bear to be looked at. He’d grown a beard, which was possibly not one of his better ideas, because it had grown in patchy and fair over the scars. (He was rather gorgeous, actually, with or without the scars, but he wouldn’t have believed me if I’d told him.)

I had a really interesting review of the short story in which Russell meets the lady who will eventually become his wife (which is called “Si Tu Dois Partir” and it’s available in the anthology “Steel and Lace” HERE) in which it was described as the story of two less physically-fortunate people who manage to find a touching and meaningful love. I get that, I get that absolutely, but why on earth should the fact of Russell’s scarred face preclude him from romance?  Imagine a hero who isn’t sure if he can still kiss a woman, who slurs his words when he’s tired, who’s not prepared to meekly put up with being stared at by the curious and patronised by the great and the good. Imagine a man with a conspicuous facial disfigurement who’s still got a sexual identity, who is bloody good at his job, and who, every now and again, falls off the wagon when the strain of conforming to everybody else’s normal is too much for him.

Thankful Russell’s not pretty, not any more. Get used to it.

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One thought on “About Face – thoughts on disability in fiction

  1. I can remember a WWII RAF pilot whose face was badly scarred on one side, just a mass of red and pink shrivelled flesh. He moved to our quiet neck of the woods to avoid people. I was a kid when he finally braved to outside world, but to stare at his scar seemed a rude thing to do and I didn't, I focused on his face as though both sides were equal to his handsome side, and I never thought of his wound as repulsive. Deep inside I felt sorry for him, but when talking to him there was no voyeuristic fascination for my part and I think he knew that, because he never cocked his head to one side as he often did when speaking to other people and he didn't disappear inside his house or exit a shop at the first given opportunity as he did with others. Later on, as a teenager I can recall walking from town alongside him and conversing merrily as we stepped through the churchyard (a short cut) and he made a quip about one second longer stuck in the cockpit and there wouldn't have been enough of him left to bury, and what was half a face gone to that of those who had never returned. I couldn't think of any thing else to do but link my hand in his and we walked on that way for quite awhile until he paused beside a wall to pick a sprig of an overhanging fluffy yellow pompom flower (never can remember the name) and stuck it in my hair, a big grin to his face. There was nothing remotely sexual in his motive, and I shall never forget his words. “Thank you, for being my friend”. His wife was lovely too, but sadly they never had any children. I truly believe there's a place for disability within novels, and provides not only sense of realism, it can make a hero more of a hero in some respects, and even a minor character with a disability can shine as a hero or heroine in their own right.

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