At the Back Fence Issue #314

August 18, 2008

From the Desk of Rike Horstmann:

Dumb Heroes

I must confess: I like my romance heroes to be intelligent. (Actually, the same applies to my fantasy and mystery heroes.) I admire wit and repartee, and the ability to insert an appropriate literary quote, or film quote, at the right moment can make my toes curl. Dorothy Dunnett’s Francis Lymond (from the Lymond Chronicles) is a firm favorite, as are Georgette Heyer’s Lord Damerel (fromVenetia) and and Alex Deveril (from Stella Riley’s The Marigold Chain).

Almost all heroes in romances are clever. After all, they are to be admired and lusted after, not just by the heroine, but by all readers, and a stupid hero just won’t do. In addition, they are expected to be financially successful. They must be able to deal with subordinates, colleagues, or peers. And they must be able to understand the heroine’s needs and solve her problems – or at least assist her in doing so. Having an unintelligent hero do all that is not really believable. In addition, being dim does not go well at all with being an alpha male. A stupid beta male will at least not be over-confident and bossy and will sometimes concede to other, more well-informed people. But a stupid man who in spite of his lack of intelligence tries to dominate in his dealings with others can be a real pain the posterior. (I am sure you all know such men from work or from the neighborhood, and not from your extended family, if you’re lucky.) In a romance, such a man will appear pompous and ridiculous, and be cast either as clown, bully or villain.

I am not exempt to the general assumption that a hero must be intelligent. In fact, I have come to realize that a romance hero acting TSTL can be a deal breaker for me and completely spoil an otherwise fine or better-than-average book. This year, I have read two books in which this posed a problem. In Overnight Male by Elizabeth Bevarly, Joel Faraday is a secret agent in charge of a mission in which other, more experienced agents have failed. Instead of concentrating on the job at hand, he continuously permits himself to be distracted with lusting after the heroine. This was no doubt meant to be romantic, proving the intensity of his attachment, but it only made me want to shake him and order him to get back to his job. The other example was worse. In Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace, the hero continuously indulged in impulsive behavior, each time completely forgetting the task at hand and instead, getting stuck on new heroic acts he might commit without any planning. His TSTL conduct made me grind my teeth and pushed a novel that was very readable otherwise thisclose towards DNF territory.

Two recent ATBF’s deal with what we expect from a hero – in the May 26th issue, Jane Granville considered the problem of heroes who could not give their heroines what they needed at a given moment – financially, emotionally, or physically – and the June 16th column, in which Robin Uncapher took a closer look at the apparent given that a hero must be rich. Both columns led me to think about heroes who fall short of the norm, intellectually. I have come up with four groups of dumb heroes: Nerd heroes who shine in their given fields yet are foolish in everyday matters; heroes who pretend to be dim for some reason or other; handicapped heroes; and heroes who really are less intelligent than average in some way.

I am a complete goner for all naturalist, scientist and academic heroes – if they are real, dedicated scientists, and no plot-device-scientists, that is – with favorites being Benjamin, Earl of Winchfield in Laura Paquet’s The Incomparable Cassandra, Robin Mayhew in the story A Maid at Your Window by Carola Dunn (from A Regency Valentine anthology), James Trevenen in Carla Kelly’s Beau Crusoe and, of course, David Huxley in Bringing Up Baby. There is a whole list here at AAR devoted to these delightful heroes. Yet a great deal of their charm stems from the fact that they are often clueless in most situations outside their studies, labs, or museums. This makes them funny and endearingly helpless – ripe for a strong woman to jump in and lend them a hand. Because they are so highly intelligent and capable in their fields, however, they do not appear weak and ineffective, which allows them to retain heroic status. In addition, the nerd hero can rise to the challenge and shine under adversity. An example of this type is Jack Langdon in Loretta Chase’s The Devil’s Delilah. The heroine, daughter of a man who lives by his wits and very clever herself, is at the beginning inclined not to take Jack very serious, considering him an unworldly scholar, albeit a charming one, and thus negligible. It is Jack, however, who manages to outwit Delilah’s and her father’s adversary, and in the end saves the day, to Delilah’s utter surprise. So while the nerd hero may at times act foolishly, on the whole his intelligence is undisputed, and he may even turn out resourceful outside the lab.

Then there are heroes who are actually very intelligent, but pretend the opposite to deceive others. This happens regularly in novels with a strong suspense plot, but a hero may also choose to act the fool for other reasons. In Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax, the heir of Lord Darracott is a grandson he has never seen, the son of his second son, an army officer who married a weaver’s daughter against his father’s wishes. Hugo is well aware that his extended family expects him to be an illiterate country bumpkin, and from a wicked sense of humor and a slight wish to revenge the way his mother and maternal grandfather are despised by the noble Darracotts, he plays the role of a naïve Yorkshireman to great effect. He is always good-hearted, however, and the Darracotts grow to like him in spite of his apparent lack of intelligence. In the end, in a long scene that proves him a master manipulator, he saves the day for one of his cousins and even gains the approval of his haughty aunt Lady Aurelia (one of the best older female characters Heyer even created – if you have not read the book, do so now, if just for the sake of the most marvelous cast of minor characters imaginable).

I can only recall one book I have read in which the hero pretends to be mentally handicapped. In Jennifer Blake’s Southern Rapture, set in post-Civil War Louisiana, the hero, who was hit on the head during the war, takes on the role of the generally beloved but harmless village idiot. At night, he rides around masked, playing the role of a Robin Hood who helps the poor. The heroine meets him both his masked, attractive, masculine persona and his mentally handicapped persona, and is attracted to both. I remember very clearly that I far preferred the sweet-natured simple man – probably because the Robin-Hood-type was straight from central casting – and got annoyed by the way the heroine vacillated between the two. The problem with heroes of this type is that even while he pretends to be stupid or mentally handicapped, he must be likable enough to make the attraction the heroine feels for him plausible, and he must retain the reader’s interest.

Heroes who are truly handicapped – either mentally or as regards speech – are exceedingly rare. One that comes to mind is Christian, Duke of Jervaulx in Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm. He begins the novel as one of the brilliantly clever heroes I like so much, a mathematician of renown, and then he suffers a stroke and loses the ability to speak, and with it, the ability to communicate at all, except in mathematical signs. The heroine, a mathematician’s daughter, recognizes the sine function he draws and is able to trigger his healing process. The book is incredibly moving, because we are inside Christian’s head a lot and suffer with him through his slow recovery of language. As we see his struggling, his frustrations, and his slow inner growth as he takes control of his life again and becomes a less shallow and selfish person in the process, he appears both deeply humane and heroic, a romance character that touched my heart more than most. I also love the fact that Laura Kinsale withholds complete recovery from her hero: Although he is much better by the end of the novel, and can live a normal life, some slowness of speech and thought remains. But as he has proven his inner worth, this slight handicap does not make him less of a man, and a hero, in any sense.

Slowness of speech is the handicap under which Hal Waterman, the hero of Julia Justiss’’s A Most Unconventional Match, suffers. He stuttered terribly as a child, and was and still is despised for his inability to express himself by his witty mother. He has learned to deal with his handicap to some extent, mostly by concentrating on what is important when he speaks, which makes for dramatically shortened utterances sometimes bordering on the incomprehensible. So to society he appears the inarticulate fool, and he also regards himself as slow and stupid. He is very talented in other fields, however: He has a keen mind for numbers and business, and is a successful entrepreneur. Language is not always a barrier for him either, as he can express himself perfectly well in writing and even pens poetry in his spare time.

As I read the book, I initially thought this was a bit much, and then I realized that in spite of Hal’s many hidden talents, the author doesn’t remove the true implications of his handicap. For one thing, he can never react quickly. As people jabber on around him, or as his mother (or the heroine) tells him off for something, he cannot assemble his words quickly enough to get an argument in or to defend himself. He has to wait, mutely, until he has put together an sentence, no matter if the conversation or the argument has moved on since. Second, when he gets emotional, he is unable to express his feelings as they rush through his head, and he becomes entirely mute. These are severe handicaps indeed! Hal is an immensely lovable hero first and foremost because he is honorable and unselfish, but also because he is a fighter, dealing with his affliction as well he can in spite of several drawbacks. It is also obvious that in the future his life will be a bit easier because he can rely on his wife’s intuition and quickness of tongue to support him in situations that used to overwhelm him – a HEA that depends not on his overcoming all difficulties but rather on two partners who complement each other in their strengths and weaknesses.

I have not yet read a romance in which the hero was mentally handicapped throughout, but this is what Ellen, my AAR colleague, told me: “I think the most unusual hero I have ever read was Pamela Morsi’s Simple Jess. It’s an Americana and takes place in a farming community. When he was born, Jess didn’t breathe for several minutes and he’s ‘slow’. Jess is very good though, and he can farm and hunt and, in his community he fits in pretty well. It’s a very touching book.”

Now I come to my last group: heroes who are really not particularly intelligent yet remain believable, likeable heroes to their stories. I have come up with only two heroes of that type, and each in his how way is brilliantly drawn. Sir Gerald Stapleton, the hero of A Precious Jewel by Mary Balogh, does not first come across as very sympathetic. He is insecure and diffident, he is shy socially and has only one very good friend, the Earl of Severn. Because he is afraid of a real relationship, he regularly visits a bordello, and because he is afraid of change and losing control, he wants the prostitutes there to always follow the same routine. In truth, he is boring and he knows it. It is here that he first meets the heroine, a prostitute whom he soon sets up as his mistress. It is here, too, that we first come to understand that there is more to him than meets the eye. He always treats the whores he has sex with with courtesy, and when Prissy, the heroine, is hit by a customer, all his chivalric instincts awaken, and he takes her under his protection. In the course of the book, his diffidence is suddenly seen as modesty, and his shyness is revealed to hide a generous and considerate nature. It is also revealed that his lack of self-confidence stems from a ghastly childhood culminating in a truly traumatic incident when he was eighteen. It is touching to read how his sense of self becomes more solid while he falls in love with Priss. He is still very vulnerable, however, and partly so because he does not tell her he loves her:

“And yet he said nothing to her. He did not need to – that was one reason why he said nothing. It was there between them, so obvious that even a third person could not miss it. […] And Gerald did not know the words – that was another reason. He had never been good with words or swift with thoughts. There was no way of putting into words what was there in his heart and his head and his eyes and his body – and that he saw reflected in her.”

So here we have no typical male aversion of speaking about emotions, but a man who is insecure with words in general, who has real trouble communicating his feelings and thoughts. Because of Prissy’s former occupation, she also lacks self-confidence, and this speechlessness drives a wedge between them for a while. To win her back, Gerald must gather a great deal of courage, and not just in his actions, but also in arguing with other characters and convincing them he is acting for the right reasons. Balogh also makes it very clear that Priss is the more intelligent and decisive character of the two. But Priss feels at no point superior to Gerald – instead she admires his strengths immensely and does not regard his weaknesses. There is a deeply illuminating vignette of Gerald and Prissy in another Balogh novel, A Christmas Bride, the book, btw, that describes his the traumatic event he endured. It is a year into their marriage and Gerald is very protective of Priss, unwilling to expose her to any situation that might cause her pain. It is Priss who is prepared to run a risk in this marriage, to leave the established pace of their contentment to gain greater happiness for her family. So what we have here is a hero who is less intelligent and less confident than the heroine, and for me, the author carries this combination off brilliantly. It must be said, however, that men like Gerald tend to be secondary characters in most romances, and actually Gerald started off as a secondary character in his best friend’s story, The Ideal Wife (for more on how the story developed, see our 2007 interview with Mary Balogh).

The second hero with less than average intelligence I want to discuss also seems to start off as a secondary character. At the beginning of Cotillion by Georgette Heyer, a rich old man announces to his grand-nephews that the one who wins the hand of his ward Kitty will inherit his fortune. Two grand-nephews comply, but each is refused, because the one that both the uncle and Kitty favor, Jack, has ignored the old man’s summons and does not turn up. Jack is the archetypal Regency hero: handsome, cool, sophisticated, a rake and gambler, and entirely unwilling to have his hand forced. Not surprisingly, Kitty has been secretly in love with him for years and now, in typical spunky Regency miss tradition, decides to run away to London to track him down there. At the local inn she encounters the Honorable Frederick Standen, another great-nephew, who was delayed on his trip and broke his journey for a meal. When he hears from Kitty why he has been summoned, he is deeply grateful for the warning and determined to return to London as soon as possible. The heir of a wealthy viscount, he is not in need of a rich bride and has no wish to get married just now. As soon as Kitty realizes she is safe from him, she determines on a change of plan: She bullies him into a false engagement so she can go to London to a visit with his family and thus meet Jack again. Freddy is a bit indolent and not too quick with words – like Hal, he mostly speaks in incomplete sentences – but he is also generous and good-natured, and so agrees to Kitty’s plan.

I remember when I first read Cotillion, I was firmly convinced Kitty would end up with Jack until about two thirds into the book. (Okay, I was about 14 then.) It was just what the plot – the convention – demanded. And Freddy does not come across as hero material at first. True, he is good-natured, but he also tends to panic when faced with a tricky situation, and tries to stay out of all trouble. His father and younger brother are undisputedly highly intelligent, and he is no match for them, so he has a fairly low opinion of his own intellect. He feels especially keenly that he, as the heir, is a disappointment to his clever father.

In looking out for Kitty, who while perceptive, is impulsive and very inexperienced and gets into several awkward situations, Freddy has apparently taken on the first real responsibility of his adult life, and he rises to the occasion. To his own surprise, and the reader’s, he discovers that although he is no intellectual, he is gifted with a great deal of practicality and common sense, and intuitively gets the measure of people. Kitty trusts his judgment implicitly and even compares him favorably to his brainy younger brother: “‘Charlie!’ uttered Miss Charing contemptuously. ‘I dare say he has book-learning, but you have – you have address, Freddy!’” Besides showing his inner growth, Heyer creates further admiration for Freddy in the reader by contrasting him with several other male characters. There is his cousin Lord Dolphinton, who really is simple – he was a seven-month baby and is very obviously much less intelligent than Freddy. And even he gets his romance, although it is clear that his bride marries him more for liking than love. Then there is Kitty’s French cousin, a man who usually lives by his wits but is so romantic that he becomes quite helpless once he falls in love. And there is Jack, who is certainly clever but so selfish that his abilities appear quite wasted. In the end it is Freddy, with his good heart and practical intelligence, who carries the day, solves everybody’s problems – because in contrast to other characters he takes the trouble to actually sit down and think before acting – and wins the girl. You can easily see that I consider Freddy Standen one of my all-time-favorite romance heroes!

All in all, while I am very fond of really clever romance heroes, occasionally I adore a hero who is less than perfectly sophisticated and intelligent. At least he’s unusual, and often more humane than a picture-book-perfect hero. In the hand of a good writer, such a man can appear as heroic and admirable or even more so that your standard hero.

Questions to Consider:

Are you okay with less-than-intelligent heroes?

Can you think of other romance titles with less-than-intelligent heroes? Please let us know who they were…and your reactions to them and the books they star in.

How do you react to TSTL behavior in a hero who is otherwise described as intelligent?

Do you feel there is a double standard for heroes and heroines where intelligence is concerned?

Is the less-than-intelligent hero – faux or real – more likely to appear in a dramatic romance or a humorous one, and does that color your impression of him?

Rike Horstmann