Tainted, Kilted Love: Outlander & Dragonfly in Amber Reviewed

Considering that Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series stretches across eight novels (and two novellas, one short story, and one graphic novel), and I’ve only read the first two, maybe I’m about to put my foot in my mouth.  But I did promise my fellow blogger kestrelforaknave some words once I finished Dragonfly in Amber, so here they are.

First, to clarify, I have not seen the Starz Outlander show.  I have no idea how closely it follows the books, or if it has reached the Point of Contention yet.  If you want to read about the show, I’m afraid this isn’t the post for you.

Second, SPOILERS!!!  I will try not to reveal too much about the overall plots of Outlander (Book 1), or Dragonfly in Amber (Book 2), but I will be talking in depth about the relationship between the two main characters.  If you want to start this book series without knowing anything at all, read no further.

Okay, did I chase off all my readers?  Good.  Here we go.

The Outlander series follows the historical, romantic, and marginally sci-fi adventures of Claire Randall/Beauchamp/Fraser, an Englishwoman and World War II nurse.  In Book 1, Claire accidentally leaves her husband, historian Frank Randall, behind in 1945 when she stumbles through some Scottish standing stones that send her back to 1743.  She is first assaulted by one of Frank’s ancestors, Captain Jack Randall, an English dragoon, and then is kidnapped by a band of Scottish cattle rustlers.

The Scots take Claire to Castle Leoch, stronghold of the MacKenzie clan, and far away from the standing stones and her hopes of reuniting with Frank.

Claire looks terribly suspicious to the English as well as the Scots.  (It doesn’t help that the English and the Scots really don’t like each other in the 1740s.)  Claire’s nursing skills give her a chance — armed with germ theory and practice from stitching up WWII wounded, she quickly gains reputation as a healer with uncommon skill.  But she is still assumed to be someone’s spy.  The MacKenzies are ordered to take Claire to an English prison, where she will likely be tortured by Jack Randall himself.  To save herself from this, Claire is forced to marry Jaime Fraser.

This isn’t so terrible — Claire already has the hots for Jaime, red maned Scottish Adonis that he is.  And Claire is a pragmatic woman.  She must remain free and whole if she is ever to return to Frank.

Yet by the end of Book 1, Claire CHOOSES to stay in the very dangerous past with Jaime instead of returning to “modernity” and Frank.  And at first glance, the choice doesn’t make any sense, considering the Point of Contention.

Just what is the Point of Contention?  One time, after Claire acts recklessly and puts her few allies in danger, Jaime beats the crap out of Claire.

Personally, I applaud Gabaldon for having the guts to write this twist into an otherwise perfect relationship — and to write it happening largely on page, in the first person of the victim.  I applaud her for not patronizing her readers with a sanitized version of history — in her 1740s Europe, constant illness and physical and sexual abuse is the norm.  But admittedly, Gabaldon didn’t stick the landing on the Point of Contention.

Jaime gets back in Claire’s good graces within days, and she chooses to happily follow him into outlawry, murder, treason, and mortal peril.

I’ve read a number of reviews on Book 1 where the reader could not get past this.  And that’s fine.  The book is frequently billed as romance, and as I understand it romance is not supposed to be risky — it’s supposed to be safe.  For the more adventurous romance fan, or someone who came for the history, or the sci-fi, the beating is totally icky and deserves a trigger-warning.  If this kind of morally gray place isn’t somewhere you want to be, I can respect that.

But in Gabaldon’s defense, CLAIRE IS NOT OUR CONTEMPORARY!  Book 1 was published in 1991, but Claire is from 1945.  Perhaps a little spousal abuse doesn’t seem like anything to get worked up over to her, especially since Jaime makes a great case for himself (his own self-aware history of beatings at the hands of his father and the English government).  He also promises never to strike her again — a promise he does keep, at least through the end of Book 2.

Still, it’s too perfect.  Except if you read on, it isn’t.  Jaime does respect and adore Claire, but then completely disregards her.  He comes back with apologies, but he does knowingly and willingly betray her first.  Jaime’s a big, strong man, and he does shake Claire and physically intimidate her.  Book 2 reveals another problem — since Claire is a woman (and the first person narrator), she (and we) get left behind sometimes while Jaime carries the plot forward.

And there’s the whole mortal peril thing.

If Claire is as savvy as she seems, why does give up her chance to go back through the standing stones?  Why does she stay in the past with Jaime who abuses, and not return to the “present” and Frank?

Well, there are hints that life with Frank isn’t all that Claire hoped for.  She grew up on archeological digs, roughing it, so the quiet life of a history professor’s wife might look dead dull  to her.  Frank bores her in the few chapters they actually spend together.  And Frank seems to have secrets.  They loved each other before the war, but maybe after it their relationship is heading for a breakup anyway?

Or not.  In Book 2 we learn that Claire does eventually go back to the “present”, and has 20 years with Frank before his death.  But we don’t see this relationship, we can only infer it.   Considering that Frank and Claire were together during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and Claire becomes a doctor, and then chief of staff at a large hospital, I can’t believe they never had any Mad Men era marital strife.  It’s hinted that they stayed together for their daughter (well, Claire and Jaime’s daughter), and to avoid the scandal of the good Professor Frank Randall abandoning the wife who went missing for three years.

Perhaps the other books in the series will explore Frank and Claire’s relationship.  Maybe I’m right about them, maybe not.  But for anyone claiming Gabaldon is a false feminist — you’re wrong.

Sure, the main villain of Book 1 — Jack Randall — is gay.  He displays a consistent choice for men (or boys) over women, although his real turn on is pain and suffering.  He certainly isn’t the effeminate, showy, Disney villain sort of gay, which is a triumph considering this is a ‘90s book.  And I hear there is a prominent gay character later in the series — a good guy this time.  Does that make up for it?  Is a gay villain (or any minority villain) necessarily a bigoted thing to write?

I don’t have any hard and fast answers here.  Feel about Jack Randall as you will.

But Claire and Jaime’s relationship troubles are not grounds for taking away Gabaldon’s feminist card.  For one, Claire may put up with Jaime’s flaws, but she doesn’t make excuses for them ala Bella Swann, or Anastasia Steele.  For another, Gabaldon’s overall thematic thrust is that there are plenty of situations out there with no good choices.  Frank, or Jaime — either is a chance for happiness or misery, and there’s no telling which, if either, will be good for you in the long run.  Sometimes the right choice seems obvious in hindsight — but maybe it wasn’t really the right choice.  Since it wasn’t the choice made, you’ll never know.

It’s Catch-22, but with time-travel, sexy Scots, and spousal abuse.  And no, I guess that’s not necessarily feminist.

What is feminist is that Gabaldon is grappling with women’s issues the whole time.  Marginalization.  Witch hunts (figurative and literal).  Limited resources.  Reliance on men.  Fears about childbirth and childlessness.  And hey, spousal abuse!

There’s a lot more to these books, but I don’t want to spoil any more of them for you if you’re still interested.  And if Outlander’s not your cup of tea, that’s okay too.  But it’s still feminist.

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2 thoughts on “Tainted, Kilted Love: Outlander & Dragonfly in Amber Reviewed

  1. Nice. While I stand solidly behind my own Outlander antipathy, I am genuinely glad to hear you enjoyed the books on your second readthrough, and I appreciate the more detailed insight into your appreciation for them. That said, I think I (respectfully!) disagree with your thesis here: not that Gabaldon herself isn’t feminist (I don’t know her, and certainly don’t consider myself equipped to pass that judgement), but that the book is feminist by dint of being a female character’s story seems faulty. I’m persuadable on that point, perhaps, but simply put, I find the following collective elements heavily outweigh any claims to feminism: attempted rape used repeatedly as shortform high-stakes conflict, frequent damselling from which Jamie or other men must save Claire on nearly all occasions, post sexual assault victim-blaming, spousal abuse without real exploration of consequence, and romanticized spousal rape. Many feminist and feminist-friendly literary works feature dark themes and violence, certainly, but in my opinion, Gabaldon fails badly at credible follow-through, instead remaining fixated on sustaining a romance that ought to (at the least) truly suffer from these events. Glossing over abuse of the main character tacitly but effectively condones it, and at no time are there real consequences for either Jamie or Claire. So while it’s a book about a woman (though chiefly as she relates to the men in her life, as Claire doesn’t exhibit much if any character growth), I don’t see it as either interested in women’s issues outside of their application to Claire, or particularly friendly to women, even if it had great potential for developing both topics.
    I’m disappointed the rumored positively-depicted gay character wasn’t introduced in the second book, as I’ve been very curious about that, too. While having a gay (or other minority) villain isn’t, in my opinion, automatically taboo, relying on tired stereotypes is at best dodgy and lazy. Jack Randall isn’t effete– though I seem to recall the Duke of Sandringham, the only other homosexual character in the book, is described derisively as such by the clansmen– but he is represented as violently sexually deviant, turned on most by pain and suffering, while Sandringham is described as being a predator around whom young men are unsafe, and with whom Jamie had a previous non-consensual encounter. Did Gabaldon intentionally go 2:2 on ugly stereotypes in her homosexual representations? I have no idea, but she gets no points for inclusion from me, and I don’t count the book’s publication date as a pass, either: Dorian Gray predates it by a century, E.M. Forster’s 1914 love story Maurice was (posthumously) published in 1971, Anne Rice has been (in her words) writing without regard for specific gender norms or sexuality since the 1970s, and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, published in 1994, prominently features a sympathetic gay soldier among its bevy of narrators.
    Which I guess adds up to, agree to disagree. I’ve really enjoyed these exchanges, though, so thank you!

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    1. You know, I forgot about Sandringham. Okay, Gabaldon apparently bought into a bigoted trope early in her series. Maybe her understanding of the issue evolved? Or not? I would have to read the rest of the series (something I will likely do, eventually) to have a fair opinion.

      As to the damseling, almost-rapes, lack of consequences and such — I guess I’m forgiving because Gabaldon is not only an excellent writer, she’s daring. She’s trying to walk a tightrope between having an active, capable female protagonist and write about a generally realistic past at the same time. As I said, she’s “grappling” with women’s issues through the lens of a woman from the 1940s who has never heard of feminism beyond the suffragette movement, who doesn’t necessarily believe that a husband can rape his wife or that a woman should work out of the home.

      It is problematic — I can’t deny that. But while Gabaldon isn’t necessarily making all the right choices story-wise, she is at least wrestling with the concepts in a way that gives her readers some food for thought. (Why don’t I give the same charitable consideration to GRRM, who I declared not-a-feminist in a recent post? He may have female characters, but he doesn’t tackle women’s issues except perhaps in the most superficial way.)

      And I find her work — and critically examining her work — to be good grist for my own writing mill. Thank you for taking on Outlander with me, kestrelforaknave! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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