FEELINGS Friday: Outlander and Feminist Historical Fiction.

This will be part of a new series on the blog called FEELINGS Friday, in which I tell you about something that is making me feel a lot of feelings.

It is no secret that I read a lot this summer. At the most, I went through three books a week. Most of it was good (Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness), but some of it was downright shittastic (anything vomited out of Stephenie Meyer’s computer). But there’s one book – or rather, one series – that made me want to throw copies at random people on the street and yell “READ THIS” at them at increasing decibel levels.

Outlander.

The Outlander series was one I had seen in many bookstores over the years, usually gigantic texts I skimmed over before going on to Neil Gaiman in the “fiction” section of my bookstore. The plot seemed a bit far-fetched to me – a married WW2 combat nurse is propelled back in time due to magic standing stones in Scotland and is forced into a second marriage with a Scottish outlaw and LOVE ENSUES. Seriously, the books are huge; the most renowned of the series, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, clocks in at about 900 pages. It’s a serious investment of time. So I skipped them because they just seemed like a lot of work. I was a dumb teenager.

At the time, my historical fiction was most definitively the “bodice ripper” variety. Tons of sex, a thin semblance of a plot, and more sex. (I was a virgin all through college, which is a whole other blog post. These books are how I survived.) Now that I’m older and a bit wiser – and academically trained to critique texts – I can see these books for what they really are. Wish fulfillment. Like I said, as a very sexually deprived young adult I was living out my fantasies through these tales of intrigue and hawt corset. I’m still a huge fan of historical romances and sexy scenes therein (One of my favorite scenes in Game of Thrones season 2 is when Robb and Talisa got it on on the floor of his tent, because YES), but I just haven’t been into those books in a while because I’ve been busy with my children’s literature studies. But a girl needs her downtime, eh?

I had heard that Outlander was getting made into a series by the same guy who brought us the remake of Battlestar Galactica, which I’ve seen enough episodes to know is Really Good, and the guy playing Jamie Fraser is really fine on the eyeballs. Also the guy playing Frank and Jack Randall played Edmure Tully in Game of Thrones. This show already had a pedigree.

So a few weeks ago, I picked up the first book before my vacation. I spent the entire week in Cape Cod devouring it and the second one, Dragonfly in Amber(which I found in a used bookstore in Hyannis for two dollars!). I was literally ignoring people I was vacationing with because I wanted to keep reading, which is probably not the best vacation decorum, but whatever.I’m currently almost done with the third book in the series, Voyager, and already have a copy of Drums of Autumn so I can start on that one immediately. Can you tell I’m jonesing on these books hard?

So basically, here is my list of Feelings regarding Outlander: the show and the book series.

Diana Gabaldon was inspired to write Outlander after watching an old episode of Doctor Who. The Doctor picks up a young Scotsman from 1745, kilt and all. Gabaldon found herself still thinking about that mental image the next day – in church – and decided to set her book series in 1740s Scotland, “With no plot, no characters, no ideas at all, just the very strong image of a man in a kilt.” And also, she wrote the book for practice. She never meant to publish Outlander, she just wanted to see if she could write a novel. I kind of hate her. And I love her.

Claire Beauchamp Randall is my feminist superhero. One of the reasons people kept recommending this series to me was because of Claire being such a feminist character. The author Diana Gabaldon has gone on record to say that she thinks the term ‘feminist’ is a shield weak people hide behind (BAD FORM, DIANA), which surprised me because Claire is a feminist badass of two centuries. The novel expertly showcases the misogyny Claire faces in the 18th century, which subtly foreshadows the limitations she also would have felt had she stayed in the 20th; WWII was over, and in many instances in Britain and America the wives that were working those rivets were expected to just settle back into their role as Baby and Bundt Cake Making Machines; they got a taste of feminist freedom, but peacetime forced them back into their wasp-waisted cages. In 1743, Claire has to deal with people not only assuming she would be docile because she’s a woman, but also a witch because she knows how to work with medicine. There’s a whole set piece in the book that has Claire and another woman (resident witch badass Geillis Duncan) put on trial for witchcraft. Additionally, much has been made of a scene in which Jamie, furious at Claire for putting much of the encampment in danger, spanks her violently. But it’s showing the tenor of the time because Jamie sees it as the way things are and Claire sees it as a violation.

It completely messes with your expectations. I expected Claire to get raped for a majority of Outlander. Not because I wanted to, but because I’ve read this genre too many times to not expect certain things. Usually, rape is used as a plot point for leading female characters in historical novels. So imagine my total surprise when Claire does not get raped – although the threat is there most of the time – and Jamie surrenders himself (in every single way you can imagine) to Captain Jack Randall in order to save his wife, and several pages later recounts – in GRAPHIC DETAIL – the ways in which the captain sexually assaulted him. I texted a friend of mine who is also a fan of the series basically like “?!?!” and she responded, “Yeah. I really liked how Gabaldon didn’t shy away from the really gruesome after-effects, either.” Which is true – Jamie is clearly traumatized, and it takes a lot of love and effort by Claire to heal him after the rape occurs. There’s a lot of moments in which Claire can’t even touch him, because Jamie can’t stop seeing John’s face. The trauma of rape is very well done; it’s a psychologically complex book. Before you come at me claiming that her categorization of gay men is binary, Diana Gabaldon wrote an entire series of books about a secondary character in the Outlander series that is a gay closeted Captain in the English army, and is a very decent and kind man who is deeply conflicted about his place as a gay man in times that weren’t too kind to LGBT individuals. 

Historical detail like woah. Do you want to know every single little thing about 18th century Scotland and France, as well as 1940s and 1960s medical practices? Read these books. Half the reason they’re so huge is because Gabaldon is one of those writers like Edward Rutherford who luxuriates in details. Plus, Gabaldon was a research professor, so it isn’t a surprise that she loves her some research and detail.

It defies categorization. One of the things I talk to my students about a lot is the concept of genre. In my case, it’s children’s literature, but there’s a lot of ways in which texts are either bound unhappily to their genre or they work to explode their constraints. Outlander doesn’t sit comfortably in any genre. There’s time-travel, but it’s not science fiction. There’s sex (and lots of it) but it’s not a romance. There’s LGBT themes, but it’s not an LGBT specific text. The best I can do is call it historical fiction, but there’s so much other stuff going on it’s still hard to describe it as just that.

The show is feminist fantasy manifest. I literally freaked out at several scenes in the first episode of the television adaptation of Outlander. The first episode has Frank Randall happily performing oral sex on a fully clothed Claire in the middle of an abandoned castle (“Why Mrs. Randall, I do believe you’ve left your undergarments at home.” GAHGSLFJKAS;LDJKF). He does this, mind you, after she pushes his head down. I am obsessed with this moment, because it’s not only hot as hell, but because it also foreshadows Claire’s position as a sexually realized and independent character, which highlights her frustration when she’s pitched back to a time period in which she can’t even get dressed or bathe herself without someone helping her. This is also illustrated by a flashback to the beginning of WW2, which shows us Frank seeing Claire off to the front lines at the train station and not the other way around. Frank voices this switch, saying, “This is backwards. I should be going, not you.” To which Claire sweetly replies, “Welcome to the 20th century.” And then I fistpumped so hard my arm hurt.
 The show is also very comfortable with displaying men as sexual subjects as well – in one scene, Claire has to change Jamie’s bandage, and the camera practically glares at Jamie’s chest and back as the firelight plays on his skin. You never see that kind of shot on Game of Thrones unless boobs are involved.

The sex scenes. YEOWZA. And that’s all I’ll say about them. But in all seriousness, they’re some of the best sex scenes I’ve ever read because as Diana Gabaldon says in her blog post titled “How to Write Sex Scenes”, sex is about the meeting of emotions, not body parts. There’s a whole scene in Voyager that’s just Jamie describing over three straight pages what he plans to do to Claire when they get alone, and I almost had to take the Ice Bucket Challenge to calm my ass down.

I should stop now, because there’s just so much else I could say. But WATCH THE SHOW. And also read the books, if you have time. They’re seriously enormous but so worth it.

More FEELINGS to come about Outlander, probably as the show starts to get deeper into the first book

ally

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2 thoughts on “FEELINGS Friday: Outlander and Feminist Historical Fiction.

  1. I love reading an Outlander virgin’s perspective on the books. Enjoy the rest of the ride! And to be completely fair, you should wait five years after reading Echo in the Bone before you start Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. You should suffer the wait the way the rest of us did. 😉

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