where no man has gone before: historical fiction, romance, and feminism in the Outlander series

I can’t stand romance novels. This isn’t because I don’t love a good romance, because I do. But the problem with standard romance novels (at least the ones I’ve read) is that the romance a) makes up the entirety of the plot and b) is not even developed convincingly and/or starts dubiously with some sex scene that borders on rape (but she secretly really wants it so it’s okay!). I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that for a story to be solely about a romance, it needs to be really, really, good, or I won’t like it (though I’d love to be proven wrong that these don’t exist).  So, fine. Whatever. But I do love a good romance, so what’s a girl to do?

The answer usually comes in the form of a novel that features a romance, but also has a larger, overarching plot, and the romance is developed through and along with said plot. A great example is the fantasy/sci-fi novel Archangel by Sharon Shinn, which was actually recommended to me by my good friend Julie as “a romance novel with no sex and a great plot.” Great! Though in this case, I would’ve loved a good sex scene, the story largely works because it has the classic “guy and girl meet and can’t stand each other” plot along with amazing world building and fascinating politics and intrigue.

Along the same line, I recently finished the seven books (so far) of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. The first book was published in 1991, and I remember my mom reading the books when I was younger. It was always something I wanted to check out, and last summer after graduating from grad school, I had plenty of free time and wanted another long series to start after finishing A Dance with Dragons. Outlander did the trick, and then some. The reason this series is so great is that it ticks a lot of boxes in terms of things that interest me. Good romance that subverts a lot of typical romance novel tropes, check. Interesting and detailed plot, check. Great characters you can fall in love with, check. Books over 1000 pages, check.

For those of you who aren’t aware, the series revolves around a 20th century British woman, Claire Randall, who is accidentally transported back in time to 18th century Scotland. There she meets Jamie Fraser, a young Highlander, and through various circumstances, they’re forced to get married (even though Claire is already married to someone back in her own time). Shenanigans and romance ensue! The rest of the book, and the series, details Claire and Jamie’s lives and exploits, which take them all over the globe, from France, to the West Indies, to North Carolina. There are a wealth of great supporting characters, and what is so refreshing to me about this series, is that while it is undoubtedly Claire and Jamie’s story, their world and people around them are so well developed, as are dynamics among the characters. Claire and Jamie’s relationship is the central relationship of the novels, but there are so many other people that they meet and love and hate; it helps all the characters to feel more like real people, and serves to develop Jamie and Claire, not just as a couple, but as individuals, which is what most romance stories lack.

the first of seven in the series (my personal favorite is A Breath of Snow and Ashes)

the first of seven in the series (my personal favorite is A Breath of Snow and Ashes)

Several things about the series stand out to me as being worth some analysis, one of which sort of caught my interest my accident. One day I got curious about whether any critical work has been done on Outlander, so I did a search on JSTOR and some other databases. Nothing came up; the only stuff I found was from popular sources like People magazine. I’m not sure what I was expecting to find, but I did come across a brief sort-of related article about historical fiction and feminism, the idea being that history written from a woman’s point-of-view, or detailing women’s involvement in historical events (as much of historical fiction does) is a sort of act of feminist re-writing of history. This is a point that seems pretty obvious, but I’d never really thought it through before. History is, as a discipline, largely dominated by men and their contributions to civilization, simply because men, for a long period of time, were the only ones who were deciding what history was. And history is nothing if not selective.

Though the piece didn’t mention Outlander, I immediately started making connections. The series is undoubtedly a kind of historical fiction, though its genre is impossible to pin down, since there’s also the whole time travel element to consider. Fantasy sci-fi historical fiction? The interesting thing about the time travel element is that it takes the act of historical fiction one step further. Not only is Claire a woman narrator, coming into contact with famous historical figures (King Louis of France and Benedict Arnold, to name a few) and influencing or attempting to change major historical events (don’t want to give too much of the plot away by saying what!) but she isn’t even supposed to be there. She has, for unknown reasons, breached the boundaries of time and space, and becomes a 20th century woman, with 20th century ideals, in an 18th century world, a dangerous place for women, as she discovers time and again.

In doing this, the novels force entry into a largely male space. As an author, Gabaldon is taking a female narrator and making her the focal point in events where women’s roles are largely overlooked. As a character, Claire is literally thrown back in time, and just her presence there immediately alters the future, which will become the past: history. It is interesting that Gabaldon chose to make Claire’s first husband, Frank, a historian. He attempts to uncover the past, though of course can never actual touch or see it; Claire actually goes there (and meets one of Frank’s ancestors, who looks scarily like him). Take that, Frank! Additionally, while the first novel is solely Claire’s point-of-view, the other novels do feature point-of-views from other characters, including Jamie. However, Claire’s are the only accounts that are in first person, allowing her to remain the undeniable main character and heroine of the story. By granting Claire the first-person narration in the historical context presented above, Gabaldon creates a character who is in control of herself, her story, and in a way, history and time.

Claire is of course faced with the ordeal of being in a time and place where her futuristic views are not welcome. As a doctor, she faces suspicion and fear from those who think she is a witch, or simply derision from those who think she, as a woman, shouldn’t take on such a profession. Additionally, she struggles with having to see and experience the fact that being a woman in the 18th century oftentimes wasn’t all that great. Another reason Jamie and Claire’s marriage is so interesting is that they often clash when it comes to their ideals. Naturally, Claire and Jamie don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, seeing as how they were raised in two very different societies and times, and all the other trouble you’d expect when you’re married to someone from a different century. So, they fight. A lot. But ultimately, Jamie respects Claire as an equal, because Claire demands that he does. I can’t enjoy a lot of historical romances, because the power dynamic is usually so skewed that I again come up against that consent issue that bothers me about so many romance novels.

It seems that Gabaldon has taken special care not to fall into that trap by subverting quite a few romance novel tropes. For one, Jamie is younger than Claire by about 5 years; at the beginning of the series he is 22 and she is 27. When they marry, he is a virgin. She is, obviously, as a married (to someone else, in the future) woman, not. This was about the time in the novel that I started cheering. Finally! A first-time sex scene where the woman is more experienced! The relationship also subverts a number of other tropes; Jamie seems to fall in love with Claire almost instantly, while she doesn’t start to love him until they have already married.

This is not to say that the subverted tropes fix everything; there is one scene where Jamie straps (whips) Claire for disobeying him; he doesn’t want to, or take any pleasure from it, but “has to” do it, in order to fulfill his role as a man and husband. At first, I was afraid of where this would take the novel in terms of the relationship dynamic. However, though the scene was deeply uncomfortable to read, ultimately, Claire understands why Jamie did it, but then tells him that she won’t stand for it happening again, ever. And it doesn’t. Her anger was a good thing; it told me that this wasn’t going to be a story about a woman being “tamed” through sexualized abuse (one critique I do have of the novels, which I won’t get into here, is that there is quite a bit of rape going on; this is to some extent understandable, given the subject matter and time period, but I feel that Gabaldon sometimes too heavily relies on it to create drama…however, this is another topic that deserves larger examination, not just a small note here).

I largely enjoy Jamie and Claire’s relationship, because Gabaldon manages to have Jamie seem like a realistic 18th century Scot (as much as is possible, anyway…there’s obviously a little bit of romanticizing going on, but it is fiction, after all). She is not afraid to make Jamie do things that anger Claire and the reader, because she trusts that, because of her excellent plotting and character development, we’ll still like him, even when he makes mistakes, or has some unappealing qualities. Too often in romances, the male lead is a despicable person, but somehow the heroine and the audience are supposed to find their awful characteristics appealing or decide these flaws aren’t really flaws at all; Edward’s scarily possessive behavior in Twilight is so romantic!, for example. Jamie is not a despicable character, quite the opposite actually, but by allowing him to be a person with flaws that are actually flaws, Gabaldon creates what I think is one of the most well-written and developed male characters I’ve read in a long time. It’s pretty much impossible to read the series and not love Jamie, both as one half of a great romantic couple, and for his own sake.

I think these novels are worth a lot more examination than I have done here. There is an awful lot going on in this series, and I’ve only touched on some of the issues that interest me. I expect I’ll return to this topic, especially when the next book in the series, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, is released this fall! There is also a Starz miniseries in the works, so Outlander will probably be something often featured here.


2 Comments on “where no man has gone before: historical fiction, romance, and feminism in the Outlander series”

  1. […] where no man has gone before: historical fiction, romance, and feminism in the Outlander series (oathkeepers.wordpress.com) […]

  2. Jennifer Schmids says:

    Lovely, thoughtful piece. I am a long time Gabaldon reader (20 yrs) and am quite intruged watching her audience grow with the new show. It brings a new generation that has a new view point. It interests me to see how feminism interprets the relationship between the characters. I always struggle with my own feelings of historical fiction accuracy and promoting the ‘rape culture’ dynamic for future generations of women. I thought you did a nice job of presenting the feelings and thoughts that ‘Outlander’ inspires in a reader.

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