This post is supposed to convince you to read The Outlander, the first book in Diana Gabaldon’s 8-book Outlander series. (A 9th book is in the offing.)
I say “supposed to” because looking back over the plot outline (see The Outlandish Companion by Gabaldon) and reading comment strings, I realize I have a difficult task before me.
The difficulty is not the vivid sex scenes. Those are quite lovely, as you will remember if you saw “The Wedding” episode of Starz series last summer. The difficulty is corporal punishment and what some call spousal abuse.
Now Gabaldon is quite clear that flogging is a BAD thing. Jamie Fraser’s scarred back is evidence of just how bad, although it takes a few books to document how it got that way. Spanking is another matter. Jamie says that his father punished him by application of a switch and look how well he turned out. Of course young Jamie was never punished unjustly and, although he found it hard to sit down for a few days, he didn’t resent his father. In fact, the “beating” was a great relief to his guilty conscience. So – when Claire Beauchamp puts herself and Jamie’s men in danger – and indeed her actions are very ill-advised- he spanks her.
Ever since the book was published in 1991, readers have been arguing about that. Personally, I found the argument interesting, but creepy. I decided that Gabaldon was just taking her inner sadomasochist out for a walk, and then I got on with reading. Yes, from time to time, she seems to skirt into the true romance territory of rape fantasy.
The obvious answer to the offended crowd is “Stop reading. Put the book down. Walk away. Give it to Goodwill with your next box of used clothes. Someone out there wants it.”
The Outlander has a great idea. Claire Randall, neé Beauchamp, is having a second honeymoon with her husband Frank in the Scottish Highlands in 1946. They have been separated during the war because she was a nurse treating front-line wounded, and he was an intelligence officer in London. They hope to get pregnant now. Frank has come to research the Randall family’s genealogy. Claire is taking the opportunity to study local flora. Not only is she trained in western medicine, she has an interest in herbal treatment. She also has an unusual background. Orphaned as a child, she grew up with her uncle on archeology digs in Egypt. Important preparation for life in the HIghlands two and a half centuries ago.
Returning to their Inverness Bed and Breakfast, one rainy night in April 1946, Frank sees a figure in a kilt watching Claire at their window. Is this Claire’s wartime lover or a perhaps, a ghost?
On the Feast of Beltane, May 1st, she and Frank go to the nearby circle of standing stones to secretly witness, a dance by an equally secret group of local women, welcoming the sunrise. Claire returns the next day to get a sample of a certain blue flower, inadvertently touches one of the stones and gets sucked through time to 1743.
Of course it takes her a while to figure out that she has not simply fallen into the middle of a movie shoot, complete with kilted Highlanders and Frank’s red-coated look-alike. One of her first clues is that the look-alike tries to rape her. She is rescued by a kilted savage. In no time at all, she is treating a wounded Scot, despite the fact that the Scots can’t understand why an English woman is wandering around the highland moor in her shift.
Surely she must be an English spy.
Soon she finds herself revisiting -previsiting- historic ruins which she and Frank visited -will visit- only now the Castle Leoch is standing whole and invulnerable. Her only hope is to somehow escape and get back to the Stones and to Frank. Meanwhile, she finds herself practicing 18th century medicine. The time comes, during her attempt to get back, that the only way to avoid falling into Black Jack Randall’s clutches – he really is Frank’s remote forefather – is to marry Jamie Fraser, red-headed, six feet tall, commanding but reduced to menial labor because of an English warrant. It’s not really bigamy after all. Frank isn’t born yet, and if Claire isn’t careful, he may never be.
If that isn’t intriguing enough, Claire gets to stand on the edge of Loch Ness and see the legendary Water Horse. This is the beginning of her reputation as the White Lady, which comes in handy in the next book, Dragonfly in Amber.
Trivia question: who gave Claire a dragonfly in amber as a wedding gift?
If I could travel back in time, I would choose the 18th century to go to. It was not as old-fashioned as the 19th. Modern thinkers would feel at home there as rationalism and the scientific age began and early democracy was born. Claire finds it a challenge to be an independent minded woman then, cf wife spanking. She finds herself in a warrior society in a violent time, and does not take orders easily, cf marrying Jamie. Like most strong women in male dominated societies, however, she finds ways to take charge.
Okay, so you have to be a certain kind of reader, a bit rough and ready – for a good story, a good long story with a terrific idea and characters that grow. So does Gabaldon’s skill.