Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

outlander.jpgwd: Since PBR came into being, the most debated books have been Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation. Apples and oranges for certain and a testament to our divergent tastes. Unlike the Crusie title – for which Kassia and I were eager, but for too long lacked the time to discuss – the talk about Outlander wasn’t of the sort that implies fervor. The deliberations went a bit like this:

Me: Let’s do Outlander.
Anonymous fellow reviewer: I’d rather be staked out on ant hill and covered in honey.

Repeat ad infinitum with the occasional substitution of torture method and you get the idea. While it’s been frustrating to want to talk about a book and to not find that desire reciprocated, the polarization that Outlander has caused here is endemic of the schism it has created in the larger romance community. There are those who passionately love Jamie and Claire’s story, and those who hate the very idea of the books. I have to admit that I am addicted to the Outlander series…while I’m reading it. When I’m not reading, I ardently wish I’d never picked the books up. The never-ending-series that it has become weighs me down and dampens my excitement for the story.
(lf: Let me horn in here to say that as a fervent fan of Ms. Gabaldon’s, I too look askance at each new entry in the series. I’ve had Breath of Snow and Ashes on my shelf since it was published last year, working up the gumption to take a running leap at it. The Outlander books demand a huge investment in time and emotional energy and are not for the weak.)
Nonetheless, when Lorna joined us I knew the discussion that I was so impatient for would soon be underway. Years ago, the first conversation Lorna and I had – beyond, hello nice to meet you – was about the Outlander series. We were united in our general passion for all things Gabaldon while being divided by our thoughts on specific points. That seemed a lovely place to begin a discussion, and it was with great enthusiasm that Lorna and I launched into Outlander. We quickly found that our conversation about Jamie and Claire and all that happens to them, to be completely overwhelming. It’s nearly impossible to discuss Outlander while leaving all those other books and continuing storylines untouched; but we managed to, mostly. What follows is our very long chat about Outlander.

wd: I’ve read and re-read Outlander (my favorite, selected scenes, usually out of order, as the mood strikes me); this might be the first time I’ve read Outlander from start to finish since the first reading. I’m rather struck by how different my feelings are this time around. With the first read I expected Outlander to be a standard issue romance novel and I alternately chaffed and thrilled to the deviations it took from, what I believed to be, form. I found this time, without that expectation, it’s a much better read. Where before I thought the story should have been edited down quite a bit (boiled down to the Jamie and Claire parts), now I’m less inclined to believe that and instead appreciate the richness and texture of the story as a whole. What I have finally come to understand about Outlander is that it isn’t a romance (just what Gabaldon has been proclaiming for years). Romances deal with people falling in love, but not being in love or staying in love. Romances lead their couples to the precipice of the hard part – life together – and then leave the reader as though that is the end of the love story. It isn’t and through Jamie and Claire, Gabaldon tells the story (that begins in Outlander and continues through the series) of a couple who fight to stay in love.
lf: You’re right. I don’t know remember how we got there, but the first thing we established was our mutual admiration for Ms. Gabaldon. The second, I think, was our disagreement on the best of the series—you contending for Dragonfly in Amber and me firm in my belief that Voyager is the best.
Like you, this is the first time I’ve read Outlander in its entirety in years, and though it is fifteen years old, it’s as fresh as the first time I read it. I had come into the series when Voyager had been published, and being the obsessively linear person that I am, I had to read books one and two before I touched book three. For me, Outlander was the beginning of the story that would end on the last page of Voyager, and I started it with that in mind. Even so, I had preconceived notions; I too believed it was a standard love story between Jamie and Claire with some sci-fi/fantasy woo-woo thrown in. I read the first chapters, and wondered who the heck Frank was and what was he doing being married to Claire. Then Claire fell through the rabbit hole and I don’t think I surfaced until I turned the last page. As you (and Ms. Gabaldon) pointed out, Outlander is not a run of the mill romance. The romantic elements are there, but they are just a bit skewed and somewhat off-kilter, which keeps the story out of well-traveled ruts. For instance, instead of Jamie being the typically world-wise, older and more experienced man, it is Claire who is older, more worldly (at least as far as her language is concerned) and sexually experienced. And there is Claire’s husband Frank. He’s not the typical “dumpee”—you know, the shallow, vain, adulterous, wife-beating psychopath. Frank is a good man, and Claire acknowledges that he is. She just loves Jamie more and makes her choice accordingly. The result is bittersweet, unlike many romances, both contemporary and historical, where bad things happen only to characters who richly deserve them.
Which is not the case in the Outlander books. They are not comfortable, hot cocoa and jammies reads. They’re more cabernet and dark chocolate, complex with sharp corners and edges that Ms. Gabaldon refuses to smooth over and round out. Once again, there is Frank, who this time around I realized got short-shrift. The story itself is set just before the doomed Jacobite uprising, depicting a way of life that shortly would be no more. Claire’s stint as physician at Castle Leoch and the interlude with Jamie at Lallybroch is made all the more poignant by us knowing that they are the calm before all hell breaks loose, sort of like the Titanic just before it hit the iceberg. Or more apropos, the Lusitania before the torpedo struck.
wd: Outlander is full of sharp corners, isn’t it? And Gabaldon doesn’t mind running her characters – or her readers – into those cutting edges. The plot of Outlander (let’s ignore for a moment all that comes after this first book) is massive. The action takes place over nine or ten months, but good god, what doesn’t happen in that time? Claire stumbles into a circle of standing stones and is thrust back through time, leaving 1946 Scotland for 1743 Scotland. The time-travel element alone could provide book length conflict rife with fish-out-of-water and need-to-get-back-to-one’s-own-time scenarios. But, Gabaldon doesn’t allow this story to simply be about a woman out of her time. As you point out, once in 1743, the Jacobite uprising creates the ticking count-down to disaster and provides believable conflict amongst the Scots and between the Scots and the English (Claire is English which makes her situation with the Scots further sticky). All of which propels the story swirling around Claire and man she eventually marries, Jamie Fraser.
There is, as well, a massive cast of characters to flesh out this massive storyline. The people that populate Gabaldon’s pages are round and full of life and as such have motivations and actions that keep them all at odds with one another. So that, not only does Claire land in a point in time on the verge of war, she lands in the middle of the tangled and contentious interpersonal conflicts of the MacKenzies, the Frasers, the general populous of the Scottish countryside, and one notorious ancestor of her husband Frank: Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall.
Gabaldon’s canvas for Outlander is enormous, and yet she paints with a very fine brush. I think her finest strokes are dedicated to Claire’s character. How do you find Claire?
lf: First let me say that I agree with you that the book is massive, but not like concrete blocks massive. If I can get fanciful here, it’s as if we’re riding a huge stallion that has the bit between his teeth and all we can is sit down, shut up, and hold on. I know that we’re avoiding the yawning maw of the rest of the series right now, but while Voyager is my favorite, I think this is the best written of the bunch. It is taut, it is tight, actions flow into counteractions, and there is little if any wasted page space. (It’s also, I believe, the shortest at a mere 627 pages.)
Okay, back to Claire. Claire is a masterpiece of writing, both technically and story-wise. I read an interview some years back where Ms. Gabaldon stated that Claire sprung off the page (all right, computer screen) fully formed, a modern woman in a 18th century world. Now, I disagree about “modern;” Claire is not—and was not even when Outlander was first published in 1991. She is my grandmother’s generation, “born” in the same year 1917. Claire came of age in pre-WWII Europe, and she reflects that. But she also had a baptism of fire in the field hospitals of WWII, and she reflects that too. Add to it her strength and intelligence, and Ms. Gabaldon created a character who, when she walks into a room, you know she’s there. However, though her voice is clear, direct and powerful, she doesn’t overwhelm the story. One of the drawbacks of writing in first person is that the narrator can sometimes drown out the other characters as the reader is always in the narrator’s head. Claire is such a keen observer that the world and people around her are also clear, vibrant and three-dimensional with their own voices, mannerisms, foibles and scruples. Jamie sounds different from Dougal and Colum, different from Rupert and Murtagh, different from Old Alec the stablemaster, even though they all speak Scots and Gaelic, and go “mmmphm” from time to time.
Story-wise, Claire is also a marvel of writing and character development. As I said, she is strong. But the minute she steps through the standing stones, she has to dig deeper to find—and, boy, does she find—reservoirs of hidden strength to deal with first being stranded out of place and time, and later with her marriage to Jamie, his outlawry, and Jack Randall’s very unhealthy interest in her Scots husband. I think one of the most viscerally chilling moments is when Claire’s forced to leave Jamie in Black Jack’s hands in prison, and she retaliates by telling Jack the day and year of his death. And what is even more chilling is the way she did it. Without fanfare, without fuss, softly, her rage striking out like rapier, slicing Jack in half almost before he knew he’d been cut. And that’s how she manages all the difficulties and insults that are flung at her, with a ruthless practicality that’s sometimes driven by anger so hot that it’s cold. The only time that I felt her strength lacking was when she was betrayed by Laoghaire and she didn’t tell anyone about it. I wanted blood and retribution, or at least some hair pulling.
wd: That point of not blabbing about Laoghaire bothers me as well. But, I always come back to: when exactly did that have to come up? Jamie rescues Claire from the witch trail, in short order Claire tells Jamie the whole truth about where – or when – she came from, and the setting shifts to Lallybroch. It’s easy to see where Laoghaire’s guilt gets lost in the ongoing action.
I completely agree with you, Claire telling Jonathan Randall the day of his death (while Gabaldon keeps it from the reader, at least at that point) is a brilliant thing. Her knowledge is the only weapon she has and Claire uses it to do more harm and damage than a physical weapon could have. Here, and even in less charged moments, Claire is a commanding presence, but as you point out, not an overpowering one.
That Claire enthralls while not overshadowing is a point most salient, I believe, with Jamie. Outlander hints – with the ghost yearning for Claire through her 1946 bedroom window – that Claire doesn’t simply blunder through time. Her trip has a specific purpose: to deliver her to the love that defies time, Jamie.
Jamie has to match Claire on the page, and also be bold enough, larger-than-life even, to be the love so special and magnificent that it pulls Claire through the standing stones. Claire shows up on page one with no burden other than to be Claire (I do agree with you that Claire is a triumph and that it’s her appeal that propels Outlander and by extension the series), but from the onset, Jamie’s presence has to command, he has to be rather glorious.
But Gabaldon doesn’t take an easy path with Jamie. As you point out, he’s very young, twenty-three, until his wedding night with Claire, he’s a virgin, he has red hair (not a character flaw, just not what we’re conditioned to expect of our leading men), and he’s very much a man of the 18th century. I’ve always found those to be rather bold choices on Gabaldon’s part, and she goes on to make even bolder choices for Jamie, in large part, to draw contrasts between his time and reality and Claire’s much different time and place. As when, for example, Jamie beats Claire. Not repeatedly. But, the once is enough. He physically restrains her and takes a belt to her. (I hate that. How can I not?) Even still, I do respect that Gabaldon was brave enough to go where the story took her. Throughout Outlander great emphasis is placed on punishment, mostly public punishment, so much so that the reader has to know Claire will encounter it personally. And too, I respect that Gabaldon didn’t take the easy way out and make Jamie an overly enlightened man for his time, who would regard beating his wife as barbaric. You see that sort of thing in fiction set in the Civil War era, where characters who grow up surrounded by slavery have a suspiciously modern view of the system. It doesn’t ring true there, and I don’t believe endowing Jamie with a progressive mindset would have either.
Through all that, perhaps despite all that, Jamie emerges as the hero. He loves Claire fiercely, enough to make good on the vow he gives her on their wedding night: “the protection of my body.” That vow is put to an almost unfathomable test one night in Wentworth Prison. Jamie makes a trade with Jonathan Randall, Claire’s life in exchange for the use of Jamie’s flesh.
What follows is skin-crawlingly horrible and creates a mess that isn’t truly mopped up for several books to come. But through all that, I have my doubts about the organicness of Black Jack’s character. It seems a sexual masochist – with a specific predilection for Jamie – is too opportune a boogeyman to be roaming the Scottish countryside. Does Black Jack ring of convenience or truth to you?
lf: Hmm. Jamie’s ghost appearing as a sign of his and Claire’s “destiny.” The fact that they are destined to be together. I hadn’t thought of that, but it makes sense, especially as it’s their union that—to skirt that yawning maw again—produces Claire’s only child, Brianna, who, in Voyager, is alluded to having some sort of Scottish destiny of her own.
But, returning to Jamie, while I agree that he has some incredibly admiral qualities (both character-wise and, uhm, physically), I don’t think he’s glorious. Not yet. The potential is there, but he is somewhat overshadowed by Claire. In Outlander Jamie still has some of the loose-limb gawkiness of adolescence. He hasn’t reached the emotional, mental and physical maturity that he’ll have in Voyager, and the times that Claire yields to him in Outlander I get the sense that she does only out of expediency and not because she lost a match of wills. When Jamie wallops her (may I say here that I too flinched and cringed at that scene much more the second time around), her subsequent, after the fact acknowledgement that he was sort of justified is more along the lines of “there’s nothing I can do about it,” than “I was wrong and he was right.”
However, Jamie’s love for Claire is fierce, and there they are evenly matched. When Claire accuses Jamie of trysting with Laoghaire after their marriage, Jamie slams right back, asserting himself and his love. It is the one time where Claire truly loses a clash of wills between them—in the fight itself, in the makeup sex afterwards, and in the makeup makeup sex after that. And of course there’s the heart-wrenching scene where Jamie brings her back to the stones and walks away, thinking that he’ll never see her again. He acts out of his strength of character, leaving Claire space to make her own choice.
Okay, from the deeply sublime to the in-your-face. I suppose given today’s crop of genre villains, Jack Randall’s sexual pathology is rather stereotypical, but this was written when bookstore shelves weren’t cluttered with serial killers, sexual predators and other deviants. I remember being shocked the first time I read this at Jack’s lust not only for Jamie body, but for Jamie’s pain—and at how everyone in Outlander aware of that lust wasn’t surprised and shocked. Wearily disgusted, yes. But stunned in outraged amazement, no. However, this time through it was Claire’s shock that I felt—that someone who looked so much like her husband Frank could be so twisted, and that’s how I took Jack, the flipside of Frank. It was another blow (in one instance literally) that she had to ride in order to find her balance in a new world. I also read it as a wedge between her and Frank. Claire declares in the opening chapters her faithfulness to her marriage vows, no matter that she and Frank been separated for most of their marriage by the war. But then she later states that Frank and Jack’s features have become intertwined for her, creating an emotional distance between she and Frank—which then gives room for Claire’s attraction to Jamie to flourish. And, to once more sail dangerously close to the yawning maw of the continuing saga, there’s a reason for Jack’s openly displayed preferences.
But, back to the sex scenes between Jamie and Claire, leaving aside the fact that here too Ms. Gabaldon is a gifted writer, I was impressed with how she handled—or should I say Claire handled the initial physical intimacy between she and Jamie. When they first married, Claire had every intention of leaving Jamie and returning to Frank, yet during her and Jamie’s wedding night—and subsequent nights and days—Claire responds with an honesty untainted by coyness, guilt or shame. Now, admittedly Claire is at this point very much attracted to Jamie, but I don’t get the sense that she is indulging herself in something that is only technically not adultery. Instead, I feel that Claire’s practical ruthlessness has once more come to the fore, and the only way she sees to her goal of returning to Frank is through Jamie’s bed, so through it she will go. And if she does respond openly and honestly, well that’s because she is open and honest. Of course, her goals change when she chooses to stay with Jamie, but her response to him remains the same. What do you think?
wd: Sex is very important in Outlander, not simply the act, but the emotions that accompany the physical. Once Jamie and Claire marry, they have a lot of sex. Which is what one would expect of any newly married couple – circumstances aside. Though, I don’t know if I agree that initially sex with Jamie was a means to an end for Claire; I have to work through that one. Honestly, I can’t separate my emotions – what I want to be there on the page – from what is actually there. I want to believe Claire is as she is with Jamie because of their combustible chemistry, that larger destiny stepping in again. Though I must admit, that line of thinking sets aside Claire’s feelings for Frank, and Claire doesn’t do that – ever.
Circling back to something you said earlier, I too have more sympathy for Frank, now, than with any other past reading. There was a time when I was appalled at his very existence. Then I was further appalled that Claire didn’t immediately forget Frank upon laying eyes on Jaime. At some point, I came to understand that Gabaldon’s choice to side step what you point out as the typical “dumpee” attributes was an intelligent decision on her part. It would have been so easy for Claire to walk away from Mr. Why-did-She-Marry-Him-In-The-First-Place. Jamie wouldn’t have needed to be a choice for Claire to make under those circumstances, but rather an obvious conclusion. Frank’s only crime – at least in Outlander – is that he isn’t the hero. He’s an ordinary man. A good man. And fate repays his ordinariness and goodness by shafting him.
So maybe then you do have a point about the honeymoon sex, because even after choosing to stay with Jamie, Claire is rather steadfast in wanting her decampment to be her only betrayal of Frank. And too, it’s never really just sex in Gabaldon’s sex scenes. There is always an advancement of the story happening right along with the “mmmphming” and a rather fantastic amount of subtext as well. The scene you mentioned earlier, where Jamie finds Claire in a jealous pique over Laoghaire, that scene is one of my favorites of the entire series (yes all those other books too). The events leading to it aren’t all that unique, Jamie and Claire have been forced to marry and suddenly here is an opportunity to go their own ways, as it were. We’ve all seen that in hundreds of romance novels and the predictable outcome is that one of the principles will do something childish like storm out and then we’ll have to spend the length of the remaining story watching them warm up to one another again. But, that’s not what Gabaldon does there, when Claire says she has no claim on Jamie, he responds with:

“And what d’ye think a wedding vow is, lassie? Just words in a church?”

My breath caught the first time I read that. And it’s caught with every subsequent reading because Jamie doesn’t throw up his hands and say: the hell with you; but instead, through word and deed lets Claire know that he’s an honorable man of substance (an argument for his gloriousness, despite his youth).
The sex that follows is stunning not so much for what gets touched or how, but because this is really the first time they choose one another without respect to the marriage Dougal forced on them. The coming together here is physically rough and emotionally brutal as Jamie realizes that he can’t posses Claire without her possessing him as well and Claire realizes she will be forever stretched between the two men in her life. It’s also the first time Claire compares Jamie and Frank and finds Frank lacking.
Perhaps then, there is a greater motivation to those first sex scenes than just unflagging lust.
OK, are you ready for it? The elephant in the room? The rest of the series. We’ve both read through Fiery Cross (like you A Breath of Snow and Ashes has yet to compel me to read it). With this read of Outlander, I found my knowledge of the next 6000 pages of storyline to be a weight I couldn’t escape from. Were you able to read this first installment without the influence of what is to come intruding?
lf: Elephant in the room is an excellent description. It’s huge, it’s powerful, it has a distinct odor, and it doesn’t leave much space for anything else. I too was unable to shake off the “forward story,” though my haunting was more about people than events. As I read Outlander, I kept looking around for Fergus, and then would have to remind myself that he doesn’t appear until Dragonfly in Amber. I also missed the mature Jamie who could hold his own with Claire—and whose code of ethics had become flexible enough to accommodate a little sedition, some truth-bending, and general sneakiness. And I kept eyeing Jamie’s sister Jenny sourly, holding myself aloof from her character even though her betrayal of Claire doesn’t happen until Voyager.
But, the biggest struggle was reading Outlander for itself without comparing it to the rest of the series. Ms. Gabaldon has stated that her writing method is to produce segments which she then joins together with connective narrative—which is fine; whatever works to get the story on paper. In Outlander the “joins” are seamless; even looking for them, I couldn’t find them. However, in the later books, the joins are not only very prominent, but Fiery Cross reads as a series of vignettes only loosely connected. As I read Outlander, I kept becoming irritated that the leanness (okay, relative leanness) and forward-driving tension in the first book is by and large discarded by the time we reach Fiery Cross. It isn’t that it’s not well-written; Ms. Gabaldon’s craft remains at the top of its form in that regard. It’s that so much of it is unnecessary to the story. And that’s the elephant in my room. The bloated books that are to come, where the storyline is buried under so much lard.
Of course, none of that stopped me from reading Fiery Cross twice, then going back several times more and cherry-picking my favorite scenes.
wd: My reaction is very similar to yours. There were many, many story elements I couldn’t put from my mind as I read Outlander. As you point out, it was difficult to warm up to Jenny, knowing what was to come. I was shocked to see Dougal that first time in the crofter’s cottage as he’s long dead for the majority of the series. It was a bit hard to conceive that Laoghaire was once a girl only on the precipice of her viciousness. And countless other things, too.
I also found myself looking for foreshadowing, or perhaps reading in foreshadowing, in places I’m not sure were intended to foreshadow. As when, early on, Frank and Claire discuss having children, or the inability to have them, and Frank says he couldn’t love another man’s child. He thinks it isn’t in him. Or, simply the fact that Claire chooses to stay in 1743 with Jamie without ever seeing Frank again. On the first read, that seemed as though Gabaldon hadn’t allowed the story to go where it needed to go – at least I always thought Frank should get an in person goodbye – now, I wonder if, by Claire not voluntarily returning to her own time, we should have known the time would come when she’d be forced to go.
Like you, I also spent time with this read wondering where the leanness of storytelling went to. That seems odd to say about such a long book, but it is the shortest of the series and as you point out, the smoothest and most compact.
While reading Oultander, I felt a bit like Claire in the opening scene of Fiery Cross when she’s bedeviled by Frank’s ghost and tells him to go away. I felt bedeviled by the story and the telling that follows the first of the series and simply wanted that “yawning maw” to go away.
We’ve left many unturned stones in this discussion, but that seems rather fitting to me. There’s really only one more question I’d like to ask you: Would you do it? Would you give up hot baths?
lf: Hot baths vs. Jamie Frazier. Hmm. That’s a hard one. One thing I do know, though. No sex while traveling and without access to even cold water and hard cake soap. Each time that happened in Outlander, I found myself wrinkling my nose. Eww.
wd: I don’t think I could give up the hot baths, or my husband either.
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5 thoughts on “Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

  1. Long-time reader, first-time poster…
    Great review/discussion. I also prefer older Jamie, and even Drums of Autumn and Fiery Cross to the earlier books – I think because relative to the other books, it’s slower and sort of has a calm before (and after) the storm feel to them. Or maybe I just like the padding. 🙂
    I haven’t re-read the books very much, usually I flip over to my favourite parts. Funny how the pages fall right open to them. It took me over a month to finish ABOSAA – and usually I read fairly quickly – even though I liked it quite a bit; I think I was putting off finishing too early and having to wait 2-3 years for the next book (that plan didn’t work out very well). I thought it was very difference in pace to FC (less padding, maybe?), and I’m not sure yet where it ranks for me in the Outlander series. I think I’ll probably have to re-read it again, maybe over Christmas when I have more time. There are a few things that I dislike, but I love the way DG writes and how complex her characters are and how much baggage (or continuity) is carried over into each book instead of being glossed over or ignored (so that the good guys are always good and bad guys are simply bad).

  2. The first three books are the three books I’d save in a fire. I didn’t even let my own mother borrow them. She had to buy them at the duty free shop on her way to the plane home. Drums of Autumn started losing me. The Fiery Cross made me cry, and not in a good way. (While I’m well-versed in American history, the years prior to and encompassing the Revolution aren’t times I like in my fiction. There was also a great deal of minutia—too much).
    So after all this time, I finally picked up A Breath of Snow and Ashes—just last weekend. I read it in two days. It grabbed me like the first three and I couldn’t put it down.
    Now if only I could reread the entire series without TFC.

  3. Ah, but Diana creates people on paper, each and every major and minor character, including white sow and Adso have a impact–even if it is just annoying Major McDonald.**
    ** ABSAA’s

  4. I’v just stumbled across your blog and was delighted to see a discussion regarding Outlander! I’ve loved this series since I picked up my first copy of Outlander, and couldn’t put it down. I have so many comments to make and discuss, but feel completely at a loss as to where to start…So I’ll just keep reading. 🙂

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