Claire (Catrionia Balfe) medicates Jamie’s (Sam Heughan) back (near opening of Episode 2, directed Ronald Dahl, scripted Ronald D Moore)
Claire remembering Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeeck) saying: “As I told you, there’s many things in this world we can’t explain …” (near end of Episode 3, directed Brian Kelley, scripted Anne Kenney)
We get no good
By being ungenerous, even to a [film],
And calculating profits — so much help
By so much reading. It is rather when
We gloriously forget ourselves, and plunge
Soul-forward, headlong, into a [film]’s profound,
Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth-
Tis then we get the right good from a book.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh
(1857), i, 702-9
Dear friends and readers,
The general plot-design of these two episodes is quickly told (see Episode 1):
As the group comes up to Leogh, it looms in the way of Udolpho:
2) exploring Castle Leogh and its grounds, Claire settles in, is re-dressed, meets Laird Colum Mackenzie (Gary Lewis), dines with the clan, is led to believe she will be allowed to return to Craig Na Dunn (the stones), but finds herself appropriated as a “healer” and forbidden to leave, as no one important believes her story of herself. Slowly her relationship with Jamie builds, meeting to help his wounds, bringing food to him outside the gate; he tells of of Black Jack Randall, an English enemy (Tobias Menzies), and the doubling figure of Claire’s gentle Frank with this violent Black Jack makes Jamie an intermediary link
As the episode opens, we are back in time, five years before 1945, where Claire is bidding adieu to Frank her husband as she refuses to accept an offer of escaping front-line nursing
3) Claire becomes involved with a woman like herself, expert in the use of medicinal compounds, foods, healing, Geillis Duncan, and witnesses a culture of harsh punishments and mortifications, defies the fanatically punitively religious priest, to save the life of a boy said to be in need of exorcism. Again her relationship with Jamie builds, now she sees him rescue Leoghaire (Nell Hudson) from punishment, free a boy nailed to a pillory by his ear, take her to the Black Kirk to reveal the poisoned herb afflicting the boy.
The second episode feels more complicated than the first, building on it: we see Claire is in danger of being seen as a witch (by her apprehension of Mrs Fitz’s (Annette Badland) probable response to her story; the blending of time frame-times, from what Frank is doing now to to try find Claire, by himself by the rocks, with the Reverend Wakefield (James Fleet), to deeper past memory and again Claire at end of episode 3 with a vision of the stones, but the more she does deeds to gain gratitude, the more she is held fast.
I’ve been trying to account for the deep appeal of this mini-series (at least to me and the legions of readers and viewers, mostly women) beyond the sex: I am intensely drawn to the sexual relationship between the heroine, Claire, and the central beloved hero, Jamie; its configuration is the same as Suzanne Juhasz says is central to women’s romance (Reading from the Heart) and is found in the relationship of Demelza and Ross in the Poldark books. (I gather for some modern young women brought up recently or women of the later 20th century this no longer appeals.) In the films, protective, gentle, tenderly loving, a helper-brother, in Demelza’s case a father substitute, in Claire’s an oddly feminized hero. But what else?
I am trying to see how it differs from Poldark beyond the genre (women’s historical romance v men’s historical fiction). Why does it seem so coherent, the story move forward with ease, with less strained staccato switches from scene to scene, and all the scenes allowed more dialogue and development.
Cinematography at Black Kirk provides continual mirroring effect, as if the two were reflections of themselves in one another’s mirrors
Claire amid the stones in a memory sequence (from Episode 3)
Sing me a song of a lass that is gone
Say, could that lass be I
Merry of soul she sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye
Billow and breeze, islands and seas, mountains of rain and sun
All that was good, all that was fair
All that was me is gone
It’s the time-traveling. a what if nature of the fiction set up in the past, a playing with time so different times blend and part, doubling of characters from the past and the future. The real material is the relationship between Frank (yielding, gentle, heterosexual) and Black Jack Randall (sadistic, bisexual), Claire and Jamie (he attracts dominant gay males) to both of these. Claire moves away from a stressful life-passage in 1945 where the marriage is not working, a double narrative echoed or repeated in Claire’s relationship to Geillis, who we will learn is also from the future. Christianity versus paganism is an important strand across DuMaurier’s works. There is no magic but the one break from realism in time transportation
Jamie remembering his sister, Jenny Fraser (Laura Donnelly) raped by Black Randall (will occur in narrative in Episode 12, Lallybroch) (from Episode 2)
Swirling about these are the strong female types, with Claire as voice-over narrator, her memory controlling all. We’ve met Mrs Fitz, Colum’s silent wife, Letitia (Aislin McGuckin), Geillis; we’ve seen Jenny Fraser thus far. There is a succession of scapegoats (made to suffer) who Claire works to free from suffering at the risk of her life and identity: Jamie is continually offering himself up, and she continually rescuing him (as he will her in the traditional swashbuckling mode). It is a question of a transcendent identity: a drive to abandon the daily material world (so you cross the stones) to lose yourself in a Bronte love. Jamie’s alter-ego, semi-servant, brother, Murtagh Fraser (Duncan Lacroix) advises Claire that Jamie needs an experienced woman, not a girl-virgin; like a Walter Scott male companion-servant he finds his meaning is serving Jamie.
At the same time the mater is rooted in Scottish culture, literature, and myth:
Murtagh, ever there (opening Episode 2), a companion first seen in Scott’s fiction
In both episodes there are these vast hall scenes, in the second a man sings ancient songs to pipes:
Claire’s first entrance (within the first phase of episode 2)
The harp-player and bard (towards the end of episode 3)
Now this one is about a man out late on a fairy hill on the eve of Samhain who hears the sound of a woman singing sad and plaintive from the very rocks of the hill.
[eerie music] [Gaelic singing continues] “I am a woman of Balnain.
“The folk have stolen me over again, ‘ “the stones seemed to say.
“I stood upon the hill, and wind did rise, and the sound of thunder rolled across the land.
” [singing in Gaelic] “I placed my hands upon the tallest stone “and traveled to a far, distant land “where I lived for a time among strangers who became lovers and friends.
” [singing in Gaelic] “But one day, I saw the moon came out “and the wind rose once more.
“so I touched the stones “and traveled back to my own land “and took up again with the man I had left behind.
” [applause] She came back through the stones? Aye, she did.
They always do.
It was a folktale, madness to take as fact, and yet half of what Gwyllyn had described had actually happened to me.
They have substituted Scotland for Cornwall: there is a loss DuMaurier is much darker ultimately and deeper, while Gabaldon more consistently self-conscious post-pastiche, playing though with similar strong female imagery
‘What can I cling to in life, what can I hold?’
With a cynical twist to the mind and a husk for the heart
The scapegoats of this generation go drifting past.
The children for whom the war was apparently won,
And nothing is certain, and nothing likely to last
For the child not bombed in Kensington (from DuMaurier Companion, edd Sarah Walters, p 131)
Gabaldon picturesque layering, the imagery is that of a woman’s body as as redemptive:
We struggled upward, out of the womb of the world, damp and steaming, rubber-limbed with wine and heat. I fell to my knees at the first landing, and Jamie, trying to help me, fell down next to me in an untidy heap of robes and bare legs. Giggling helplessly, drunk more with love than with wine, we made our way side by side, on hands and knees up the second flight of steps, hindering each other more than helping, jostling and caroming softly off each other in the narrow space, until we collapsed at last in each other’s arms on the second landing.
Here an ancient oriel window opened glassless to the sky, and the light of the hunter’s moon washed us in silver. We lay clasped together, damp skins cooling in the winter air, waiting for our racing hearts to slow and breath to return to our heaving bodies.
The moon above was a Christmas moon, so large as almost to fill the empty window. It seemed no wonder that the tides of sea and woman should be subject to the pull of that stately orb, so close and so commanding …. Outlander, the book p p 627
In technique the pace is slow, lingering, not much happens in the sense of moving the story forward. Instead we move back and forth in time as the film-makers develop the relationship between Claire and Jamie (the arc over-all) and unfold the other characters as Claire settles in and begins to practice her assumed profession and role. This too makes it differ from the new Poldark, which is too jumpy, with all too brief juxtapositions.
British in Scotland (Black Jack Randall from the back) as imagined in this film series
It’s common knowledge that literary criticism is not a popular form — nor is real film criticism; only a small percentage of readers read it. One of the pleasures of Margaret Edson’s play, Wit (known for its presentation of a woman dying of cancer, whose excruciation of pain is not so much from dying from cancer but from the techniques, chemo, radiation and operation, used to “fight” cancer, one of the pleasures is its meditations on reading and especially making editions and essays; at one point Vivian Bearing claims the greatness of her work is that she offers ‘a thorugh examination of each [John Donne] sonnet, discussing every word in extensive detail.”
Jamie as Scots farmer-landlord at Lallybroch (memories from Episode 2)
Where does this detail come from? Let’s admit it: out of the mind of the reader elaborating thematically (it can be political, or moral, or psychological, or sociological, lots of options since the mid-20th century) on the text? and essentially it’s made up, it’s an extension. Take a much praised older book on Austen: Stuart Tave’s Some Words of Jane Austen. It’s no longer read much or liked because the words he tells his tales of are disciplinary of women: exertion (Elinor has to practice this] in S&S, expectations (Catherine’s false ones] in Northanger Abbey. mortification (Elizabeth’s) in P&P; the properness (Fanny) of the heroine in MP. We prefer the tales of say Claudia Johnson. One difference is these tales are not structured as narrative, but as arguments, within which the writer tells of the story of how her or his mind read the book.
Claire discovering what year it is by opening a book (Episode 2)
Criticism is not popular because most readers it seems do not tell themselves these tales. Most stay with the literal fiction and do not recognize the truth of that exegesis. They don’t see it, can’t see it, can’t go that far away from the story and characters, and can carry or elaborate a theme very briefly. Or are bored. Don’t see the point. They can read fan fiction, though and fan fiction is a form of fiction that elaborates from the text by telling a story not producing an argument. Film adaptations are further fictionalizations of a text. Further specific visualizations, aural, sensory.
Castle and thistle (Episode 3)
The point is then which fictions about fictions seem to us to hold important truths — which seem to explicate the original fiction and which seem to us not connected enough to what we find there. What I am putting together is an attempt at adequate fictions about these films. All this from an intuition that the books and films descend from Sophia Lee’s Recess (1783, first gothic romance) at a distance, but immediately are an update of DuMaurier — so historical and regional romance inflected by time-traveling, what if fictions, playing with time so different times blend and part, doubling of characters from the past and the future.
Same street used for 1945 and 1743 (Episodes 1 and 3)
Next time: the nature of the story-telling and Scottish post-colonialism in a film