Claire Randall (Catriona Balfe) looking into Farrell’s shop window in a highland village
(Outlander 1, scripted Ronald Moore)
People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station. Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually. Strange, the things you remember. Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years. Like the moment I realized I’d never owned a vase. That I’d never lived any place long enough to justify having such a simple thing. And how at that moment, I wanted nothing so much in all the world as to have a vase of my very own. It was a Tuesday afternoon. Six months after the end of the war (taken direct from Gabaldon’s Outlander, opening.
It’s time. Overdue. It may be my readers think I am above Outlander. I am not. I love it. I have now watched all sixteen episodes of the first season three times. I’ve read Gabaldon’s novel, I’ve read her Outlandish Companion. It connects to so much I’m deeply engaged by: it’s Daphne DuMaurier in the high romance mode, elegant, controlled wildness. Outlander is a cross between DuMaurier’s The House on the Strand where the hero travels back and forth between the mid-20th and 14th century:
This older cover for and BBC Radio 7 image for a reading aloud of The House on the Strand capture the strangeness of a book moving back and forth from mid-20th to 14th century Cornwall
Also her historical romances, say King’s General (set in the 17th century civil war), Frenchman’s Creek, or Jamaica Inn (smugglers as misunderstood free-trader outlaws set in the very early 19th). Claire is the many times great-grandaughter of Sophia Lee’s Elinor and Matilda, the twin daughters of Mary Queen of Scots in her The Recess. I’ve been reading about Scotland and its civil wars, diaspora (to among other places, Canada), poetry and fiction by its writers (from Anne Murray Halkett to RLS Stevenson and Margaret Oliphant and onto Margaret Atwood) for years and years.
The immediate inspiration though is the new Poldark. Outlander reflects mores of the last few years far more frankly explored, and unlike the new Poldark thus far is a woman’s mini-series, a proto-feminist series of films. I’ve learned the second season of Poldark is going to depart so radically from Graham’s books as to change a crucial thread across all twelve novels and one of my favorite characters (though like Jane Austen over Emma it seems no one but me will much like), Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan. So I thought I might sustain a comparison of the two similar mini-series: Poldark drawn from historical novels, Outlander from historical romance, both obeying naturalism and verisimilitude once the terms of the fiction are set up). I don’t say I won’t compare the 1970s Poldark nor the two books, Jeremy Poldark (1950) and Warleggan (1953), but I will keep in mind and bring in this contemporary comparable series. Run them on this blog in tandem.
The Outlander resembles the new (2015) Poldark in its grimness, brutal violence, grimyness, the POV from below, the peasants and outlaws, not the elegant and fringe people of the older (1975) Poldark, Oneddin Line. But this is Claire’s story, make no mistake about that. The central consciousness, the voice-over in this season in all but one episode (when it is Jamie’s [Sam Heughan] and that very unusual, as “real” men don’t do over-voice). By keeping the central consciousness a woman’s, the narrator a heroine, Gabaldon kept all the intense ambiguity about a woman’s helplessness in pre-19th century eras against males, who then in reaction to the heroine manifest unashamed or shall I say unhidden attitudes towards her sexuality (the film is written, directed and produced mostly by men): upon meeting Claire Randall (Catrionia Balfe) the film’s 18th century men, British soldiers and aristocrats, Irish thugs and clansmen alike promptly think her or ask if she is a whore because she is alone. Jonathan Wolverton Randall aka Black Jack (Tobias Menzies, also Frank, Claire’s gentle husband in the mid-20th century, a descendant of Black Jack, whom he has been researching) proceeds to try to rape her. But she is a 20th century woman, pro-active on her own and others’ behalf, not inclined to regard herself as secondary person or take punishment, self-confident, with a sense of what she is entitled to.
As our story begins, Claire Randall has been a nurse in WW2 and presided over and helped in horrifying operations, and the war now over, she and her her academic archaeologist husband, Frank (set for a professorship in Oxford), meet again after a near 5 year absence. They visit Scotland for its ruins, look at neolithic sites. They are trying hard to recreate what they once had, but it’s not quite working. The whole section, the way the bed-sit room looked, reminded me of women’s films of the 1940s, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard stuff. The two actors convey the strain the couple is trying to overcome:
I thought of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival
All photographed with soft brown lights too, stark dark and bleak blacks for the houses, yet in gentle light grey light. He explores genealogy, ruins of ancient fortresses, clans, primitive neolithic stone sites; she half ironically goes along.
Frank has made friends with a local scholarly vicar, genealogist a Reverend Wakefield, as in Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, played exquisitely fine, with subtle humor and gravity by James Fleet. Our honeymooning (in effect) couple take to visiting this gentle vicar and Mrs Graham (Tracy Wilkinson), his wry housekeeper. Again I was so reminded of say Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers material before the murder occurs. The men discuss Scots and English aristocracy, Scots clans, the injustices of the 18th century, the patronage system, speculate that perhaps Jonathon Wolverton Randall could act with inpunity because his patron was the Earl of Sandringham. Claire goes off for women’s gossip and tea; Mrs Graham asks to read her palm and finds odd marks on Claire’s hand, and tells of rituals she participates in by Crag na Dunn, a circle of standing stones.
They are allured by these woman’s midnight rituals.
Here I was not only reminded of Dorothy in Oz, but the language in the book and series alludes to Frank L. Baum, especially later when Claire-Dorothy wants to get back to the stones as gateway to Kansas, but there is something new here: this is a tale of national identity, of seeking who one is by asking what group one belongs to, and it’s done from a post-colonial perspective, highly critical of the British. Whence the title: Claire is an outsider, a Brit, from elsewhere we know. A Scottish film company is a major producer, Scots actors, venerable (Bill Paterson as the lawyer, Ned Gowan) and new (Duncan Lacroix as the faithful Murtagh, so we are not far from Scott after all) are everywhere. Geography, landscape, blended time frames, intense interiority, mix with lessons in clans, Jacobitism, and the medicine and witchcraft of the era.
What I hope to do is apply to Outlander, several studies of DuMaurier, the gothic, women’s films and Scottish studies, and then by transference see how what is said today about films and books like Outlander relates to the new Poldark mini-series and what is being done to Graham’s Poldark books in them. So this is film, historical fiction, historical romance and delvings into time-traveling fantasies research in progress. It fits into post-colonial patterns too.
We begin for real and earnest when we move into the time-traveling sequence. Gabaldon knows that women in the 18th century went in for botany, studying herbs and so does our Claire so while Frank is buried in papers, she goes back to the stones and touching one she melts into another realm, coming out somehow into the year 1743.
She leaves her car
She has to come close to the stones of Crag Na Dunn to reach the flowers and herbs she wants
She hears something, music, looks up, and moves to touch the wondrous tall neolithic stone
The transported moment
An empty world, different older trees, no city in the distance (this is straight from Hungry Hill)
At first Claire thinks she has stumbled onto the set of costume drama (wonderful self-reflexity here) but no the bullets are real and she finds herself having to account for herself. So a re-naming, using her birth name, Beauchamp, she has to deal with everyone looking at her as stray whore: who else wanders in the wood in just her shift. This is an extraordinary moment that can only be done by a film: having the same actor, Tobias Menzies, play the hard mean ancester, Black Jack. Claire does a double take: he is but he is not Frank
So it’s a re-encounter
He now the 18th century educated man
she still the mid-20th century educated woman
The drums of sudden movement, excitement, she flees, he after and so her adventure begins. A snarling redcoat, upholder of a vicious colonialist order, and she finds herself shot at, nearly raped (this will repeat and repeat) by Randall, is taken up by one of the Scotsmen (Murtagh we later realize), rescued (or herself takes up, saved) by the Scots clansmen, and is paired with the wounded Jamie Fraser, whose arm she correctly sets (and thus saves), and soon she is riding in front of him (anticipating Turner and Tomlinson as Ross and Demelza), warning the clan from her memories of what Frank told her of ambushes, becomes one of them. She resists at first and we get the most old-fashioned of gentle abductions:
Claire: [having fled during the ambush, Jamie having gone back to retrieve her] I hope you haven’t been misusing that shoulder. You’re hurt.
Jamie: This lot isna my blood.
She: Not much of it, anyway.
He: Dougal and the others will be waiting further up the stream. We should go.
She: – I’m not going with you.
He: – Yes, you are.
She: What, are you going to cut my throat if I don’t?
He: Why not? But You don’t look that heavy. Now if you won’t walk, I shall pick you up and throw you over my shoulder. Do you want me to do that?
He: Well, then I suppose that means your coming with me.
She – [Climbing, he Grunting] – Serves you right. Probably torn your muscles as well as bruising.
He: Well, wasna much of a choice. If I dinna move my shoulder, I’d never have moved anything else ever again. I can handle a single redcoat with one hand. Maybe even two. Not three. Besides, you can fix it for me again when we get to where we’re going.
She: That’s what you think.
He: Here’s to you, lass. For tipping us to the villains in the rocks and giving us a wee bit o’ fun! [All speak Gaelic] [Speaks Gaelic] Have a wee nip.It willna fill your belly, but will make you forget you’re hungry.
One blanket, one whiskey pouch
The band comes to a stone castle that she and her 20th century husband explored now become fully inhabited. I thought I was back with Frank Yerby’s The Border Lord, Book-of-the-Month club special (from the early 1950s like the Poldark series. I though of Radcliffe’s Emily coming up to Udolpho:
Only the voice again is wry, prosaic, slightly comical:
The rest of the journey passed uneventfully, if you consider it uneventful to ride fifteen miles on horseback through country at night, frequently without benefit of roads, in company with kilted men armed to the teeth, and sharing a horse with a wounded man. At least we were not set upon by highwaymen, we encountered no wild beasts, and it didn’t rain.
When they get inside we are not in a gloomy, grand place, but a busy courtyard where everyone is going about her or his daily business. From the next episode:
Mrs Fitzgibbon [Annette Badland]: Mwah! Ye’ll all be needing breakfast, I reckon. Plenty in the kitchen. Away in, and feed yerselves. [chuckles] Murtagh, you look and smell like a rat that’s been dragged through sheep dung.
Murtagh: Gi’ us a kiss, then.
Mrs Fitzgibbon: Oh, no! A kiss, then! [laughing] And what do we have here?
Jamie: Claire Beauchamp, Mistress Fitzgibbons. Murtagh found her, and Dougal said we must bring her along with us, so So.
Mrs Fitzgibbon looks at Claire in ways the men do not, sees what the men do not see
Mrs F: Well Claire. Come with me. We shall find you something to eat, something to wear that’s a bit more Well, a bit more
It’s the voice-over that held me especially in this first episode, compellingly, Catrionia Balfe’s voice perfect for a DuMaurier Rebecca too. A sophisticated use of old-fashioned realism smashed together with fantasy gothic and superb cinematography, a richly colored Scotland complete, with the themed music part minor key bagpipes, make for an undercurrent of thrill. I will be concentrating on the women in the series.
As for the book, the source, this first episode is lifted directly from the novel. Many of the lines are taken from Gabaldon; it’s as if she wrote the book with a film in mind. She began in earnestness from an online experience, a Literary Forum in the Net’s earliest days. In her Outlandish Companion her language gives away hat when she started, Gabaldon had Now Voyageur, the old Bette Davis trope in mind but was also thinking of “the Age of Enlightenment,” i.e., the realities of the 18th century.
I love her illustration are soft-focus photographs or line-drawing illustrations, evoking imagination on the part of the reader: emblems, herbs, older symbolic pictures (the zodaic for example). Much richness for us to explore for quite a number of weeks to come.
From the site of Castle Leogh in Scotland today