Claire (Caitriona Balfe) nursing an abandoned neonate (called a changeling), 1 Outlander 10 (By the Pricking of My Thumb)
Jamie: Been looking all over for ye.
Claire: I met Geillis Duncan on the road.
Jamie. She told me where ye were. It’s dangerous to be out here alone, Sassenach.
Claire: Don’t tell me you believe in fairies and changelings and all that.
Jamie: It’s not about what I believe. These people, they’ve never been more than a day’s walk from the place they were born.
They hear no more of the world than what Father Bain tells them in the kirk on a Sunday. And for the parents of that child, it might comfort them a bit to think it’s the changeling that died. And think of their own child, healthy and well, living forever with the fairies.
Claire: Take me home.
Claire explaining her small pox vaccination scar before she goes on to tell she is “from the future,” 1 Outlander 11 (The Devil’s Mark)
Claire: I was born on October the 20th in the year 1918. That’s 200 years from now. Do you hear me? Do you hear me?
Jamie: I hear you.
Claire: You think I’m raving mad, don’t you?
Jamie: No. No, I believe ye, Sassenach. So I dinna understand it a bit, not yet. But I trust you. I trust your word, your heart. And I trust there is a truth between us. So whatever you tell me I will believe ye. Can you tell me more?
Claire: I was a combat nurse in the British army.
Claire over-voice: Before we left the church, she [Geillis] said to me, “1968.” I told him everything. The whole story came pouring out of me like a cataract of water over a broken dam.
Jamie: Tell me again about the, uh the stones.
Claire over-voice: I didn’t realize how badly I needed to tell someone, anyone, until that moment.
Claire back to Jamie: The Scots never had a chance.
Claire over-voice: He listened.
Claire to Jamie: Thousands were killed at Culloden.
Claire over-voice: He didn’t understand it all, but he listened.
Friends and readers,
Among the few pleasant and unresolved escape pleasures of this past two (politically potentially disastrous) weeks, I’ve carried on reading Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley, Sarah Waters’s The Daphne DuMaurier Companion, an essay by (with me) a favorite woman poet, Anne Stevenson, on Gabaldon, and best of all both watching the series yet more and listening to an unabridged Gabaldon’s Outlander text read aloud by Davina Porter.. It may not seem to the reader or viewer of the mini-series and books the most urgent question is, What genre do this text and film belong to? and yet this question is the one that most intrigues me, for if I could answer it, I would know what to look for as central to what I am reading and watching.
The book seems to me to fall into the historical romance category. It is woman’s erotica; the density, accuracy, and centrality of historical events which are the groundwork of the historical novel are not here. There is no political vision. At the same time we are seduced into a seemingly densely realized historical period, regional setting, tribal identities through an identification worked up between us and Claire, the heroine, and (as we are allowed inside his mind, the POV is often his) or us and Jamie Fraser. The mini-series reaches out through the fantasy of the time-traveling motif, and continual time-shifts and parallel and contrasting characters now and then to offer (as these two episodes do) an ahistorical gothic exploring psychoanalytically innate experiences of female life presented as cultural regional curiosities and how societies have based their continuities on these while savagely punishing (hating) women for their power. Individuals caught up in an individual woman’s fate — be it husband, lover, child, sister, friend, patient — are driven to protect, control, and rely and bond — with the heroines. As part of interludes in the book we are invited to delight in historically particulars of the past presented as sensual, fascinating, delightful, or just strange on the one hand (picturesque) and terrifying on the other, especially the brutal violence accepted it seems by all. I know from reading Wallace’s Digging the Dirt how earlier fossils and skeletons from medieval times often show frightening harsh physical treatments wreaked on bodies (the corpse of Richard III is not unusual in this regard).
The two episodes have complicated plot-designs. In episode 10 Claire and Jamie are each, partly apart from one another, trying to manipulate Black Jack Randall’s Jacobite patron and protector, to write a letter which will exonerate Jamie from a charge of murdering a British officer; this involves Jamie in a dangerous duel with members of other Highland clans. At the same time, Claire finds herself thrown in with Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek), another “healer” whose own husband Geillis poisons to death. Dougal Mackenzie (Graham McTavish), brother to the Laird, and she are in love, she is pregnant with his child, and his wife has died. A seemingly unrelated sub-plot turn is Claire’s finding out about rituals used with pre-mature, non-thriving, disabled infants: they are abandoned to die using the asserted illusion that the faeries have taken away the beautiful normal baby to live forever in paradise and left this faery changeling to die in its place.
The mother watching, one of Claire’s accusers
Now having read the book I am aware that when married to Frank who in Dragonfly in Amber we learn could not sire a child Claire not knowing this longed to have a biological child; barring that, to adopt. Claire’s attempt to nurse the baby back to life give Laoghaire the opportunity to include her in an accusation that Geillis is a witch, and since Jamie has been commanded to accompany Dougal to his ancestral estates (it does not feel as pat as this in the telling, reading or viewing of the mini-series), when appointed witch-hunters come to take Geillis to prison, there is no one to stop them also taking Claire.
Episode 11 is the more quickly told though it is core material, what the previous episode exists to bring us to, and the very gothic historical romance drives towards again and again. Geillis and Claire endure a trial for witchcraft, as each charge is made by another half-hysterical female witness, bribed underling, or woman-hating priest Ned Gowan (Bill Patterson), the gentle-hearted but intelligent lawyer defends them.
Much shrouded in darkness
However, since the population and jury are throbbingly eager to whip and then “burn the bitch” (reminding me of the crowds salivating around Trump), Ned eventually loses the argument. Another in the nick of time rescue by Jamie, too late to prevent any flogging, and helped along by Geillis providing distraction with her small pox vaccination site:
and sudden confession (prompted by Ned in a conference before) that she seduced Claire and is herself pregnant with some devil’s child. She is hauled out with her belly heaving (she may not be burnt as we are told pregnancy precludes burning), but with at least a quarter of the over an hour episode is left for Claire to tell Jamie at long last where she has come from, how, who she is. The sequence where Claire attempts to account for her experience to Jamie is riveting, all the more so as most of what she says is off-stage implied (as it would be repetitious for us to be told what we have been experiencing for 11 episodes.) In terms of time in the episode, the telling needs little (as there is simply an indication through montage she has told what we have witnessed for 11 episodes); the emphasis is on Jamie’s reaction: at first shocked, he does believe her makes him an intensely sympathetic male.
He all nobility and self-sacrifice (as males in certain kinds of women’s romance often are) curses himself for having beaten her when she was just trying to get back to her husband. All magnanimity he leads her to the head stone to travel back; she almost does it in front of us (as we hear the wind rise), but he pulls her back. He then says he “wasna ready.” He will go further off by himself and wait all night. If she does not return to him, he will know she returned to her time-home. We watch as she almost does go to the stone, but now she draws back suddenly. As dawn emerges and we see his fire, we are not sure the POV is her, but it turns out to be. It takes all night for her to decide (but decide she does) her home is no longer England anywhere 1945 but Lallybroch 1743. Her first words are those she used as a nurse after she had taken care of a WW2 man: “On your feet, soldier.”
Paratext for each episode
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. 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
What I stress for this evening are the “fantasias” projected during the thread Geillis appears in. Outlander, the book, opens with a Claire whose tone reminded me of Lockwood in Wuthering Heights: supercilious, half-ready to quietly mock her scholarly husband with his interest in antiquarian archeaology, Claire’s tone is transformed to one of emotional engagement with that very past she didn’t want to hear about. The poetics and dramaturgies of slow juxtaposition and doppelgangers come in to play in the film episodes. The film version drops all this, and makes each venture into the past, each juxtaposition earnest and serious and magical.
Bowden seems to feel the writer’s apprehension of the unknowability of the past is central to all these linked genres, and I’m trying to see if it’s the core here too. In her book Claire is ever sceptical and utterly uninterested in books unless they concern her immediately. She seems to have no ambition beyond the female immanent. So she would have no drive to make her adventure public; she would not want to shame Frank over bringing up Jamie’s daughter. Bowden says the finest historical fictions undermine their own bases: that may be true of the Booker Prize kinds of fictions. I know the unknowability of what is being reported is central to Graham’s The Forgotten Story (a Cornish tale set in 1898) and Graham Swift’s Waterlands (what should be reported as history of all that occurs or is said to?). It is at times in Gabaldon’s novel almost a ghost story where the narrative takes comfort in the stone and flesh and physical reality of the people around her.
Bowden says also the all three types make the historical period and/or setting a character in the book. The historical fiction drives to recreate, the historical romance to exploit, gothic to undermine. I love periods embedded in periods, utterly different takes on what has happened from different narrators. Again and again the historians of recent historical fiction, historical romance, gothic, science fiction confound their types. I want in the reviews and blogs I write and teaching I do to distinguish in order to vindicate historical romance, a woman’s genre (except when of the action-adventure chivalric hero type in Lorna Doone for example), with feminized heroes, and distinguish the types to understand the function they play in people’s lives. Why do I love the Poldark novels so and am so engaged by the realization in films?
Bowden’s idea seems to be we can unlock and understand the power of historical fictions and romance by seeing them as part of a literary and imaginative community continuum. I know there are neolithic stones all over the British Isles. Still standing today are 1,500 castles in Scotland (History Today, 66:11 [Nov 2016], 35. I feel the power of the writing that gets all this down and responds to it is what’s important and we can unlock the power, unpack the sources by acknowledging the drive in these fictions into verisimilitude, probability, enough complex inwardness in the characters and a mystical longing to get back into the past
Frank (Tobias Menzies) and Claire among the stones
Ross (Robin Ellis) and Demelza (Angharad Rees) walking away along the Cornish beach at the conclusin of Poldark‘s first season (1976)
So, the question is, according to Bowden, not whether the Outlander series of books is historical romance, and the Poldark series, historical fictions, but “what kind of world is brought into being here, what thematic topoi,” what (I add) the situation of the speaker? More largely, what our historical situation today and how does it relate to what is presented? how we do feel about history today? Gabaldon’s book is frivolous, the narrator uses a supercilious faux cheerful tone, but she is drawn into erotic historical romance (unsurprisingly) with modern candour and (surprisingly) a post-colonial stance in the history part of her formula.
From the film adaptation of The English Patient
I’m now set to teach three Booker Prize historical fiction at the OLLI at Mason this fall (J.L. Carr’s Month in the Country, Ondjaatje’s English Patient) and am thinking of “doing” “The World of Daphne Dumaurier” there in the summer (including King’s General). Tonight I was reading in the third Book of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and should reread Rose Tremaine’s Restoration and re-watched the last two episode of Andrew Davies’s 2016 too-thin film adaptation of War and Peace. It’s all about death, the past in the present, and as I listen to Davina Porter reading Outlander aloud and hear Claire rejoicing to feel she is surrounded by hard stones, and the people around her thick flesh-and-blood, I find myself wondering if Outlander and its predecessors are ghost-stories, and Waverley and its progeny politicized history.