How a brainy guy like me wound up reading historical romance novels.
You could say it was like pulling teeth to get me to start reading
Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” books, but it wasn’t the wisdom tooth extraction that did it. It was afterwards, as I sank into three days of bed rest, soft foods and codeine, that my resistance finally broke and I reached under the bed to where “Outlander,” the first volume of Gabaldon’s series of historical romances, was stashed. It would be my secret vice. I couldn’t let my girlfriend San know that I’d taken her advice and actually started reading the book, or she might think I was actually enjoying it, or something. She’d start asking what part I’d gotten up to, and want to talk about how great the characters are, and how much better it is than one of those books. I once carried a dogeared copy of Walter Benjamin’s “Illuminations” through every punk squat in Europe and was now reading a historical romance novel.
Only a few weeks before, San was hiding the book from me. I’d stop into her office to see how her dissertation research was coming along, and before the door was properly open, she’d already be deep into a history of the Paris Commune or something, making brisk pencil marks in the margins while “Outlander” fluttered open in the wastebasket. Eventually, it was replaced there by the sequel, “Dragonfly in Amber,” and then “Voyager,” the third book. By then, she’d dropped the pretense that they were guilty-pleasure reading and had turned evangelical. “You know, you should really check these books out,” she said. “One of my mom’s friends started reading them thinking they were genre fiction — but they’re really not. You know how video stores always file ‘Watership Down’ in the children’s section? Gabaldon’s books aren’t about bunnies either. They’re rather good.”
I wanted to believe her, too, except I’d already been scorched badly in that regard. Absent the Gabaldon contretemps, the only time I was ever talked into reading romance fiction was in a college class taught by a noted culture studies professor — a leaping marionette of a man who looked like Steve Buscemi with multiple earrings and a goatee. It’s snobbery, he warned, to say that romance fiction isn’t just as good as capital-L, air-quotes “Literature.” Well, who wants to be a snob? I gave the book a fair shot — and it was like young-adult fiction written by Victorian pornographers; a rickety trellis of plot devices hung with obsolete undergarments and bad adverbs.
Not that I didn’t learn anything from it. While the prof took the common cultural studies line on the book, finding reinscriptions of the transgressive potentialities of the subalternizing tropes of wah-wah (translation: Millions of people bought it, therefore it empowers people), I saw a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade of romance readers towing an enormous Sigmund Freud balloon. Here’s how it went: A young girl has a mystical essence inside her that makes her … fascinating, irresistible. She runs around like a brat (she’s “spirited”), throwing tantrums and charming her way out of trouble, until she draws the attention of a mysterious stranger — who seduces and tames her, and installs her as the lady of the mansion. I wrote a response to the book suggesting that millions and millions of people should maybe get a handle on their Electra complexes — which got me in big trouble — and that was that. There are many widely different genres of romance novel, one gathers. The one I read was a “Regency,” which essentially means a rewrite of “Jane Eyre” on pep pills and Viagra. But I was fairly sure, as I am now, that I wouldn’t like any of the other kinds either.
But then I read “Outlander” straight through — and then its gigantic sequel. And then the two gargantuan books after that one. I read them all — four massive historical romance novels — and found that San had been right all along: Whatever Gabaldon was aiming at in writing these weird, compelling books, it had nothing at all to do with simple genre fiction.
What they really are, though, is tough to say. At the very least, the “Outlander” series represents the smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting “Scrooge McDuck” comics — which, despite her somewhat lacquered appearance in the jacket photos, is what Diana Gabaldon turns out to be. The story appears to be fairly superficial as well: A man and woman are flung into romantic adventures in 18th century Scotland. They gallop across misty moors and gaze at each other from moonlit castle battlements. There’s intrigue, and a period of sexual tension, and then lots of serious rutting. But the first thing you notice about “Outlander,” long before the castles-and-moors part starts to kick in, is that it’s a carefully written book, with three-dimensional characters inhabiting a complex, believable world. The people in “Outlander” seem to have lives. The story seems light-handed and plausible. Events seem to happen for reasons and not simply to push the plot forward. The second thing you notice, just as the book turns into quicksand and pulls you under with a big, wet slurp, is that it does all the standard historical-romance tropes spectacularly backwards and wrong.
The female lead, Claire Beauchamp, is a 27-year-old Englishwoman, a British army nurse just released from duty after the Second World War. On a trip to Scotland with her researcher-husband, who has inherited a cache of local historical records, she sneaks up on a coven of witches dancing around a set of ancient standing-stones and ends up falling through the stones into the past. Once she gets over the surprise of that, Claire develops a plan: to use her knowledge of history to stop the disastrous Battle of Culloden Field before it occurs — to save Scotland from the English. Gabaldon herself, of course, has a background in research, and the researcher-husband device allows her to let ‘er rip with the historical detail like nobody’s business. But note: The female romantic lead enters the story already happily married — and thus both sexually experienced and unavailable. She has a mission planned out for herself. She’s also, it later develops (much later, but more on that anon), about five years older than the male lead, a fierce, dashing Highland Scot named Jamie Fraser, who’s tall, rugged, handsome — and a rather nice, considerate chap overall who’s a bit timid about his virginity. Wrong! wrong! wrong!
In “The Outlandish Companion,” the newly minted “Silmarillion” of the series, Gabaldon says she began “Outlander” as practice for writing a detective novel, without any intention of ever having it published. She also lists her previous writing experience as including, besides freelance work for Disney’s comics division, scholarly and technical articles, software reviews (for Byte and PC Magazines) and a “gigantic eight-hundred-page coauthored monograph on the dietary habits of the birds of the Colorado River Valley.” She’d never written fiction before, and had no idea what sort of story she wanted to tell — so she decided that 18th century Scotland was a reasonable enough setting, and worked up some vignettes to see what sort of people might turn up and what they might end up doing. When Claire appeared, stomping through the 18th century moors talking like a modern woman, it was clear she must’ve gotten there through some sort of time travel. As for Jamie, he just didn’t come off like a man who’d have notches on his belt. Their personalities developed from there.
Gabaldon’s plotting in the “Outlander” series would end up being somewhat patchy and modular, with episode following on episode and minor characters writing themselves in and out of the books for no compelling reason. But the genius of the series also lies partly in her unconventional method of storytelling: She simply doesn’t pay attention to genre or precedent, and doesn’t seem to care that identifying with Claire puts women in the role of the mysterious stranger, with Jamie — no wimp in any regard — as the romantic “heroine.”
It’s all pretty refreshing, especially since you’d expect that sort of role-reversal to be played as comedy in a popular novel, with Claire getting all the good lines and Jamie bumbling around like a sitcom husband. That’s not the case, and it doesn’t come off as a gimmick at all: Jamie and Claire take turns pulling one another through the story, with each covering for the other’s weaknesses and winning a portion of the battles. Claire is “spirited,” but in a way that suggests there shouldn’t be anything childish about a woman’s spirit — and that there’s nothing especially strange (or self-consciously you-go-girl) about a heroine who rushes off to save the hero’s butt from time to time. While Jamie has some 18th century issues over that, he generally appreciates the courtesy.
Gabaldon has said — directly in various places as well as sneakily, through various characters — that Claire and Jamie turned out the way they did (a combat nurse and a Gaelic hunk with a real, human person inside) not as any kind of statement, but just because Gabaldon herself doesn’t especially like weenie women, and rather appreciates men as people. There’s something almost avant-garde about that. You can find a halfway version of it in the novels of Mary Renault, a mid-century crypto-Sapphist who wrote detailed historical fiction about ancient Greek heroes, and who didn’t seem to like femininity at all, while quite liking Amazons. Flannery O’Connor had something like it, but in a mean way.
But when you look at even the edgiest of contemporary fiction, you get the impression that men and women are supposed to be essentially different inside, and that male and female strength is always supposed to be in conflict — as though each had some sort of mystical energy that negates the other. Female characters are commonly strong despite male opposition or through there not being any real masculinity around to contaminate the air. Male characters are commonly strongest when the literary universe they inhabit is a contrivedly masculine one. But the striking thing about Gabaldon’s books is that while Claire and Jamie were clearly raised very differently, and while they’re always behaving like a typical romantic couple — falling into torrid couplings, and squabbling and smacking each other, and storming off in fits of pique and suchlike — they get along pretty well as friends despite it all. You get the feeling that they’d still be crashing around together if one of them tripped and fell through a stone sex-change circle.
From the reader reviews posted on Amazon.com, a lot of romance purists are suspicious of Gabaldon because of that sort of thing. Even though a new genre, the time-travel romance, has sprung up in the wake of her books, she’s viewed as something of a carpetbagger, a weird historical novelist on romance territory. The rough-and-tumble relationship between Claire and Jamie, the battle scenes, the violence. Who the hell wants that stuff? The historical-fiction community, for its part, disapproves of the time-travel, which keeps catapulting characters back and forth between the 18th and 20th centuries, while the hardcore sci-fi crowd just thinks all the smooching is icky.
As if that weren’t enough, it gets wronger from there. The genre people practically hop around and shake their fists in unison over the fact that “Outlander” rambles along for almost 300 pages before the main characters even get together and start making Main Plot. But what Gabaldon’s book does instead is introduce an entirely fresh sort of popular fiction — a freer, more authorial version of the middlebrow airport novel than the English language has ever seen before. Gabaldon can craft characters and situations like a real author, and can motivate them like a real author, and has a prose style that almost — almost — manages to sustain a sort of adjective-rich lyricism, while hitting the occasional magisterial cadence. Here’s Claire pausing after stitching up a wound, from the upcoming novel, “The Fiery Cross”:
I never prayed consciously when preparing for surgery, but I did look for something — something I could not describe, but always recognized; a certain quietness of soul, the detachment of mind in which I could balance on the knife edge between ruthlessness and compassion, at once engaged in utmost intimacy with the body under my hands and capable of destroying what I touched in the name of healing.
Gabaldon’s critics also hoot in chorus and kick over wastebaskets because, once the third book, “Voyager,” kicks in, 20 years have passed and Claire and Jamie are both in their mid-40s — which everyone knows is too old for the sort of thing they’re always getting up to. Her detractors shatter crockery and spit down mail-shafts over the fact that Claire finds herself in love with two husbands in different centuries, and has to split her loyalties in order to keep the one from avenging himself on the other’s forebears. Many people hate, particularly, that Gabaldon not only gets away with all this weird, wrong stuff, but that her books are flying off the shelves because of it. Ah, well. To Gabaldon’s critics says Robert Burns, “Some books are lies frae end to end.” To Gabaldon:
Misled by fancy’s meteor ray,
By passion driven;
But yet the light that led astray,
Was light from heaven.
Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon. More Gavin McNett.
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