'Between the feral and the pure':
Outlander and the psychology of historical fiction
How we experience historical fiction is often a visceral state of affairs: rich pickings for psycho-analyst's and cultural theorists. From the couch in the living room, we dream big about the travails of others, our choice of place and protagonist evoking both personal desire and wider political visions. In those strange identifications with the raw realities of the past, we say much about the absences in our more mediated world of the present. Why, at certain moments in history, do we personally want to make that investment: to love the rebel, storm the fortress, smash the machines, unite the clans, save those worlds? Why do we want to feel like those in it do? What can we gain from it?
For those who study myth and the mind, these are not overly tough questions: our enjoyment of historical fiction is largely linked to our ability to use those imaginative spaces as emotional playgrounds; to write ourselves into the myths of our own time, its ethical progress, and presumed political and technological accomplishments, by allowing ourselves to savor a slice of the immediacy of a 'less civilized' past. For some, it may just be an identification with well-drawn characters 'out of time', who endure the usual human fare of love, angst and social expectation albeit with heightened danger and desire. For others, the experience of 'reading the past' can prove enlightening and motivating to pose questions of the sort that cut through obsessions with what Tudor kings and queens had for breakfast or whom they took to their beds. So, at its best, historical fiction reflects the intellectual shifts of the last half-century: to identify with the peasant's revolt against the feudal system, the artisan struggles with factory bosses, the guerilla incursions against the conquering imperial forces; to see these less as ancient struggles, but conversations with the present.
In the global phenomenon that is Outlander we are not short of material on any of these scores. Everything one could want in a book (and all of its 800 pages, plus the sequels and the stunning TV series) is here, as well as a number of representations of history which are controversial, but not for the reasons which usually crop up in discussions of this genre-spanning collection of literary wish-fulfillment. Whilst many have (rightly) focused on the ethics of portraying eighteenth-century sexual violence, it may be the rationale for repositioning ourselves as potential agents of reconciliation with historical injustices which may be worthy of more extensive discussion. Gabaldon’s primary trope of time-traveling characters as moral referees may not be original (standard fare in US science fiction from Star Trek, Quantum Leap, Timeless etc and obviously the UK's Dr Who) nor the need to retrospectively present an inclusive, tolerant and optimistic view of human capabilities - but it is rare to lay such a Sisyphus-like weight of guilt upon one's protagonists, nor have it played out so relentlessly in such personal/political ways, again and again (evoking myths old and new, religious and political).
The scale of Outlander is indeed Greek tragic huge – families torn apart by war and circumstance, controlled (and punished) by the gods of historical wisdom, aided and abetted by the peculiarities of a Neolithic Tardis. Accordingly, there is plenty to weep and wonder at, rail against, be compelled and hopefully motivated by – whether as individuals wanting to better our choices in love and life, or as collectives wanting a more just future for one another.
(Please note, this review references material from Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, Drums of Autumn and the respective televisual adaptations)
The Frasers: Time-crossed lovers in the Age of (almost) Enlightenment
There is good reason why this first book of the series is controversial – there are a few excruciating passages, which I'll come to – but to abandon the book after a couple of hundred pages (as some do) is perhaps an opportunity wasted to reflect upon how we portray the emergence of Enlightenment values, at a time when the narrative of modernity has become hopelessly mangled. In that sense, any depiction of the past is worthy of analysis, but Outlander goes beyond the historical-fiction-with-a-more-enlightened-face feel-good factor, by presenting really raw moral dilemmas through the eyes of characters two centuries this side of the Battle of Culloden - the event around which much of the first three books revolve (and this one begins setting the Jacobite scene for). We then reprise this in many ways as the temporal saga unfolds – the aftereffects of ‘the 45’, then the politics of the colonies, the American War of Independence, slavery, colonialism, and genocide of the First Nations – testing the reader as much as the characters.
In terms of historical wish-fulfillment then, Outlander has it by the flagon, but this is just the setting: throw in a captivating 'love across time' menage-a-kilt, of immense complexity and intensity (replete with heavy Freudian 'primal scene' shenanigans) and you've got a heady narrative brew. Not surprising that it has become an international media circus, part of Scotland's own conversation with itself (and its diaspora) and whose massive (largely female) fan base produce endless self-made videos on youtube.com and drag themselves around the Highlands of Scotland in a heightened sense of yearning for the perfect resolution of their histories of head and heart. It is engaging and powerful stuff, that offers something that often seems absent from much of the Game of Thrones universe (to which it is frequently compared) – hope.
Is it worth it? Yes, but if we are being fair, those people who read the novels when they came out in the 1990s have done the really hard persuasive work. These books are big beasties and definitely in need of an editorial trim at times, but their international sales reputation and the quality of the TV adaptations change our relationship with the text coming to it now. There is so much fan culture around Outlander that it is quickly approaching the kind of 'meta-text' status of George RR Martin's creation. The upside of this is that it is even easier to slip into what the cultural historian Joe Moran calls 'slow reading' – the calculated absorption of a substantial fictional universe into our busy time-pressured lives – but the reverse is that it becomes another simulacrum of the idea of a real Scotland: a revision of the revisionist history of the decline of the clan system and the fate of its diaspora. Fortunately, Scotland is embracing Outlander at a time of cultural confidence and global mindedness and seems aware of its responsibilities not to re-fight old battles; indeed, in the first few books, its two protagonists Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser are all about diplomacy, conflict resolution, trying to find alternatives to some of history's great dilemmas – peacemakers whilst they and their own families struggle with love's own imponderables.
Maybe having an American author helps in this respect. Gabaldon (who has a PhD in ecology) has certainly done her homework and the setting itself is pretty flawless, with the detail on flora, fauna, and clan cultural history absolutely staggering (the writer did this from Arizona). Having two of the principal characters of the series – Frank Randall and Roger Wakefield – as professional historians, allows for plenty of hindsight and reprising of the old arguments about what the Jacobites were about or how the Battle of Culloden happened the way that it did. This also lends gravitas to offset any suspension of disbelief that Celtic stone circles really can be temporal portals (mercifully, Gabaldon – like Audrey Niffenegger with her Time Traveler's Wife – does not try to explain the physics of time travel, although there is an interesting hint that love acts as a lens to channel the traveler across time and space – a notion recently given … er … gravitas by the science fiction film Interstellar).
This is all quickly forgotten in the first instance, as we immerse ourselves in the daily life of 1743 Scotland as Claire Randall, the narrator, who goes 'through the stones', tries to adjust and survive in this apparently barbarous and unfathomable world. She is a progressive professional woman from 1945 with experience of stitching up men on the battlefield: smart, funny, argumentative, impulsive, canny, passionate and adaptable enough to know when she has to forsake the Hippocratic oath for the sake of her own (and her associates') survival. She is also sexually assertive, and we are led to believe, knows where male power over women's bodies should end and women's start – until it seems she has a brain freeze for a chapter or two.
This is the single biggest reader's complaint about the book, that somehow Claire is silent on a number of occasions, and in the interests of Gabaldon's portrayal of sexual violence and patriarchy in all of its eighteenth-century unflinching verisimilitude, characterisation defaults to a Stockholm syndrome acceptance position. Make no mistake, this is a difficult read in places and some scenes simply would not be written the way that they were now – twenty years later as the TV adaptations have wrestled with the same dilemma – but the characterisation by some of Outlander as a 'rape book' makes no sense in terms of the character arcs of its two protagonists and its broadly feminist analysis of history. A lot less is said, for instance, about what happens to Jamie Fraser at the hands of his tormentor 'Black Jack' Randall (a direct ancestor of Claire's husband in the twentieth century!) later in the book, or how the writer handles some of the psychological consequences of this remarkably sensitively (sharing of trauma is a theme that runs through the books, specifically in Drums of Autumn). If Outlander itself appears to be relatively uneventful over the last hundred pages or so – full of quiet contemplation in a French monastery – then it is because in the sweep of the series it is a moment of respite (and character progression), even if as a stand-alone text it feels a little anti-climatic. Yet Gabaldon is so good with dialogue generally that there is much to enjoy (after all of the hurt!) in the engaging philosophical conversations between Claire and the monks.
Technically, there are plot weaknesses: a touch too many 'Claire in danger' scenarios and the narration occasionally feels either saccharine or just unnecessary. You mean you're trying to get back to 'the stones' … how did I forget? … you're only out of time and probably about to be burnt as a witch (spoiler - this doesn't happen!). We should also overlook the (editorial?) decision to position the book as an international tourist trap by having Claire bathing by Loch Ness (uh oh!) in one predictable sequence. Perhaps the 'Visit Scotland' website gillies were also gritting their teeth at the prospect of enquiries about the re-worked female-centred 'Skye Boat Song' in the TV series, which ruins an otherwise fabulous and stirring Bear McCreary soundtrack.
'All that was good, all that was fair' - the enduring melancholic legacy of Drummossie Muir, Inverness, site of the Battle of Culloden, April 16th, 1746.
But let's get serious, this series of books and TV drama is not just about nostalgia or product Alba, or even the sex appeal of Sam Heughan who plays Jamie Fraser – it is about a very large Romantic ideal of the Enlightenment and its progressive notions of liberty, the individual, justice, women's equality as the great myths by which we live now. Whether intentionally or not Gabaldon serves us some strong political potions: there is what Roland Barthes called the mythology of 'The Great Family of Man' (his critique of the famous art exhibition of Edward Streichen in 1955) which seeks to present a view of the world where all classes and cultures have a common essence that political and economic struggle just temporarily obfuscates. In Outlander we get it throughout the franchise – whether it is the Fraser clan, or rallying the Jacobite cause, giving agency to slaves or First Nation tribes. Dramatically, these are of course profound moments but signify something larger about the ideals we purport to live by that these can be achieved by bargaining with power using a spot of liberal reason (even if the power in question represents the Divine Right of Kings – as in the folly of Charles Edward Stuart).
Whether or not fans of the series will be reaching for critical social histories such as John Prebble's Culloden or The Highland Clearances is another matter, but we are nonetheless encouraged to see a particular trajectory (the sanctity of the liberal-democratic telos) against which the purity of the Romantic ideal of love as part of the same civilized discourse (mature, evolving and equal – with a sprinkling of Robbie Burns to boot) can be played out. And of course, Claire is tackling some of the great set pieces of modernity with a much older more metaphysical mythic weight – Aristophanes' story of the divided personality in Plato's The Symposium. Here it is enacted in the form of a love triangle of different (Renaissance) masculinities across time and space, with her decisions about whom she chooses and when dialogue between a personal sense of fulfillment and desire (in the less civilized past) and collective protection of a daughter, family, future (in the more rational present).
If a lot of fan and media attention is quite rightly devoted to the dynamics of the Claire/Jamie and Claire/Frank relationships – because it is an engaging reflection on often superhuman levels of passionate motivation, separation, heartbreak, and loss – there's another female centred reading of events, which offers something to us in the ecological crisis today. For all of the aforementioned difficulties that some readers have with these books, much of the narratives are about healing, recovery, and reeducation – of personal hurt or political trauma. Claire is a nurse, a surgeon, and a healer (from a broken family) who learns to look at the world with the eyes of one able to utilize the properties of the natural world as much as those developed by science. Disconnection from Nature, loss of awareness of ourselves as just another species among many, is not a message one usually takes from Outlander (!), yet reading historical fiction in an age of potential civilizational collapse, provides an unusual opportunity to think about our own adaptability. What do we know, how would we behave with one another in a world of food scarcity, less technology, and more susceptibility to disease; how might our relationships be conducted in such survival situations? Those dismissing the genre as escapist romantic tosh may well be losing out on botanical and physiological details carefully etched out by dedicated writers and researchers!
So, read Outlander with caution and hope and see beyond the generic conventions (because it breaks them all the time) to the wider issues which it raises. The story is fantastic and for some, that is good enough. Many fans of the series take much from the central image of a dragonfly captured in amber (the title of the second book). First, a symbol of love divided (but eventually renewed years later), then an artifact from a doomed cause under glass in a museum, it now reminds us of the fragility of our own species: how our personal and political muses and ideals can be suddenly frozen by forces beyond our control; how the power to change history can turn on so little, so easily slip away; yet how even in those moments of despair we find the inner emotional resources to renew ourselves by acts of imagination - embrace the feral fire to shape the future.
Lessons in re-learning the Earth? Claire and Adehewi in Season 4 of Outlander (Starz, 2018)
Barthes R. (1973) 'The Great Family of Man' in Mythologies, New York: HarperCollins.
Gabaldon, D. (2015) Outlander London: Cornerstone (originally published 1991 as 'Cross Stitch'),
Moran, J. (2018) First you write a sentence, London: PenguinRandomHouse
Plato (360 BCE) translation at
Prebble, J. (1973) The Highland Clearances , London: Penguin.
Additional credit. The title of this article was inspired by a passage from Under the Canopy of Heaven, by Georgina Hutchison, which raised the idea of this duality between the 'feral' and the 'pure', but in another context. See my review of her book elsewhere on this site.
Written July 2019
(c) J. Purkis