I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days — my hair standing on end the whole time …
Impelled by an irresistible presentiment, you will eagerly advance to it, unlock its folding doors, and search into every drawer –but for some time without discovering anything of importance — perhaps nothing but a considerable hoard of diamonds. At last, however, by touching a secret spring, an inner compartment will open–a roll of paper appears–you seize it–it contains many sheets of manuscript — you hasten with the precious treasure into your own chamber, but scarcely have you been able to decipher ‘Oh! Thou–whomsoever thou mayst be, into whose hands these memoirs of the wretched Matilda may fall’ — when your lamp suddenly expires in the socket, and leaves you in total darkness … Henry Tilney to Catherine Morland, NA, Chapters 14 and 20)
Dear friends and readers,
Having finished listening to Davina Porter read aloud (remarkably well) the whole of Diana Gabaldon’s historical romance, Outlander, I’m ready to go forward with watching the second season, adapted from Dragonfly in Amber. I’m studying both the series of romances and the film adaptations as examples of what has happened to popular historical romance in an era where the prestige of historical fiction has gone way up. Historical fiction and post-colonial historical romance have again for some (as the forms did in the Victorian era) become an instrument of political import (mostly post-colonialist). At the same time there has been a fierce backlash against feminism and liberal attitudes towards homosexuality (lesbianism, tranvestism), and fascist ideas gaining ground, i.e, violence as a means of solving problems, individual liberty and thought are out, women are there as mothers, wives, sisters, not individuals in their own right. That’s why Gabaldon needed a 20th century woman in her book so she should have agency.
How does this relate to Austen: this sort of book, the romance, especially gothic and implicitly political, ambivalently feminist were the kinds of books she read and praised as works genius — Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith, Francis Burney, Maria Edgeworth — in a novel she rewrote endlessly in an attempt to combine satire of the form while embodying its truths persuasively, i.e., Northanger Abbey.
As a prelude, I’ve gathered up all the blogs I’ve written thus far on Outlander so I can refer back to them, and so my readers can see what has been our findings about this genre and film adaptation thus far:
Outlander: a cross between Frank Yerby’s Border Lord, DuMaurier’s romances, Sophie Lee’s Recess, Dorothy in Wizard of Oz, and epistolary subjective novels
Outlander and Poldark: Horsfield’s scripts; problematic parallels towards violence towards women & rape
Outlander 1: Sassenach and Craig Na Dun; People Disappear all the time … Radcliffe Redivida
1 Outlander 2 and 3: Castle Leogh & The Way Out: DuMaurier Redivida
1 Outlander 4 & 5: The Gathering and Rent; as a Descendant of Waverley
Outlander: 6 and 7: Garrison commander; Wedding Nights (2): tapestry
1 Outlander 8: Both Sides Now; The Long night of the Wedding: magic
1 Outlander: 10 & 11: Pricking of My Thumb; Devil’s Mark; babies & witchcraft; again the question of genre
1 Outlander: 12 & 13: Lallybroch and the Watch: you can’t go home again; gender roles transitioning
1 Outlander: 14-16: The Search, Wentworth Prison, To Ransom a Man’s Soul, Finale; The issue of torture
I have read fans were dismayed by the choice of Caitriona Balfe — I find her very appealing. At no point does she have the lightly mocking jocular tone Gabaldon uses for her heroine.
A few thoughts on Gabaldon’s novel:
Problems: in the present time sequences Gabaldon is American and has no idea how to write British dialogue or thoughts. She uses the phony language of 1950s romance as I remember it: Frank Randall calls Clare a wench; characters beam at one another; they are roguish. She has been influenced strongly by the 1940s British movies and this is reflected in the films in the way the opening new honeymoon scenes are done and the opening scenes of the second season when she has returned pregnant in 1948 after Culloden has happened but she somehow does not know what happened exactly, not even who won. In the opening sequence in the UK there is supercilious tone of half-mockery at reading people; a shallow amused jocularity and descriptions of what no British woman really did in the 1950s when they shopped. Gabaldon seems to think that genealogy studies are serious historical research — or she assumes her readers do. It may be this tone is intended to function like that of Lockwood in the opening of Wuthering Heights (supercilious and faintly ironic), but he never aims his irony at sensitivity, history itself and so on.
Oh and no one reads anything at all – except as part of a profession. The film did counter this gap in the book with literary allusion (all added in, poetry from Donne, Robert Louis Stevenson) and downplayed the heroine’s irony towards her husband’s literary research profession — though presented her as slightly bored by him, and the renewed marriage not quite working (so said the heroine in her voice-over). Gabaldon herself is clearly (I concede) drenched in the history of this period and all sorts of book leaning, biography, chronicles (disguised or referred to in her companion most cavalierly, sprezzatura and all that – she never sleeps, does no housework &c&c)
At each deviation and choice the film-makers are better. They keep the significant and resonating lines unerringly. Her story is what makes the book in a way, and her characters are somewhat re-conceived. Litereally the mini-series is close. Her heroine has never had a political thought in her head. Gabaldon is also a master of romance style; she sustains eloquence about love; her dialogue is naturalistic once Claire moves back in time and to Scotland. The Scottish dialect does not feel like pastiche. They add “Madam” to Black Jack’s speech and sudddenly Randall’s is an 18th century male voice. Gabaldon’s strengths come out more too: she’s good at describing love-making, at erotica. These passages are important for today’s historical romance for women, as the love-making is told from a woman’s point of view (foreplay emphasized ….)
There is self-reflexivity. Clare comments how in romances the “bad male” of romance is never rooted in any local reality; Gabaldon feels she does this by her post-colonialist story of the vicious English against the Highland Scots, the corrupt Jacobite courts. She also (I think consciously) wants to give us a heroine who struggles against forces of nature: so we have Clare fighting a wolf and subduing and killing it! It’s very much a woman’s book — if you can get into this sort thing. Today I’m going to try Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General for a while to see if I can in her case for the summer term as I have to send in a proposal for this coming summer by Feb 10th! DuMaurier is a political innocent in comparison. The 21st century Catherine Morland would read both. — in preference to “real history,” which Martha Bowden in her Descendants of Waverley does not have that much use for either. Phillippa Gregory gobbles it all up to spit it out as historical romance: she has done that for Margaret Tudor too. The book as Emily Nussbaum wrote of the mini-series it’s mirroring our time. Anne Stevenson, one of my favorite 20th century women poets, has also written about the book favorably.
There are some troubling patterns of violence and humiliation across the first season which is much more emphatic in the book: the subaltern hero is intensely punished. The last two episodes of the mini-series are horrifyingly abusive of Jamie Fraser: he is tortured into submitting to anal sex, his spirit to resist broken by breaking his hand, the merciless flogging. I had realized his back shows horrific treatment too, well, this a pattern in the book too: the ritual humiliation of the heroine (occurs much more weakly and not as centrally) is nothing to this. I asked izzy about Games of Thrones, and she said yes and they are killed off; in Agents of Shield these central and subaltern central heroes go through enormous emotional turmoil.
I had noticed this pattern in Tudor dramas on film: the men took the place hitherto reserved for the heroine, and took it that the Henry 8 story appeal was the ability to show masculinity of a very different sort than the modern controlled invulnerable (unattacked mostly) hero, but maybe not. In Outlander this fits the (mild or undeveloped very much )post-colonial perspective, an unintended consequence inheritance from Walter Scott. Poor Jamie can’t go home again even: the result an unmitigated disaster. I’ve grown to like Jamie Fraser, have bonded with him and to some extent Claire (the text is strongly offset by the mini-series, its tone and especially Caitronia Balfe’s intelligent performance). I find myself very anxious as the story moves from distraught catastrophe to distraught catastrophe. I know this was the appeal of Poldark: I liked the central hero and heroine (and secondary ones, Elizabeth and Francis, too). In Tolstoy’s War and Peace I bonded with some of the central characters. It’s a sina qua non finally for loving a book — though one can love the imagined author as a substitute.
I found a long scene describing a childbirth very good. IN the depiction of Lallybroch, Jamie’s home, in the film instead of a long series of scenes of life in such a country place there was yet another action-adventure inserted betrayal: the book here is good. Both women’s point of view. At the same time the insistence on violence as an answer to problems becomes yet more overt. It’s not simply the book shows a man violent to a woman and her learning to accept just that once, but there are repeated instances of problems solved by violence. The idea is when there is no other way. I have said I think there are situations where the other side will not respond except through violence. To me the argument slavery was dying by itself ignores human nature plus the actual situation. I think the present administration thinks they can do what they want as the American people, especially democrats are utter cowards, despicably lukewarm (that’s how they see the desire to reason and negotiate). But many many instances should not turn violent; that makes for more violence — which does happen in the book: a man forced to give up his son whom he has been beating mercilessly by violence on hi then turns in our hero, so he may be hanged; our hero’s friends then set fire to his house or him (it’s not clear).
There is an obsession with defending violence as a way of solving problems (really — the belief is you force people to do things and then they retaliate if they are not scared any more), but also sheer pain, and combined with the at times faux at times earnest post-colonialism, it is an exploration of torture from the point of view of the horrors of the experience. You are not meant to be inured (as can happen and discussed by Susan Sontag in her Regarding the Pain of Others). This book sold widely in the US, is enormously popular. I’ve already mentioned the ceaseless attack on homosexuality through the depiction of Black Jack Randall — it’s kept up as mockery of effeminate males.
Ned Gowan’s role as poet-lawyer is built up enormously — he appears only in the collecting of rents briefly and in the court scene in the novel — so the film-makers recognized this violence as a problem in the novel
In the final sequence of novel Jamie is humiliated personally (made to do submissive begging) and he feels he has to tell this to Clare: we get a depiction of torture which condemns it on all grounds and shows how it is basis of a tyranny (as Eleanor Scarry discussed in The Body In Pain); beyond that in the telling why someone would kill themselves after they escape even years after they escape (as Primo Levi and others who spent time in extermination and German concentration camps). He lives in dread of Randall and has nightmares. In the mini-series the emphasis was on a man raping a man, in other words sexual, and the discussions (such as they were on popular websites run by professionals, very discreet) focused on see how men are raped too (so it almost became a show revealing women lying in another direction — they pretend only they are raped) though to do the film justice it was also deeply anti-torture. I could not get myself to finish one of books Jim was in the middle went when the cancer had affected his brain to the point he couldn’t read, Speaking About Torture, edd Julie Carlson and Elisabeth Weber. Looking it at now I find essays on “What Nazi Crimes tell us”, how torture is represented, the “rituals of hegemonic masculinity” John Yoo, the torture memo and Churchill. I find it used in studies of torture where it is suddenly introduced with insufficient information. At first I thought it referred to the purpose of torture (as defined in such studies) to through pain and terror “drive the victim ‘beyond the borders of death into [a state of speechless] nothingness; well, that is what Black Jack Randall has done to Jamie and it is Claire who must give him an identity again, a sense he’s alive, pride, should live; the idea of ghosts on the mind is part of the meaning and in the second season and Dragonfly In Amber Jamie is haunted by nightmares of Randall getting hold of him again.
Before the book ends there is a (to me) odd decent moral set of lessons: Claire seeks comfort in “confessing” to a priest and we see him calm her conscience over bigamy; try to give reasons for God having sent her back to this era. As with Austen and other popular books I’ve read two chapters before the end you get the characters discussing the moral of the adventures, of this time-traveling. She clearly believes in God, that this is a just universe with rewards and punishments and yet a moralism about life as a journey and self-development through helping others and so on is suddenly put before us credibly. The discussions include can she stop Culloden for then the people who are supposed to be killed won’t be? the responsibility of changing history. At this point the book is silly.
The book ends with Claire and Jamie leaving the monastery through walking through a cave which has warm restorative mineral waters — like a spa, only dark colored, a mirror. This coming up from a recess is directly Sophia Lee and Ann Radcliffe material, only enhanced here by the sensual delights of love-making. The center of romance is the love story. They will go to Rome where he has connections and could get a position, be safe, and they work to prevent Culloden. Murtagh who we have learned once loved Jamie’s mother and regards himself as Jamie’s second father goes with them.
I realize now I have listened to Porter read aloud the whole of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as translated by Maud — she provides brilliant reading of that too. I recommend her to lovers of books read aloud by tape, CD, MP3 or download.