Altogether now – Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing…
You end up warbling this ALL DAY after watching Outlander. My daughter can even play it on the recorder.
I have not read Diana Gabaldon’s books, although the first one is on my teetering ‘to read when I am recovering from the car crash that renders me totally bedridden but not in any pain for six months’ pile.
And while the concept of travelling back in time and falling in love with a be-kilted piece of Scottish hunk is a bit, well, wet, you gotta admit it is damn appealing. Everything was so much easier in the 18th century – no worries about updating to iOS 9, or renewing the house insurance. OK, chances were you would die in childbirth, if the smallpox, malnutrition or hypothermia didn’t get you first, but there is nothing like a real life-or-death struggle to teach you the priorities in life.
In Outlander, nurse Claire Randall is recovering from the horrors of the Second World War by having a second honeymoon in Scotland with her nice, intelligent and sensitive husband Frank. Somehow (and this is the only magicky bit in the series, which is why Game of Throne comparisons are just daft) she taps into some ancient power in some standing stones and ends up running for her life in bare feet and a thin white frock back into 1743.
Once you take this on board, things get a whole lot better. Claire is confused and angry, but she isn’t daft, and cottons on pretty quickly to what has happened. At one bit she does demand iodine and something else no-one outside of a 20th century pharmacy would have heard off, just so the dour-but-heart-of-gold Scots can look dumb, then grin and cackle when she asks for alcohol instead.
Using the Highlanders for comic relief does grate a bit, much like turning Gimli the Dwarf into a comedy character in the Lord of The Rings films. And the plot twist that has Claire and Jamie being forced to get married made me wince – especially as Jamie is the biggest, handsomest, cleverest and kindest of all the men she has met so far. Talk about lucky.
But this is a historical romance, and it works well. The whole thing looks wonderful, although they have done something cunning with the photography. I have been to Scotland and, believe me, it is stunning, but it isn’t quite so cartoon green.
Unusually as well, we see many things from Claire’s point of view. She is the experienced, focused one, and she falls for innocent-hearted virgin Jamie, who frequently finds himself needing rescuing (by her). Also, while it is hard to resist the buff and broad-shouldered redhead, Claire can’t forsake Frank for quite a while. It would have been easier to make Frank a horror, or needy, and worth escaping, but it doesn’t. However, when she does get the chance to return, and decides to stay in the 18th century, I’m still not sure what made her change her mind (apart from the thought of Jamie’s pecs, obvs).
It is romantic, swashbucking nonsense, but I would enjoy it much more if I didn’t dislike Clare SO MUCH. I know she is all feisty and stuff (hate that word. When do you get a feisty man?). It’s not that, at least she isn’t a screeching, pouting wimpoid. But she has absolutely no sense of humour. She never finds anything weird and amusing, it is all just so dreadful and serious and important. But, then again, just about everything she encounters is dreadfully serious and important.
One of the cleverest things in Outlander is that her lovely bookish husband is a descendant of English captain ‘Black’ Jack Randall – a psychopathic sadist who makes it his mission to terrorise her and Jaimie. Black Jack and Frank are played superbly by the same actor (Tobias Menzies), and he steals the show. Jack is mesmerisingly vile – so well-spoken and gentlemanlike, so persuasive and commanding – and so utterly, utterly twisted.
Which brings us to… the rape. Using rape as a plot device can be lazy and immoral. It’s like throwing a hairdryer in a bath – chuck it in a storyline to evoke an immediate reaction. You know who you are supposed to hate, and why, and who has your sympathy. The victim is given a cast-iron reason to exact a horrible revenge, the victim’s supporters are given reasons go along with this revenge. Anything that serves rape up as entertainment (much like the over-use of child abuse in modern storylines, which has become a catch-all reason for why someone is harbouring a Terrible Secret, or is troubled, or evil, or criminal or whatever) runs the risk of making it commonplace, of anaesthetising us to it and its effects. Game of Thrones series five managed this – we already loathe Ramsey Bolton, we already root for Sansa, so why? (Don’t get me started.)
You can’t pretend rape doesn’t exist – that really would be a fantasyland. But if you are going to gratuitously dish it up, then you have to employ it to truly devastating affect, which is what happens here. The fact that in Outlander it is a man – a big, strong man – who is the victim turns the usual tropes on their head, illustrating that rape is about power, not violence. It also says everything about Jack Randall’s dark and complex character.
Things I think about when I’m matching socks:
- Everything you know from living in the 21st century means sod all if you go back in time. Claire is a nurse, so she can stitch wounds and sort out dislocated shoulders and knows about sterilisation. But it is her hobby as a botanist that helps her as a healer – no aspirins or Savlon in the 1700s. She also has a working knowledge of history, but what good can that do you? Unless you know names, dates and incidents in precise detail there is not much you can do except advise folk to give Culloden a wide berth or maybe move to London and buy lots of land in a little village called Chelsea. In fact, Claire’s advice to her sister-in-law to plant potatoes instead of wheat was inspired, and probably just about the only thing 300 years of advancement could give you.
- They are all totally impervious to cold. Probably because I am not, and live in a House of Many Draughts, I notice these things. Is it only me who is still concerned about the nice little shawl Claire dropped by the spooky stones when she went back in time? Is it still there? She runs the risk of a terrible sore throat without it. Scotland is bloody chilly at the best of times, and usually damp, but Claire and Jamie happily tumble in the heather together, usually with artfully ripped bodices and bare knees and never once shiver. Even when Claire has some sort of plaid rug pinned around her shoulders, it leaves her chest bare. Get a bloody scarf on, woman.
- And while we all buy into the conceit that everyone has perfect teeth (would we really want to see everyone – even the nobles – with brown rotting stumps?) Outlander is pretty good at stopping there – the make-up is toned down, apart from lip stain and cleverly applied smears of mud and blood. All that is apart from Claire’s hair, which usually ends up whipping around her shoulders in romantic waves. Yes, it looks lovely and all that, but how the hell does she get the knots out? This is the age before Denham pure bristle hairbrushes, let alone Herbal Essences conditioner and Frizz-Ease serum. Hell, this is the age before combs. Anyone with long hair who has undergone a brisk walk to the Co-Op on a blustery day knows how tangled it can get.