Romance or Abuse?

Outlander

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Showcase is nearly finished its first season of the T.V series adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander”. Both my older sister and my mom read the series when I was younger and had suggested that I might enjoy it, despite the scenes my mom thought might be too racy for a fourteen-year old. At that point in my reading career, I was voraciously devouring every fantasy novel I could get my hands on. Being a romance novel sans dragons, I was uninterested until just last year when a friend of mine recommended it. While I still enjoy the occasional escape into dragon-lore and fantasy, this type of romance/historical fiction/fantasy is now more compelling. 

With the new Showcase series now out, I decided to re-read the book and reacquaint myself with the characters. One thing I had struggled with the first time I read the book was the lead male character, Jaimie Fraser. Even while I thoroughly enjoyed the animalistic passion between Jaimie and the protagonist Claire Beauchamp, the feminist within me was cringing and groaning through many scenes. Let me set the background for the story.

Recently after World War Two, Claire Beauchamp and her husband travel to Scotland as a way to reacquaint themselves with each other after many years separated because of the war. Claire passes through a stone circle on Craigh na Dun and is transported back 200 years to medieval Scotland, where she is caught in a politically unstable country and must align herself with a Scottish clan of Highlanders to stay alive. While trying to stay alive and attempting to get back to her own time period, she falls in love with Jaimie and is quickly married to him to save herself from being captured by the English.

Here’s the book’s major problem: Jaimie beats Claire.

Do I need to justify it? Do I need to set the scene and corral some reasons as to why he does it? I’m not sure. I’m tempted to simply stop this book review here and leave it at that: Jaimie beats Claire. I shouldn’t read this book, shouldn’t enjoy it, I should rail against the abuse of women and the chauvinistic authority of men. Goodness knows that if any of my girlfriends were to tell me that their partner beat them, I would be quick to tell them that there is no justification, there is no scene, no reason that make abuse acceptable. How many times have I scoffed at Beauty and the Beast as Disney’s glorification of an abusive relationship?

And yet…

There is a scene, and there are reasons, and I can almost bring myself to understand them, I can almost even accept them. Does that make me a bad feminist? The beating takes place in Chapter 22, page 284. That’s only halfway through the novel. Yet continued. And I found myself falling in love with Jaimie anyways. How is this possible?

There is no sugar-coating, no mincing of words, no shadow of a doubt as to what Jaimie means to do to Claire. He is going to use his leather belt as a whip against her naked butt to punish her.

Realizing this, Claire says “I will not allow you to beat me”. (286)

Jaimie’s response is the epitome of male entitlement, chauvinism, and cruelty. “Well, I’ll tell ye, lass, I doubt you’ve much to say about it. You’re my wife, like it or not. Did I want to break your arm, or feed ye naught but bread and water, or lock ye in a closet for days – and don’t think ye don’t tempt me, either – I could do that, let alone warm your bum for you.” (286)

How could I, a devout feminist, and someone who volunteers weekly at a center for abused women, continue to read this?

So while there is never a justification to abuse, here is Gabaldon’s way of justifying her male character’s abuse of his wife. And, much as I hate to admit it, I feel like I can understand.

  • Setting the scene: Claire has just done something foolish that put her Scottish companions in a very dangerous (life-threatening) situation. They survived, rescuing Claire along the way, but are now all thoroughly pissed at her.
  • If one of the men had done what Claire had, he “would ha’ likely had his ears cropped, or been flogged, if not killed outright” (284). Claire’s punishment is to get hit with her husband’s belt.
  • This scene occurs in 1743 Scotland. Social norms were different from now. Punishment was often physical.
  • Jaimie describes the beating as justice. He says Claire put the men’s lives in peril, and that she must now pay some sort of debt. Beatings were the way his family and all those around him punished bad behaviour.
  • Gabaldon includes this paragraph, which seems to outline her own justification. “Without one word of direct explanation or apology, he (Jaimie) had given me (Claire) the message he intended. I gave you justice, it said, as I was taught it (a beating). And I gave you mercy, too, so far as I could (he tried not to hit her too hard). While I could not spare you pain and humiliation, I make you a gift of my own pains and humiliations (through the many stories he shares with Claire about his own beatings), that yours might be easier to bear” (296).

I also appreciate that this portrayal of medieval justice is remedied by Claire’s modernity and the stand she takes for herself. She accepts Jaimie’s reasons for the beating, but then makes it clear that such justice will never again be acceptable. “If you ever raise a hand to me again, James Fraser, I’ll cut out your heart and fry it for breakfast” (305).

His response, given the time period, is quite feminist. He listens to her standpoint and, seeing her reason, makes a very solemn oath to obey it. Their two worlds, English woman from the 20th century and Scottish man from 18th, become balanced.

Do these justification change anything, really? I’m not sure. I think you have to read the book for yourself and decide. As for myself, I’ve decided to simply side with the woman who wrote them. Diana Gabaldon has three science degrees, as well as an honorary degree as Doctor of Humane Letters, and I’m placing my trust in her research, that this scene is meant to give an accurate picture of 18th century Scotland.

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