The Outlander Franchise and National History

Emanuela Militello | 12 June 2017

Since I came across the highly popular book and television series Outlander, partially set during the Jacobite rebellions, I have been asking myself how these fictional renditions of such a significant episode in Scottish history influence the perception of its viewers and readers. Do they allow viewers and readers to gain an understanding of the historical events they represent, or do they instead obfuscate the historical realities of the events in question?

Diana Gabaldon is the author of the Outlander book series, which includes nine books and features a heroine, Claire Randall, an English nurse living in the 1940s, who travels back and forth in time. The books begin with Claire wandering past a circle of standing stones, that then cause her to be spirited away to 18th-century Scotland, where she finds herself in the midst of historical events and figures, including Bonnie Prince Charlie  (Charles Edward Stuart) himself. And, of course, a love story between the heroine and the hero is part of the deal. The series centers on the Jacobite risings for the first three instalments, while in the following books the setting changes to the American colonies. I must confess that I have not delved into the full book series. I attempted to read the first instalment, as I was curious to see what all the hype was about,  but I was somewhat put off by it. When I start a book I want to feel that I can’t really put it down until I get to the end and the first Outlander book just didn’t strike a chord with me. My reaction aside, however, the books have proved to be so successful, that they have been adapted into a historical television drama by the same name, which is broadcast by the American network Starz. The craze for Gabaldon’s books really does make me wonder:  don’t such series as Outlander run the risk of trivialising  fateful historical events  –  such as the Jacobite rebellion –  by using the historical setting as a backdrop for a mixture of supernatural elements, a steamy love story, a twisted villain-hero dynamic and a lot of gratuitous violence? These questions bring me back to the start of my musings: the role of the historical setting of the first three of Gabaldon’s novels. Gabaldon is hardly alone in being inspired by the Jacobite risings.

The same events inspired Walter Scott, who set his first novel Waverley (1814) during ‘The Forty-Five’ rebellion. Despite Scott’s arguably waning popularity currently, his first novel was incredibly successful, and contributed to establishing his reputation as a novelist. The hero of Scott’s novel is the fictional Englishman Edward Waverley. Famous for his name, which indicates his ‘wavering’, shilly-shally attitude, Waverley is an outsider, an observer of Scottish society, who finds himself entangled in the web of history – without fully understanding its import – but through his experience the reader learns about the dynamics of Scottish society, and the shortcomings of the Jacobite cause [1].  It can be argued that Gabaldon drew inspiration from this, because her novels feature a heroine who is an outlander, a ‘Sassenach’ in Scotland. Waverley travels from England to Scotland, and by doing so, he experiences the feudal structure still extant in Scottish society – his journey can also be interpreted as a journey through time. Claire, on the other hand, literally journeys through time. She provides her own modern perspective on events – being also a 20th century woman – and witnesses what happens behind the scenes of history.

440px-Walter_Scott_Waverley_illustration_(Pettie-Huth).jpg

Illustration from the 1893 edition of Waverley

It would be a stretch to compare too closely Gabaldon and Scott, but I do draw attention to the fact that over the centuries the same historical event has inspired different writers, it has been reworked and has acquired a place in the imagination of readers.  By the time Scott published his novel Redgauntlet in 1824 – 79 years after the last attempt to restore the Stuarts to the throne –  the historical figure of Bonnie Prince Charlie had already become part of an irretrievable past, so much so that Scott as writer could safely look back upon it and fictionalise his figure. In his novel, Scott portrayed a fictitious attempt at another Jacobite rebellion – taking place some years after 1745 –  and the ‘Young Pretender’ as a character in the story.

Gabaldon’s novels are therefore another instalment in these efforts to romanticise the past by giving it a ‘makeover’ that contemporary readers can appreciate. Having said that, I think this could be precisely the problem with a series like Outlander. It is certainly true that any writer of historical fiction tries to achieve a successful combination of truth and invention to captivate the reader, but in the case of Outlander, my concern is that by fictionalising history for the modern audience in such a way as Gabaldon does, the result can be that the real events behind it – the bloodshed on either side of the conflict, its consequences for Scotland– can become trivialised. By the author’s own admission, the books are difficult to categorise.  On her website, Gabaldon defines her novels “historical fiction”, but then she moves on to say:  “I’ve never been able to describe this book in twenty-five words or less, and neither has anyone else in the twenty years since it was first published.  I’ve seen it (and the rest of the series) sold—with evident success—as <deep breath> Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Historical NON-fiction (really. Well, they are very accurate), Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance, Military History (no, honest), Gay and Lesbian Fiction, and…Horror” [2].  This list of descriptors suggests that the books  are a mashup of different genres, and I think it proves the argument that they provide a confusing and perhaps simplistic view of a highly tragic and poignant chapter in history. I therefore return to the question: do these books, and the subsequent television series, run the risk of casting the historical events behind the story as just a convenient backdrop to the entertaining plot? And if so, does this actually dilute the public’s interest in finding out about the full story?

About Emanuela

I’m a student on the MSc Literature and Society at The University of Edinburgh, after completing an MA in Modern Languages in Milan. I’m interested in Medieval Romance and in Victorian Literature – my favourite author is Charles Dickens. In my spare time I read historical fiction and British folklore.

References

[1] Sutherland, Kathryn. Waverley,  by Sir  Walter  Scott,  2008,  Oxford,  pp.  vii-xxvi

[2] http://www.dianagabaldon.com/books/outlander-series/

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