I’ve been a fan of Diana Gabaldon’s book series for a long time—it taught me to appreciate single-malt whisky and red-headed men, among other things—and I’ve come to heartily enjoy Ronald Moore’s Starz adaptation.
Moore’s version is faithful without seeming burdened by fidelity, and has proven itself attentive to the female gaze in a way almost no television show can manage … or even seems to think of.
But people still have a dismaying tendency to think of the books (and show) as Game of Thrones-lite. Something about the female-centric nature of the (female-authored) story seems to keep them from respecting the epic adventures of Claire, a badass World War II nurse who stumbles through some standing stones in the Scottish Highlands and finds herself in the 1740s, where through a series of what Gabaldon convinces us are completely plausible events, she soon ends up married to dashing ginger Highlander, Jamie Fraser.
Here are 3 reasons why Outlander is smarter than you think:
1. Outlander does romance in a literary way.
Given its status as a female-penned novel with sex scenes, the Outlander series runs the risk of being labeled a romance novel. Firstly, I do not think there’s anything wrong with romance novels, but I also think Gabaldon deserves credit for brilliantly drawing on and subverting romance conventions.
She gives us a marriage of convenience (that of course turns into more), except with a sexually experienced heroine and a virginal hero. And while Jamie certainly does his share of heroic rescuing and general swashbuckling, it’s Claire who has to rescue Jamie from the threat of sexual violence at the end of the first book.
2. It's a throwback to Sir Walter Scott
Gabaldon not only innovates with romance conventions—she also knows her literary history. Although Sir Walter Scott has experienced a sharp dive in popularity over the last century, his novels romanticizing Scotland and Scottish history were best-sellers in the nineteenth century.
Scott’s first novel, Waverley, retold the story of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion from the vantage point of its famously mediocre middle-class hero, Edward Waverley. According to famed Marxist critic György Lukács, Waverley should be counted as the first modern historical novel. For Lukács, Scott wrote with a new sense of history brought about by the French Revolution and its resulting wars.
Gabaldon takes the Waverley conceit—of a character unexpectedly thrust into the middle of historic events—and improves it, giving us a strong female protagonist with the added Cassandra-esque burden of historical hindsight. And sex scenes! Which could have improved Waverley, come to think of it.
3. The series is suprisingly historically accurate
Gabaldon really did her research. (Sometimes, in the later books in the series, she did perhaps too much.) Thanks to Outlander, I know more about the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, the political causes surrounding the attempt to return the Stuart “Bonnie Prince Charlie” to the throne of Great Britain, and how the tragic aftermath impacted Scotland than I would have learned in a history class.
Gabaldon is masterful at world-building, weaving history and the interaction of real-life and fictional characters into a gripping storyline.
One of the top 10 best loved novels in America, Outlander is “Marvelous and fantastic adventures, romance, sex . . . perfect escape reading.” —San Francisco Chronicle
Recommended Reading (while we wait for the rest of Outlander Season 7):
Full of beautiful descriptions of the natural scenery of Scotland and thrilling accounts of battle and danger, Scott drew on his childhood memories and exhaustive historical research to document Scottish history and to preserve a way of life threatened by civil war. The result is a moving and inspiring tale which contains to entertain and educate readers two centuries later.