Today’s installment of One Author’s Foolhardy Quest to Read the 100 Most Beloved Romance Novels of All Time brings us to an obscure little book by the name of Outlander. Have you heard of it?
Just kidding. We all know Outlander. Outlander, which gave the world the gifts of Sam Heughan’s lopsided grin and Caitriona Balfe’s knitwear. Outlander, the ur-text of time travel romance: part sexy sexy star-crossed Highland love story, part nail-biting fantasy saga, all emotional tour de force.
I came to this book via the Starz show, so for me, reading it the first time felt a little anticlimactic. I already knew the plot, I already had Dreamy Sam’s voice in my head when Jamie called Claire “Sassenach.” I already teared up every time I heard The Skye Boat Song. (If you do not tear up at this song, take a minute and ask yourself: Do I even have a heart?)
This week, picking it back up and reading it through the lens of a “beloved romance novel,” I focused less on how the plot tracked to the show and more on the narration. I was particularly struck by this line, which Claire thinks as she gazes at the book's villain, Black Jack Randall, who has recently decimated her husband Jamie’s hand by driving nails into it with a mallet:
"One never stops to think what underlies romance. Tragedy and terror, transmuted by time. Add a little art in the telling, and voila!, a stirring romance, to make the blood run fast and maidens sigh. My blood was running fast all right, and never a maiden sighed like Jamie, cradling his mangled hand."
What makes Outlander remarkable to me as a romance novel is how meta it is.
Reading it feels like the experience of witnessing a modern woman walk into the pages of a historical romance. Claire, being 20th century woman transported to mid-18th century Scotland, becomes a proxy for the reader, experiencing the conventional arc and tropes of a highland romance (capture by villains, rescue by a strapping laird, adjustment to a quirky and sometimes menacing rural community where she is an outsider) and at the same time commenting on the brutalities, nostalgia and altogether romance-novelness of this world with the wry eyes of her own era.
Claire's immersed in the story, seduced by the world, falling in love with the hero -- her pleasures in falling in love mirror our own in reading a love story. But she’s also in her own head, from her own world, as aware of the brutality and unfairness of this place as she is its simplicity and rawness and heightened emotions. She gets the rolling green hills and stately ruins, the charged adventure, the romantic rides on horseback with a jacked, principled hero in a kilt… and she also gets the ever-present threat of tetanus and death in childbirth, the realities of the cost of a brutal civil war, and the knowledge that if you know a lot about herbs you might get burnt for witchcraft. Her side-eye at the world she is visiting mirrors our own retrospective viewpoint and our own occasional eye roll at overused tropes or whitewashed bits of history.
Claire is not just a romance heroine. She is us, the reader. Which means: WE ARE ALL CLAIRE FRASERS. (And we all deserve fabulous if arguably anachronistic knitwear.)
So what do we love about our most beloved romance novels? In Outlander's case, I think it's a strong awareness of the pleasures of being able to dip into the past and wonder how you, as a modern person with your modern viewpoints and modern skills, might cope. And also, a sense that no, these worlds we build are not purely nostalgic. They can be as dark and troubling as they are emotionally rich.
Next week I am reading TEXAS DESTINY by Lorraine Heath. I have never read one of her US-set books, so I am curious how it will compare to her regencies, which I have read loads of.
Until then, cue the Boat song one last time for good measure.