Diana Gabaldon (Delacorte Books, 1991) ISBN: 0385302304
***WARNING: the following review contains SPOILERS and discussion of sexual violence, torture, and sexual identity.***
When I first heard of Outlander, a time-traveller’s love story set against the Jacobite uprising in 18th century Scotland and written by an American, I cringed. This is admittedly because I am a recovering literary snob. I’m aware it a massive generalisation, but I am cautious of books written about Britain by Americans. I have been put off by the Midsomer Murders series, which according to my mother (I haven’t done any research) is written by an American and features all of the most cringeworthy, twee stereotypes of Middle England you can think of. As a descendant of highland Scots* myself, I feared Diana Gabaldon might have given the 18th century highlands a similar treatment. Reading her inspiration and reasons for commencing the novel did not help my confidence. In my imagination the series was a horrific combination of corset-ripper Mills & Boone and Lord Tennyson’s The Highwayman.
Nonetheless, when recommended the television series based on the books by a person whose opinion on such things I trust, I decided to give it a chance. I’m glad I did. The series is great. It even managed to cast actual Scottish people for the most part, which is a sadly rare feat. They even mostly use the Inverness accent and speak actual, real Gaelic. Very exciting stuff for someone who has become used to Hollywood’s tendency to both confuse Irish and Scottish accents, and hire people who can’t pull of either accent well.
Then the show went on mid-season hiatus until April. April. It left me on a cliff-hanger until April.
Being of the much-maligned instant gratification generation*, I couldn’t stand for that. So I went on a short and successful quest to obtain the book and read it to find out what happens next. I braced myself for the twee, for the stereotypes, for the overbearing emphasis on just how goddamn sexy the male romantic lead is. On those counts, I was very glad to be disappointed.
Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, first published in Australia as Cross-Stitch, is not a work of glittering prose, but it is compulsively readable. Its story is interesting and its characters are complex. Boy, is it melodramatic though. By the end I have to admit to being fatigued by everything that happened. This is mostly a problem of the novel’s construction. Many important plot points, such as Claire’s choice between Jamie and Frank, do not have full emotional weight. It is also surprising that Claire’s choice did not form the climax of the novel, especially as it falls directly after some very climactic action. That the book did not end at this point is a weakness, I believe, and might indicate a lack of confidence on Gabaldon’s part in the story she was telling. I suspect the tv series will divide the book by ending with Claire’s decision. It will probably be a cliff-hanger.
I did have serious problems with the book, however, when it came to the characterisation of Captain Jonathon “Black Jack” Randall, the villain of the piece. So much so that I’ve found myself in the highly unusual situation of actively hoping the tv series will diverge completely. Since I believe the series might be attempting to give the Jacobite rising the Game of Thrones treatment*, this is sadly unlikely.
Now, I am bisexual. Unfortunately I haven’t got the card to prove it. I left it in my pocket and it got washed. Very sad stuff. And I appreciate that I am very lucky to live in a time and place and have a circle of friends where this has not ever been an issue. The only struggle I have faced has been having to redact my lesbian status once I realised I did, in fact, like men too. I did have one friend who didn’t believe bisexuals existed and insisted I was really gay, but I don’t talk to her anymore. I had that luxury. And to be honest, representation didn’t matter all that much to my search for identity, so I’ve been very fortunate in that regard too. I am, in that regard, a bit of an exception.
Jack Randall is a crazed and sadistic “Depraved Bisexual”. He threatens our heroine with rape and forms a toxic infatuation with Outlander’s noble hero. He sets about servicing his passion in the worst possible ways. He is cruel and perverted. He is a terrible, terrible stereotype which is completely unjustified by the needs of the plot. Any sexual element to Jamie’s torture feels purely drawn from the tiresome school of “What can I do to shock my audience even more?” Gabaldon uses Randall’s proclivities to enhance his villainy and plays it against Jamie’s “innocent” and “wholesome” heterosexuality. And it is all made even worse by man-on-man sexual assault being played for laughs earlier in the novel, complete with the appearance of a jocular, predatory gay man stereotype.
In a perfect world there would be no problem with an author having a bisexual villain. And, while it is another rather overused cliche, in the right circumstances I would have no problem with a bisexual villain commiting sex crimes as part of torturing the heroes. Unfortunately, there is so little positive representation of bisexuality around that depictions such as Gabaldon’s can and do cause people actual harm. Mental and physical harm, to bisexuals and people of other orientations. Because Gabaldon is not writing in a vacuum. With Depraved Bisexual Jack Randall she has contributed to a culture which consistently paints bisexuals as oversexed perverts with no boundaries.
Now, if Gabaldon had been writing in the actual 1940s, the use of the trope might have been understandable. However since she was writing this book in the late 1980s, it is less forgivable. The acceptance of sexual and gender minorities has been slow, but the movement was certainly part of discourse by the 1980s and 1990s. The use of this trope is lazy and offensive. The depraved bisexual trope should already have been a dead horse by 1991. As it stands, I have for the first time found myself grateful that I borrowed this book, rather than buying it.
I very much hope, but doubt, that Starz has written out Jack Randall’s bisexuality in the tv series. It almost stopped me reading the book and, now I know where the bisexual characterisation leads, it would certainly stop me watching the show. I like the show very much, but I guess bisexuals do have boundaries.
*I’m not sure whether anyone in my ancestry actually participated in the Jacobite risings, but since everyone ended up getting turfed in the Highland Clearances anyway, it didn’t much matter.
*Not just a part of the human condition, but an honest-to-god characteristic of Gen Y and only Gen Y. Like for real, I’m a scientist.
*And by that I mean sex, violence, and controversy for its own sake. What I would like is if the tv series gave Jack Randall the Jamie Lannister treatment by ignoring important aspects of his character development, except in this case to prevent a gratuitous rape.