Still not springing for Starz: my vacation interlude with an Outlandish old flame

More about summer reading, and my vacation interlude with Jamie & Claire

I watched one episode of the new Outlander television series while vacationing on Cape Cod last week. Originally, I had hoped to watch the first episode (which Starz has made available to stream for free anywhere you can get online) together with my local Outlander posse – a small band of IRL reader friends and wicked smart ladies I met first in a fan forum – but we couldn’t make the timing work. Truthfully, I was more inclined to engage with this whole thing as a group activity, given the weird ambivalence I’ve been experiencing (and posting about), in having the object of such an intense personal reading and fan experience (nearly a decade ago now) become such a mainstream pop culture phenomenon.

I don’t pay for premium cable channels and I wasn’t going to change that policy, even for Outlander. I usually wait for a whole season of something good (Game of Thrones, or Boardwalk Empire) to become available some other way, and felt prepared to do this for Outlander, even though it means putting blinders on for 4 months of weekly new episode buzz and reactions taking over my tweetstream.

photo (96)And – it was late August on the Cape in a wonderful rambling beach house with rooms to spare and comfy reading furniture, rope swings, and a cranberry bog down the lane. It was the classic unplugged vacation. No tv, and no wi fi in the house. I didn’t tell the girls I had season 1 of Black Sails (Arrrggh, perfect for vacationing in a historic area known as “the sea captain’s town”) on my laptop, nor that when I ran out of those episodes (watched late at night after they were asleep – it was OK, mostly because maniacal Toby Stephens is kind of fun) I would on a whim decide to use my 3G iPhone to stream the free Outlander premiere.

But this was the extent of my tv watching, and mostly I read, as did they. All of us reading together, for hours and hours, between walks on the flats in the Bay, flying kites, crafty tie dye projects and bike rides to the general store. The weather was gorgeous – like early fall, dry and mild, not even hot enough to make us want to swim all that much, and other than a gigantic bee sting that made my leg swell up, gout-like, it was idyllic and relaxing. The first such sojourn in a long time that evoked family vacations during my own adolescence, where my novel reading consumed huge chunks of the day, without comment or consequence.

So –  one of the hefty books I read was the newest installment in Diana Gabaldon’s epic Outlander series, WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEART’S BLOOD, dubbed “MOBY” in the Gabaldon fan canon for some inexplicable reason that also evokes a seafaring New England industry and accompanying literary tradition. More about my take on the new book in a future post, I hope. I think if not for the chance to read this new Jamie and Claire material over a fairly condensed and uninterrupted 4-5 day period, I might not have re-connected with the Frasers and Mackenzies sufficient to compel me to watch one episode of the show as a standalone. But I’ll admit, when I finished MOBY, I experienced a faint echo of the old “I need more!” that so intensely colored my original reading experience of the first 6 books, back in 2004-05. Where to turn? Starz.com of course.

Outlander S1E1: Sassenach  @RomanceProf asked me what I liked and didn’t like about the one hour of Outlander that I watched. And I realize now that while it feels like I liked it, overall, when I try to articulate anything specific, there are more things I didn’t like. So here’s my impressionistic summary – of both, likes and dislikes. Just one longtime Outlander reader, well past the first blush of intense obsession, possibly also past the unfortunate tipping point towards cynicism, but fairly well steeped in The Books, reacting to the first episode.

outlander-premiere-caitriona-balfe-vases-scene-starzOn Claire: Liked I loved the sequence with Claire and the vase in the shop window, with the voiceover exposition about her peripatetic, rootless childhood.  I don’t remember the bit about the vase from the book, but it was used effectively here, and I kept flashing forward in the story, to the numerous times she is displaced and forced to take up housekeeping again from scratch. Her comments about the vase reminded me of how I always felt about owning an ironing board. Once you did, you must be a settled grown-up.

Didn’t Like If only I didn’t feel like Caitriona Balfe as 1940’s Claire was playing the role as if playing Cate-Blanchett-Playing-Claire-Randall. There was a studied quality to her manner and movements that didn’t seem authentic. I’ve heard it gets better when she’s 1740’s Claire. As many have noted, she may have ClaireHair, but her physical presence is far more vintage Hollywood than ‘fine wide arse’.

On Sex and the Combat Nurse:  Liked I agree with early reviewers who commended the show for presenting an epic fantasy drama with a central female protagonist, where the sex is about female gratification and not yet another boobalicious vehicle for pleasuring the male gaze.

Outlander-Frank-Claire-Castle-Leoch

outlander-claire-frank-flashbacks-starzDidn’t Like But did there really have to be three un-sexy Claire/Frank sex scenes in the first 25 minutes?? Truth is, while the unique and compelling bawdiness of the books is definitely a Gabaldon hallmark, and perhaps the most immediately marketable element in translating to a cable series, I honestly don’t remember feeling like the sex was center stage all the time in the novel. I can’t decide whether the ick factor for me with watching Balfe and Tobias Menzies is just residual Jamie obsession annihilating any chance for the show to make Frank seem sexy, or if the show itself is (over)using these painfully awkward interludes to deflect/cushion the blow of Claire’s time traveling “adultery” for viewers new to the story.

On Swashbucklers and Genre:  Liked Again, I am 100% in favor of presenting a swashbuckling adventure drama that’s lusty and violent and heroic, as told via a feminine POV. Of course I wish it wasn’t so unusual as to require calling attention. But I find myself oddly gratified every time I read a positive or optimistic review of the series, especially those from “external” perspectives – anyone with little or no experience of the books. It’s not that I need or care about having my affinity for the books validated by new fans or (especially) highbrow and/or male critics and/or viewers, but the show does need to be considered on its own merits as mainstream entertainment, and I’m surprised to find it satisfying when someone expresses interest or admiration for it. I know I should probably be annoyed that people keep alluding to the book’s “bodice-ripper” elements, or praising the show when they clearly would never have considered reading the book which, for those outside the cultlike Outlander following has for so long been dismissed as romance even as it defies conventional genre categorization. I could and should probably unpack this odd mix of emotional/intellectual responses, but that will take more time and words than I have right now.

Didn’t Like Compared to the kickass title sequences of a show like Game of Thrones, HBO’s Rome (best titles ever, IMO) or even something completely different like Homeland (which also has a female protagonist), the opening titles are a total snooze – it was a great opportunity to do something visually powerful with strong, memorable graphics, and it just felt like a cheesy travel ministry video for Scotland blended with History Channel re-enactments of swordly battles and chick flick misty fairytale romantic images of the central couple, castles, and horses.  The music is too wistful. The whole thing just needed  to be BOLDER, and should have been more creative, to live up to Claire and Jamie as a badass power couple at the center of an epic drama about history, identity, war, loss, family, fealty, and community.

On Book-to-Screen Issues:  Liked The casting of many secondary characters is spot on, from James Fleet’s affable Reverend Wakefield to Tracey Wilkinson as Mrs. Graham the druid housekeeper, with furrowed brow over Claire’s palm revealing bifurcated love and marriage lines. And I know with only one short episode under my belt, there will be many more fun and revelatory “Aha!” moments where a casting choice clicks into place for me. The beauty of screen adaptations of beloved novels lies in such moments where the actors and surrounding visuals somehow inhabit and amplify the characters we’ve been carrying in our hearts and heads, supporting and expanding whatever alchemical connection has happened between individual reader and text. Like so many Outlander fans, I experienced at least passing worry that the casting of Jamie and/or Claire could somehow “ruin” or contaminate my inner view of them, or indeed of the whole narrative and my reading experience. Fortunately, as it turns out I’m already a decade past that first obsessive reading experience and at this distance the intensity of the connection is much diminished. I like Heughan and Balfe fine for the roles, and thoroughly enjoyed watching them together.

Outlander_Cast_Dougal_420x560_v2 Graham-McTavish-headshotDidn’t Like But ooohhh nooooooo, what have they done to Dougal??!? I really hate to find myself experiencing that odd, impotent fan outrage over a screen version of a fictional character. Who can take seriously the sort of whinging along the lines of  “but in the books he’s supposed to be…” that makes people poke fun at Outlander or Westeros fan communities? I must just go on the record with my personal view that Dougal would have looked younger, and that in the books he came alive as a pretty sexy, intense, if morally ambiguous, dude (GerryButler. Just saying.). And I’m not seeing that here. He only needs to be about 20 years older than Jamie, right?

Gabaldon has said, I think, that when she first began to write Outlander she thought the hero would be the leader of the clan’s war band — she gave him the name Dougal, for her husband Doug. But then the wounded young warrior in the corner, fiercely tended by Claire (apart from my issue with the casting — or maybe it’s just the fussy styling? — of Graham MacTavish, this scene was fantastic), took over the story, apparently. Still, I don’t think the show needed to make Dougal such a graybeard — MacTavish could certainly play a younger, sexier badass. In the novel, Dougal’s complexity and deep-rooted ambivalence about Jamie as a potential challenger is one of the real strengths, and it includes a significant dose of sexual magnetism and interest in Claire. I understand a choice to streamline the narrative, but Dougal’s ambiguous magnetism is a loss, in my view, at least in terms of how the dynamics appear in this first episode. And yes, I fully recognize that not everything can fit in the first hour and subsequent episodes may hold promise of more…but for me he just doesn’t feel right for the way I read Dougal and his story.

screen-shot-2014-08-05-at-8-50-08-pmOn Jamie:  Liked  The much-vaunted chemistry between Balfe and Sam Heughan was indeed satisfying, and I loved the scene where he holds her at swordpoint and prevents her escape. This follows a scene in which the villain, British officer Black Jack Randall, assaults Claire with a sword to the neck and near rape. In contrast, Heughan carries off his sword-wielding pursuit with the perfect blend of charm and force, ensuring that Jamie’s gentlemanly yet powerful use of the blade reads as heroic and hot — and of course by now the viewer also understands that in preventing her “escape” he is also rescuing Claire from falling into the clutches of Jack Randall again. The scene worked beautifully to establish the beginnings of his physical awareness of her (“ye don’t appear to weigh too much, I’ll throw ye over my shoulder…”), along with his Red Jamie urge to protect and possess. Also I really liked Claire’s mad face in this scene; their mutual respect and wariness was crystal clear.

Didn’t Like I keep tripping up on the question of whether I’d continue watching this show if I’d come to it as an Outlander virgin. It was sort of measured and dull, lots of exposition (which is the bane of any premiere episode) to set up the characters and plot, and I can’t help thinking that it didn’t do enough to hook someone who hasn’t already been bitten by the Jamie/Claire bug in some way. Some of the scenes with Frank lurking around the ruins and the stones, researching his ancestors, watching the local pagans on Samhain at Craigh na Dun, while loaded with portent if you know what to listen for, just came across as tedious and the stunning visuals of the sunrise ceremony were overplayed. Heughan and Balfe are compelling together but was there enough intriguing detail about who Jamie is and why he and Dougal et al are so bloody desperate?

Yes, the final scene, meant to draw us in and bring us back for episode 2, has the fugitives arriving at forbidding Castle Leoch, which Claire and Frank had explored in its ruined 1945 state. But as a cliffhanger ending it was more than a little flat, and without already knowing all that’s to come (there was minimal explanation yet given for why they are on the run from the British troops, other than the general offense of riding around the Highlands while Scottish), I’m not sure it would give me the fire in the belly to make sure I “tune in next week.”  What was missing was the complexity and challenge of the situation in the Highlands in 1743, which I have no doubt is already coming into much clearer focus as the weeks go by.

Bottom Line From what I’ve been hearing since I returned to the twitterverse and started catching up on all kinds of news, things really get going with the show in the second and third episodes, and I’m glad to hear it. Still, since I do already know what happens, I’m not rushing to pay Verizon to add Starz to my cable lineup.  It’ll be too late to be part of the Fall 2014 Outlander bandwagon, but I’ll probably end up binge watching the whole season on my next summer vacation.

 

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Betty(s) and Barbara(s): heroines of the ’70s, reading romance, nostalgia, and feminism

I just finished reading a romance novel from 1973 that made me nostalgic even as my eyes were rolling back in my head. This nostalgia is sort of fluid and rippling around several different stones in the river of my recent – and not-so-recent – reading. Apologies in advance for what I know is going to be a rambling and impressionistic post.

In 1973 I turned 10, which is the age my daughters are now (yes, twins). They have Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. At 10, I was still deep in Oz books and Andrew Lang’s Fairy Tales. I was about two years away from reading my first category romance novels, but by 8th grade my reading log was brimming with Barbara Cartland titles.  There wasn’t nearly as much YA romance then as there is now. I loved Patricia Beatty’s YA historicals, and she sometimes introduced an age-appropriate romantic figure for her spunky heroines. Here is perhaps my favorite book from 1973. But barely two years later I read both Gone With the Wind and Jane Eyre during the summer before 8th grade, and the die was pretty much cast: leaving aside questions of comparative literary merit between these two iconic novels, I was looking for romantic tension, Eyre-ish happy endings, and historical settings. I read my way steadily through Victoria Holt/Jean Plaidy, along with Anya Seton and Norah Lofts. And in the ’70s I read hundreds of category romances.

At the time I wasn’t aware of category romance as a particular product distinct from single title romance, but I liked knowing what to expect, along with the fact that the supply seemed endless — akin to Nancy Drew mysteries, but I wasn’t turning into a mystery reader, I was turning into a romance reader. I gravitated to Regencies, and I also read Heyer. I still like books that are part of series, but I haven’t read a category romance in decades, mainly because I look for longer, denser historicals. So it’s been a long time since I read a book like this that reminded me of the simplicity and purity of a Barbara Cartland.

Winter of ChangeI could almost hear Angela Lansbury singing A Tale As Old As Time in the back of my head as I was reading WINTER OF CHANGE, by Betty Neels (Mills & Boon, 1973; Harlequin re-release 2001). The hero isn’t a beast, but it was enchanting and refreshing to revisit the kind of romance novel that takes me on a short, sweet, straightforward emotional journey with an old-fashioned style couple. It made me feel sort of sentimental, even though Neels’ story is much more astringent than saccharine.

It was Liz over at Something More who first mentioned Neels to me when we shared our mutual admiration for the tweedy, shabby mood of Barbara Pym’s wonderful novels. And indeed I found this Neels romance did evoke Pym-ish gentility with its focus on mundane aspects of domestic arrangements and its understated approach to passion and emotion.

Interestingly, it was in the 70’s and early 80’s that Pym’s novels enjoyed their greatest popularity, as Salon noted last spring. And indeed that’s when I was enjoying ’em – as a much younger reader, curiously fascinated by Pym’s dissatisfied middle-aged couples, lonely spinsters, and generally deflated Oxbridge atmosphere.

But back to Betty and WINTER OF CHANGE: Distinguished Fabian van der Blocq is older, much more experienced, socially and professionally powerful. Mary Jane Pettigrew (yes, she’s really called Miss Pettigrew) is a classic ingenue – clever, petite, hard-working, modest and unassuming — one of those brave-girl-in-the-big-wide-world characters. Not much happens plot-wise — she’s an orphan, raised by her grandfather who is dying. They meet when Fabian, nephew of said grandfather’s dearest friend, is appointed guardian of her inheritance. They are at utterly different stages of life, and she resents his having any control over her affairs. They observe and admire each other, but privately, so that for much of the book when they are thrown together they spend their time being diffidently polite or openly antagonistic to each other. Mary Jane in particular becomes almost petulant, and entertains another suitor in a foolish gambit to get Fabian’s attention that, predictably, ends badly.

Neels, a former nurse, was known for her hospital-set romances, and there are medical situations in which both Mary Jane and Fabian learn about each other through observation of interactions with patients and relatives and with their shared vocation of healing. Yet the barriers imposed by the guardianship remain firmly in place. Mary Jane refuses to admit, even to herself, that she’s in love with the tall, dark and remote surgeon, though it’s evident to the reader throughout. Fabian is actually quite thoughtful and even tender at times, but he feels honor-bound to refrain from getting involved with his ward because of their age difference (he’s 40ish; she’s 22).  He pivots from complimenting her appearance and noticing her preferences with genuine concern for her well-being, to antagonizing Mary Jane with his control of her affairs and remote detachment.

Of course it’s harder to know what he actually thinks about her because the entire book is written from her POV.  This contributed to my sense of nostalgia — transpose the setting to Regency London and it could have been a Barbara Cartland duke and his ward. They seesaw back and forth between “chance” encounters where their delight is obvious, and separations and second-guessing where the young heroine in the pangs of first love despairs of ever catching his attention in that special way. Since we never get inside the hero’s head, it’s all about the chaste and unconsummated minuet of anticipation as played out in the heroine’s inner dialogue, until the final few pages when circumstances threaten to part them forever–unless love is finally declared.

The ending is brief and almost matter-of-fact; the tension is romantic but far from sexual. So the reading experience gave me a sense of nostalgia for the romance reading I did as a young teen. And yes, I realize it’s only my own filter that so distorts the brisk and efficient Betty Neels as to make this book seem to have anything to do with a Barbara Cartland flight of fancy. Since Neels has a lot more of Barbara Pym than Barbara Cartland going on, it’s as I’ve applied a some kind of rosy regency Instagram effect to the whole thing. Neels in her own right has immense nostalgic as well as immediate appeal, as the Bettys of The Uncrushable Jersey Dress have brilliantly documented. But I am a first-time Neels reader, and she’s making rather a complicated impression.

Within the confines of the novel itself, WINTER OF CHANGE’s early ’70s setting gave me a different flavor of nostalgia.  It’s long enough ago to almost feel like a historical.  Except, not. It’s a primary text for a historian of the 70s. To start with the good — in spite of the slightly downtrodden, mousy  way that Mary Jane is described (and describes herself), the first chapter sets her up as an early ’70’s career gal in a way that reminded me a bit of Marlo Thomas and Mary Tyler Moore. She drives a Mini, watches her budget but saves for expensive shoes and handbags, has a good education, and earns a respectable living in a profession that maintains her position as a member of a privileged social class. Yet she’s clearly not totally on her own, living as she does in the nurses’ residence at her hospital with a loose group of friends but emotionally isolated without family or other primary relationship(s).  It’s an idealized, semi-autonomous kind of That Girl! independence: Marlo and Mary had their own apartments but constantly hovering parents, neighbors, and boyfriends.

On the flip side, there’s no denying that any vaguely mod, second-wave-feminist elements of Mary Jane’s situation and character are heavily outweighed by the entrenched sexism Neels’ novel reflects.

As I was reading, I started keeping track of all the places and times where Fabian thinks for Mary Jane, makes decisions for her, and takes care of her needs in a way that is both delightfully thoughtful and totally high-handed. Yes, he’s legally her guardian, but why is this romantic? If they met some other way, Fabian would have to pursue Mary Jane much more actively; what’s interesting about the guardianship is that it makes explicit that his role is to guard and protect — and direct — her like a parent.

One way to look at this may be simply to chalk it up to the alpha hero convention in romance. Guardianship gives Fabian legal rights to go along with his romance-y alpha motivations to protect and possess the heroine by manipulating Mary Jane’s circumstances. I don’t know (or remember) enough about the genre in the ’70s to say whether alphas were as normative and popular then as they have been in later decades.  Certainly controlling alpha heroes have been around in romanceland since, well … forever. So Fabian isn’t really all that remarkable, except that meeting him 40 years after he was written means I’m bringing a lot of baggage along for the read.

Jackie suggested recently at Romance Novels for Feminists, that in the wake of 50 Shades we are experiencing another wave of uber alpha heroes, noting the “obsessive” alpha tendency in particular. There are probably way more than 50 shades of obsessive when it comes to romance heroes, so I guess my feeling is that the most direct and obvious result of the 50 Shades phenomenon is the kinky billionaire hero.  And here’s where I wend my way back to Fabian and Mary Jane. No, there’s no kink. There’s no sex.

But it’s a lot like a Billionaire/virgin D/s dynamic, without the BDSM. He’s so much wealthier than she is, and even when she attains financial security, it’s simultaneous with losing control of her own affairs. She stops working — he even makes the phone call to her (dowdy, of course) female supervisor and charms the beleaguered Hospital Sister out of requiring Mary Jane to give her month’s notice! Definitely shades of (Christian)Grey. Fabian then tells her what kind of clothes to purchase for her new life and whisks her to his home in Holland to serve as private nurse to his uncle.

He’s not obsessive — Mary Jane does return to her home alone (at this point they are both stupidly pretending they’re not in love with each other). She gets to make her own mistakes – almost. Fabian intervenes to save her, then disappears again leaving behind some achingly romantic Christmas gifts – almost as if he is waiting for her to grow up. She, of course, has no gift for Fabian because she’s too busy being snippy at him for rescuing her from a bad situation she was too blind to realize spelled certain disaster.

But regardless of their lack of intimacy or proximity, Mary Jane’s life is unalterably changed by her removal from her profession to an entirely domestic and social sphere. She’s expected to live in the manor house she inherited, do good works in the village, and marry well. Predictably, she gets frustrated, bored, and “headstrong” — in her own naive way (this is when she takes up with an entirely unsuitable suitor). It’s as if she’s a trapped housewife, with Fabian in control from afar. I kept thinking about The Feminine Mystique (another Betty) — and wondering if things would get any better – or just stay the same, or even get worse – once she inevitably married him. The book ends with a restrained yet believable HEA when Fabian basically pulls an “of course I love you, silly, and we’re getting married.” As a romance, the novel works. On one level, I was satisfied, and happy for both of them. But there was something that didn’t quite sit right. Perhaps, unlike a Pym novel, the book is just not powerful or compelling enough to transcend its vintage setting. I can’t escape the feeling that Mary Jane is 5, or maybe 15, minutes from Diary of a Mad Housewife — or Valley of the Dolls (easy access to pretty pills!) Or a Bell Jar experience.

So – is there any point to this meander down nostalgia lane? Somehow, reading this rather unremarkable romance from the ’70s brought me back to adolescent romance reading and mod heroines, and then around the long bend to 2013 and billionaires tying up virgins.  In spite of the length of this post, I’m left with still more questions.

Is Fabian “worse” than a Christian Grey-type hero because though he wouldn’t dream of striking her, he takes control of her life without Mary Jane’s consent? At least Anastasia got to negotiate her contract, and she kept working. (I did read all three of the E.L. James novels, and I rather choosily read other erotic romance from time to time.)

Would it make a difference if Neels had written sections from the hero’s POV? Maybe the relationship wouldn’t feel so unequal if we could get inside his head and hear how Mary Jane affects Fabian. (I do plan to give Neels another chance to captivate me – next up: ESMERALDA. I have the sense that it’s not any one Neels book that wins you over, it’s her body of work — and I’m ready to read on.)

If Neels were writing today, would she be writing billionaire doms and submissive virgins (who work in hospitals)?

I’m curious to hear what others think about Betty (Neels), for those who’ve read her, and also what about the Barbaras? I sometimes think I am the only person who ever actually read a Barbara Cartland romance. Or is willing to admit it.

Finally, just because I was curious, I looked up their dates —

Betty Neels (1909-2001)

Betty Friedan (1921-2006)

Barbara Cartland (1901-2000)

Barbara Pym (1913-1980)