I first read Outlander quite early in my discovery of romance, which would be around 2007. I absolutely loved it. Never a very faithful reader of book series, I eventually finished books 2 and 3 of the saga (book 8 is due this month), but it’s Outlander that has stayed with me. Now that Starz is producing a big budget adaptation (Summer 2014), I thought I’d return to the saga of Claire and Jamie. Audible helpfully put the 33 hour unabridged version (read by the wonderful Davina Porter) on sale for $3.99 and I was off and running.(I know there’s some debate about whether listening to books is really “reading” them, although not on my part. I professed my strong audiobook support back in 2008, in a post called “Audiobooks: Reading or cheating?”)
My recollection of Outlander was all Jamie and Claire, Claire and Jamie. I even put a scene with the two of them in one of my first and most viewed posts, the 9 most romantic love scenes in romance. This time around, the slower pace of the audio made me experience Claire and Frank’s relationship with renewed appreciation. It wasn’t just a page or two of prologue, as my faulty Jamie-centric memory had led me to believe, but two whole chapters of laughing, love-making, and the anxieties of any mature romantic relationship.
Sunita had recently written a post wondering why so many romance readers, who can be a judgey lot when it comes to infidelity (my words, not Sunita’s), embrace a book in which the heroine falls in love with and marries someone while still married to her first husband. I had that question in mind as I listened to Outlander (I’m still only halfway through). Specifically, I was thinking about how Frank was characterized. Romance writers often signal, sometimes in quite unsubtle ways, which male character is the True Love, and which ones are mere pretenders, or threats. I used to be clueless until halfway through a romance, but now I figure out who the hero is after a few telling adjectives (he’s typically the tallest, highest ranked, richest, or most bored). And Jamie… Jamie is not just the hero of Outlander, but a romance hero par excellence, tops on so many readers’ lists (like this one, or this one or this one). (And bottoms on others). So, yes, we all know about Jamie, the character who launched a zillion fan arts.
But how was Frank portrayed? In the romance novels I’ve read, a former spouse is usually either a monster or an angel. More recently, some contemporary romance writers have written exes in more complex ways, but they are almost never a true threat to the HEA. The only book I’ve read in which a former spouse is a true threat to the HEA of the new couple is A Hint of Wicked by Jennifer Haymore (although tweeps tell me LaVyrle Spencer’s Twice Loved and Mary Balogh’s Tangled have somewhat similar plots, and I’m sure there are some others).
Gabaldon didn’t have to write Frank in a sympathetic way to generate conflict within Claire. I think even a single woman — handsome Jamie notwithstanding — would have reason to want to return to the present, or at the very least would have felt conflicted about staying in the 18th century. But having a loving spouse back home certainly gave Claire’s predicament a poignancy it would have otherwise lacked. And in rereading Outlander it has really struck me how almost unbelievably competent Claire is at fitting in in the 18th century. Giving Claire an orphan childhood traipsing the globe with an archaeologist uncle, a nursing background and wartime experience certainly go a long way to explaining her resilience, practical nature, and unflappability. But without the pull of Frank — not to mention the dastardly wrinkles his implausibly twin-like ancestor, Black Jack Randall, gives to the plot — Claire would almost have fit too seamlessly into this alien world, “Sassenach” be damned.
Rereading, I appreciated that Gabaldon walked a very fine line in those early chapters. Frank is likeable, charming, a skilled lover, handsome, and successful (not just as an Oxford history professor but in MI-6 in the war). He has a scant few of the traits I associate with a romance hero: “long fingers,” skilled lovemaking, strong libido, waggling eyebrows, and occasional lewd jokes.
But Frank has other traits that are not so noble or attractive. He’s a pedant, for one, always ready with a lecture for Claire or indeed anyone within earshot. An Englishman, he told a Scottish barman the ale was weak, and instructed him on how to make it in the proper Highland style. Claire’s descriptions of Frank’s work are typically negative (“filthy” scraps, “tiresome” ancestor, “moldering” army dispatches; “all this rubbish”) or outright sarcastic (“some rivetingly fascinating baptismal registers”; “I rolled my eyes”; “glazed eyes”). Rather than appreciating Claire’s modern sensibilities, Frank makes excuses for her, as when she spills a teapot and swears a blue streak. Unlike the usual romance hero, he can’t hold his liquor (two sherrys is it). He has, not passion, but a “passion for exactness,” and hangs his ties on a hanger just so. He doesn’t want to adopt a child even if they are infertile for the pretty unheroic reason that “I’m afraid a child from outside, one we had no real relationship with, would seem an intruder, and I’d resent it.” And when he accuses Claire of cheating on him during the war, he does so almost impassively:
“It’s only.…” he began. “Well, you know, Claire, it was six years. And we saw each other only three times, and only just for the day that last time. It wouldn’t be unusual if…I mean, everyone knows doctors and nurses are under tremendous stress during emergencies, and…well, I…it’s just that…well, I’d understand, you know, if anything, er, of a spontaneous nature…”
Frank is characterized as a flawed person, a good man and husband, tender, loving, witty and intelligent, but with a selfish streak, some insecurity, and a certain smugness that Gabaldon clearly (and irritatingly) associates with academics. While he has good qualities, they are not the qualities I most associate with romance heroes. He loves Claire, but not with the intensity a romance couple requires. Just compare the scene when Claire — after knowing Jamie for all of 6 weeks, compared to the 7 years married to Frank — suggests to Jamie that they have an open marriage:
“So you’ve no claim on me, Sassenach? You’ll free me to take my pleasure where I like, is that it? Well, is it?” he demanded. “Er, well, yes,” I said, taking a step backward despite myself. “That’s what I meant.” He grabbed my arms, and I found the combustion had spread to his hands as well. His callused palms were so hot on my skin that I jerked involuntarily. “Well, if you’ve no claim on me, Sassenach,” he said, “I’ve one on you! Come here.” He took my face in his hands and set his mouth on mine. There was nothing either gentle or undemanding about that kiss, and I fought against it, trying to pull back from him.
Jamie and Claire are a romance novel couple with an burning intensity, sexual and romantic, that consumes both of them all of the time. They are the “one true love” story. But Claire and Frank are more of a normal married couple. They have their superficial irritations (He uses up all the water) and also those fault lines that many long term relationships develop (infertility, in this case). It’s a solid marriage, a companionate one, but not a very exciting one. Gabaldon manages to make it both attractive and repellant, familiar and strange. Even the timing contains a tension: a long marriage, but most of it apart. Claire muses, “After six years apart, and six months together, my husband was still something of a stranger.”
If Claire hadn’t married Frank, she would have married someone else, and they would likely have been about as happy. It’s not the kind of relationship that’s triumphant in romance genre terms. Gabaldon destabilizes their marriage before Claire ever meets Jamie (in her non-heroic characterization of Frank, in planting the possibility of adultery, in a palm reader seeing “two marriages,” and in putting Ghost Jamie outside Claire’s window) and she even interferes with Claire’s memory of it by writing the evil Jack Randall as his doppelganger: “those damnable flashes of Frank that kept showing through the gleaming, ruthless exterior.”
There could have been a number of Franks. But for Claire, there is only one true love. And it doesn’t take Claire even half a book to realize it:
Jamie. Jamie was real, all right, more real than anything had ever been to me, even Frank and my life in 1945. Jamie, tender lover and perfidious black-guard.