Rereading Outlander: On Claire’s Marriage to Frank

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.

14 responses

  1. That is the way I experienced it. It did not bother me that she was already married. He was not a true love, technically he wasn’t alive in her time line, and as a reader while he was okay I wasn’t invested in him.

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  2. I struggled with the idea of the infidelity when I tried to read it the first time. I eventually managed to find my way into the story via Davina Porter’s excellent narration and the audiobooks have been my preferred format to absorb the series ever since (even though I have all the other versions [insert eye roll here]).

    When I eventually did get into the story, I excused it as technically not infidelity as Claire in 1745 wasn’t married to Frank because he wasn’t born yet and Claire in 1945 couldn’t be married to Jamie because Jamie was long since dead. That said, it is a fairly “cute” argument and I think if I had disliked the book for other reasons I would not have been able to go along with it.

    Also, the new book in the series has been pushed back til June 2014.

    And Tangled by Mary Balogh has a different type of love triangle set up than the A Hint of Wicked but I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

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  3. I’ll be honest – I was not expecting to enjoy much of anything about the fresh wave of Outlander commentary that’s coming with the Starz series and the new book. As you know, I came to online book discussions via Gabaldon fan forums (this was back in 2004, so not much earlier than your 2007). At first it was purely exhilarating to engage with other readers about the intense reading experience and these larger than life characters, then it grew exhausting in some ways, and when I felt the later books were inconsistent and disappointing, those were no longer the right forums for me. (The cycle of fandom… but that’s a topic for another time). At this point I feel simultaneously repelled by Outlander squee and compelled to follow and lurk, in spite of myself, whenever it comes up for serious discussion.

    But – and of course I should have known better! – it’s a great treat to revisit these “storied” and very familiar characters with you, via your close reading of Claire & Frank and the infidelity theme. In addition to this fresh take on Claire’s bigamy (recall Jamie, too, ends up with two wives), you’ve given me a lovely gift by easing the passage back to a place of rational, respectful yet critical discussion of the Outlander phenom – thank you for this!!

    I do think it’s so interesting that all the fresh buzz seems to be about the tv series, and not the new book. I suppose in the devoted Outlander forums there is still plenty of talk about what happens next for this romance power couple, but in the wider romance blogosphere all I see are Starz in everyone’s eyes.

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    • Winterbayne — that’s a great pithy summation of why so many readers just don’t care.

      Kaetrin — Well, it’s a logical argument, and while it technically works, it doesn’t capture the fact that Claire knows she is married to Frank, and that means something to her. So there’s a kind of dissonance there. which is very interesting.

      Pamela — I know how you feel about falling out a bit with fan community. My earliest online fan experience was actually in the JR Ward forums, the ones runs by the author herself, and they could be tough. I think Outlander is very cinematic and I can’t wait to see what they do with it. I’ll miss Claire’s voice, which manages to keep the heroine front and center even when she’s mostly thinking about Jamie. I hope her character isn’t crowded out the way Sookie’s was in the True Blood series.

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  4. I actually–well, not liked, exactly, but appreciated the infidelity in Outlander, even with all the shortcuts Gabaldon takes with Frank’s and Jamie’s characterizations. I loved how practical Claire was when she agreed to marry Jamie and then had sex on their wedding night after acknowledging to herself that she wanted him. She was in an incredible situation with zero good options, and she wastes no time on sentimentality. She did what she had to and didn’t beat herself up over it. And here we have a heroine who feels sexual desire for one man while being in love with another! I think Outlander was the first romance (sorry, Gabaldon, but Outlander is totally a romance) I read where love and sex aren’t the same exact thing for the heroine. As an unromantic romance reader, all of that made me giddy. For all the adoration Jamie gets, Claire is what made Outlander a favorite at the time and what kept me reading the series long after I tired of it.

    Which is why I really hated Jack Randall. Making someone physically identical to Frank so evil was unforgivably lazy. When I reread I skipped the last quarter of the book because of him.

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    • That is a great point about Claire’s sexuality. She was experienced and had a very positive attitude towards sex. I never thought of it as a romance that split love and sex like that. I suppose one could argue that she really was half in love with Jamie by their wedding night, but I prefer your version.

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  5. What a marvelous post about a character who has been widely maligned (unfairly, to my mind) in so many of the Outlander fan forums. I agree that Frank is clearly not Claire’s “True Love,” but I never disliked him because of that, despite Gabaldon’s efforts to undermine him as a husband. As your insightful post suggests, Frank’s biggest crime is that he’s not heroic, nor does he have a “triumphant” relationship (love your term!) with Claire. It would be hard to imagine an urbane man like Frank taking possession of Claire’s body and soul as forcefully as Jamie does in the scene you reference.

    The question the novel raises for me is whether its marriage theme supports abandoning a spouse if someone more compelling–one’s soul mate–comes along. Given the pervasive Catholicism in the book, I’m not sure what to make of this. Jamie’s challenge to Claire: “What d’ye think a marriage vow is, lassie? Just words in a church?” suggests that he expects her to act the words, not just utter them, and those words demand fidelity. But fidelity to whom and in what way? I think that’s a rich question, and it’s worth contemplating how Gabaldon uses the Frank/Jamie/Claire triad to explore all the sharp corners of marriage, something your post has done exceedingly well.

    BTW–I taught Outlander last fall, and my class of 37 women and three men debated whether Claire should have returned to Frank or remained with Jamie. Half the class insisted that Claire was wrong to stay and should have returned to the 20thC. Those students didn’t buy the time travel manipulation that technically absolves Claire of bigamy and adultery because they saw that she knew she could return to Frank, which to them meant she was aware of her sin. The risk involved in returning didn’t matter to them, even though Claire and Father Anselm discuss this danger at the end of the novel. I was a bit surprised by my students’ traditionalism, although I also reminded myself that none of them has ever been married. One brave soul spoke up at the end of the debate and claimed that while she agreed that couples should remain faithful to one another, all bets would be off if a Jamie Fraser walked into her life. ☺

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    • The “triumphant” is actually from Jo Beverley. At a romance conference I attended in 2010, she gave the keynote, and she said (paraphrasing), romance is not about merely happy endings but triumphant ones … emphasis on the ‘umph.” I thought it was very apt and have been using it ever since.

      That was a great Jamie quote, because it can’t have failed to make Claire think both of Jamie and Frank. I agree with you, that the novel is asking is to think about marriage itself. I wonder if the time travel is a way to have it both ways: appreciate a solid companionate marriage, but enjoy the fruits of a larger than life Scot when he falls into to your lap.

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  6. It is an interesting thing to think about, especially given the events in later books of the series. It is a love triangle, albeit one that plays out on different time planes.

    I never sat comfortably wiith the fact that Jack and Frank were so similar. It does just seem weird to make that so obvious and leads to an almost unconcious direction to the reader to not like Frank because of his similarities to the evil-incarnate that is Jack Randall.

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    • Yes, I think it definitely leads the reader to associate evil Jack with not-so-evil Frank – which is a great pity I think. When Claire goes back, their marriage is never the same – she’s been away for a long time and she’s come back pregnant with another man’s baby. That he accepts Brianna with so much love speaks well of him but I think the reason their marriage (then) wasn’t successful was that Claire was too much in love Jamie. I suspect Frank may have cheated on Claire during the war – that was my take on his awkward conversation with her. Even so, I thought early Frank was fairly sympathetic early on. I agree with Jessica that they would probably have had a fairly successful companionable marriage if not for the whole time-travel thing. But he was never (and never could be) Jamie!

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      • Yes, I thought he cheated during the war too. I think part of the issue when she went back was that Frank knew he could never live up to Jamie. He was a great dad to Brianna too.

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        • That’s interesting. Claire talks about forming close emotional bonds with men during wartime and then shaking them off before things went too far. She muses that many other people let them develop further than she did. I am not sure if Frank cheated. I guess I’m 50-50 on that one, but it would definitely be another way to excuse Claire’s relationship with Jamie.

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  7. isn’t it interesting how synchronicity plays a part in one’s romance reading? Just in the last little while I’ve read two books about marriages recovering/existing/continuing after infidelity. It’s so rare for it to be the woman who is unfaithful (if that is how Claire is regarded).

    I can’t wait to plunge back into Outlander. You’re right, it’s so cinematic. I don’t know what to think about your prognosis of the Frank/Claire marriage–she’s pragmatic so would it have just continued along? Would Frank’s reluctance to adopt end things? It wasn’t just Bree she brought back to the modern era, it was also a new vision of herself (Claire the woman who decided to become a doctor) so I just don’t know.

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    • That’s a good question about whether Claire and Frank’s marriage would have made it past infertility in light of Claire’s desire to adopt and Frank’s refusal. In a sense, one could almost thank her relationship with Jamie, which produced a child “of her blood” (something Frank felt was so important… which was interesting, because a lot of men would insist the child be of HIS blood), for helping them move beyond that impasse.

      I haven’t read far enough to really note the changes in Claire. If anything, halfway through the first book, I feel she hasn’t changed enough (except for falling in love with Jamie).

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