I love audio books, and my favorite genre is romance. As we all know, romance has gotten racier over the years, and people sometimes ask me if it’s difficult to listen to sex scenes on audio. It’s not. What’s difficult for me is violent scenes on audio. Listening to books, even on 1.5 speed, is much slower than reading. A violent scene takes longer to get through. And a good narrator can bring it to the next level.
Whether or not Gabaldon’s Outlander is a romance novel (and debate is heated on this point), it has strong romantic elements that attract many romance readers. When I first read it about seven years ago, like many romance readers, I focused primarily on the relationship between Clare and Jamie. There’s an infamous episode of violence between them which has launched a thousand forum and blog posts. In Chapter 22. “Reckonings” Jamie takes a leather belt strap to Clare for deserting him and the company, getting captured by the English, imprisoned by Captain Black Jack Randall, and putting all of them in danger. That was the violent scene I recalled, was prepared for, had thought about.
But what I had forgotten was all of the other beatings in the book, and all of the scenes of torture. Now, having re-read it on audio, I think ritualized violence is very important to this novel.
I had forgotten the way violence and its bloody aftermath cling to Jamie like a second skin. When Claire first lays eyes on Jamie, he is rocking back and forth in pain, bloody and wounded with a dislocated shoulder, the brutal reduction of which is described in detail. Not long after, when Clare checks his wounds, they bond over Jamie’s recollections of physically defending his home and family from Randall. Randall had bound Jamie to a wagon wheel and beaten him with the flat of his saber before taking him to the prison at Wentworth.
A few chapters later, Clare and Jamie are at Castle Leoch and before his wounds have even healed, Jamie voluntarily submits to corporeal punishment in the place of a young women. Again the description of Jamie’s physical pain and suffering is front and center, as is the ritualized nature of the punishment:
It was a scientific beating, skillfully engineered to inflict bruising pain, but not to disable or maim.
Gabaldon, Diana (2004-10-26). Outlander: with Bonus Content (p. 73). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Not long after this event, Clare and Jamie are taken by Dougal MacKenzie, Jamie’s uncle and the brother of the laird of clan MacKenzie and Castle Leoch, on a mission to drum up support for the pretender to the throne Bonnie Prince Charlie. How does Dougal court the sympathies of the Highlanders? By stripping Jamie bare to show the marks of the whippings he’s endured at the hands of the English. Clare refers to these repeated exhibitions as “public crucifixion.” Finally, Jamie has enough and picks a fight with a gawker, resulting in “One scraped shin, one cut eyebrow, one split lip, one bloody nose, six smashed knuckles, one sprained thumb, and two loosened teeth. Plus more contusions than I care to count.” according to Clare’s inventory.
A few chapters later, Dougal MacKenzie describes the two terrible floggings that Jamie received at age nineteen at Fort William, the second from Captain Jack Randall. Clare, not exactly missish, nearly faints from his detailed description. Finally, she asks why he told her, and he answers: “I thought it might serve as what ye may call a character illustration,” he said, of Jamie and of Randall. Shortly afterwards, Clare and Jamie are married.
Then, of course, Clare tries to escape and Jamie beats her. Routine childhood beatings at the hand of his father had prepared Jamie to think of taking the strap to Clare as appropriate. And he was not only beaten by his father, but by schoolmaster, uncles, and any other male in a position of authority who felt Jamie’s behavior had given them just cause.
But all of this, bad as it is, is just prologue to the worst of it: Jamie’s imprisonment and torture by Captain Randall. This is narrated in at least three scenes: first, when Clare comes to rescue him, and fails; then when she actually does rescue him; and finally, when he tells Clare in detail everything that passed between him and Randall. Eventually, to overcome the effects of Randall’s torture, Clare has to drug Jamie, impersonate Randall, and provoke Jamie into a bruising, bloody wrestling match that destroys his bed chamber.
On rereading Outlander, I think the violence was partly just a way Gabaldon characterized Jamie, and the Highlanders, and even the era … a method she may have over-relied on. But I also think there’s something thematic going on, something about the body as a way in to the soul, to the truth of a person, to a kind of knowing. So many times in the book, characters say that seeing or experiencing something is different from knowing it: for example Jamie, when he tells Clare why he doesn’t want his boss in the stables to see his striped back, even though he’s aware that Jamie was flogged; or Dougal when he tells Clare that you don’t understand what flogging does to a man until you’ve witnessed it. When Jamie stakes a claim on Clare, it’s the bodies that do the job: “The hammering was a question, repeated over and over in my flesh, demanding my answer.” She rakes his back with her fingernails, he pushes hard enough to hurt. It’s sexual violence, but of course violence nonetheless:
He thrust harder and faster, as though he would force my soul as he forced my body. In body or soul, somewhere he struck a spark, and an answering fury of passion and need sprang from the ashes of surrender. I arched upward to meet him, blow for blow. I bit his lip and tasted blood.
Gabaldon, Diana (2004-10-26). Outlander: with Bonus Content (p. 280). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
There’s a bit of dialogue in the Jamie/Clare beating scene that is significant in this respect. He can’t just tell her what she did was wrong. He has to write it on her body:
“Now, listen. Ye understand me, ye say, and I believe it. But there’s a difference between understandin’ something with your mind and really knowing it, deep down.” I nodded, reluctantly. “All right. Now, I will have to punish you … so that ye will know.”
Gabaldon, Diana (2004-10-26). Outlander: with Bonus Content (p. 251). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
I’m not sure how I could have read Outlander once and not thought of it as a violent book. Audio certainly makes the beatings seem more visceral to me. But what really struck me wasn’t the amount, but its function in developing characterization and setting, as well as its symbolic meaning.