Anyone wandering past the Main Theatre in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square at 3pm on Monday might have glanced at the large, excited and predominantly female crowd outside and wondered what was going on. Who were they waiting for? An A-list movie star? A world famous singer? Some much-hyped object of desire? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, was that these women had turned up in their thousands for an hour-long audience with a 62-year-old author from Arizona. Her name? Diana Gabaldon.
For those who don’t know, Gabaldon is the woman behind the eight-book Outlander series, an epic mash-up of time travel adventure, historical saga and romance, which has sold more than 25 million copies since the first part, Outlander (published as Cross Stitch in the UK) came out in 1991. Her crowd-pulling appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival was possibly only eclipsed by that of Game of Thrones author George RR Martin – and she might well find herself on a level pegging with Martin soon, thanks to a big budget TV adaptation of her series, which began in the US this month and is already being talked about in the same breath as the fantasy phenomenon.
No UK channel has yet bought it, although a deal is rumoured to be imminent, following its positive US reception, with The Wall Street Journal branding it “the mother of all highland flings” and Entertainment Weekly calling it “sexy, smart and stirring”. Audiences seems to agree – the opening episode pulled in almost four million viewers across all platforms, a record for Starz, the cable channel on which it airs.
So what exactly is Outlander and how did it become a global success? In the season finale of the second series of Orange Is The New Black there’s a lovely little scene where Taystee comes across a battered copy of Gabaldon’s novel and tries to explain its appeal to best friend Poussey. “Lady travels back in time to Scotland … hooks up with this big, sexy outlaw type, and they be gettin’ it day in and day out. Yo, it’s hot!” she exclaims with enthusiasm. Poussey’s subsequent look of amused disbelief will be familiar to anyone who has attempted to explain why Outlander is such fun, only to be greeted with everything from raised eyebrows to open snorts of laughter.
As Taystee’s description suggests Outlander is the story of Claire Randall (played in the series by Caitriona Balfe), an English nurse who has reunited with her husband after the end of the Second World War. They head to Scotland for a second honeymoon only for Claire to fall through time while visiting some mysterious standing stones, finding herself in the 18th century where the Jacobite rebellion is in full swing. While there, she meets an occasionally unreconstructed but very charismatic Scottish clan member named Jamie (Sam Heughan) and finds herself torn between her growing feelings for him and her desire to return home. What follows is a bunch of lovingly described sex, and lots of fighting, as Claire and Jamie attempt to stay one step ahead of the book’s bad guy, the aptly named Black Jack Randall, who just happens to be the ancestor of Claire’s mild-mannered husband Frank (Tobias Menzies having fun in both roles).
If that all sounds like an unholy mishmash of Highlander, Rob Roy and a 1970s bodice ripper it’s basically because it is. In the 1990s, as a homesick student in New York dreaming of my former home in Scotland, I was given Outlander by a friend who claimed “try this; it’ll make you feel better”. She was right – I ploughed through the first book in the space of an evening, awestruck by the bizarreness of Gabaldon’s plot yet unable to put it down.
Similar word-of-mouth recommendations fuelled Outlander’s success. It was read across generations, handed by mothers to daughters and passed from friend to friend. Why? Quite simply because Gabaldon understands that – hot sex scenes or not – none of this works if you don’t genuinely feel, like the resourceful Claire, that you’ve been plunged back into 18th-century Scotland. A former university professor with degrees in zoology, marine biology, and behavioural ecology, her research is notoriously painstaking and the books reflect that (although as someone who grew up in Edinburgh I’m less keen on her use of colloquial Scots).
Then there’s her heroine. Claire Randall is clever, capable and quick witted – at this year’s Comic Con the forthright Gabaldon remarked: “I don’t like stupid women, so why would I write one?” Claire’s also refreshingly unbackward at coming forward – one of the first book’s more memorable scenes, which fans will be pleased to note makes it to the series, sees Frank going down on her to her unabashed enjoyment. As a moment it knocks Jon Snow, Ygritte and the Cave of Mutual Satisfaction from Game of Thrones’ season three straight into touch.
Indeed it’s arguable that a large part of Outlander’s success derives from the way in which it subverts gender conventions. Where the TV version of Game of Thrones has been criticised for its objectification of women’s bodies, Outlander’s gaze is female and, at times, breathtakingly frank. Not only is Claire unapologetically upfront about her own desires, it is the male rather than the female bodies which are lingered over – a pleasant contrast to Game of Thrones’ sexposition and breast shots. Furthermore Jamie might be loyal, brave and often very funny, but this is Claire’s story. Indeed Jamie’s role in it is closer to that of the traditional heroine in that he’s a good-looking virgin who when not getting his war-wounds treated spends a fair amount of time getting rescued.
Small wonder then that the books, in the flurry of commentary preceding the series, have been described on website Flavorwire as “feminism’s answer to Fifty Shades of Grey” and hailed by Indiewire as “the anti-Game of Thrones”. Writing for Slate, Willa Paskin called the TV adaptation “more feminine than Game of Thrones and more outré than Downton Abbey” adding: “It’s a series that pays attention to the pleasure of female characters, and that is uniquely focused on the pleasures of female viewers.”
Despite the strong launch, it’s unlikely to be plain sailing for the show from hereon in, though. When it comes to gender politics, the books are not perfect. A notorious scene in which Jamie “disciplines” Claire has long caused controversy, even among fans, with defenders tending to fall back on the rather weak “different times” argument to justify it. There’s also the as yet unanswered question as to whether the show can really build a male audience. Seemingly as a result of this concern, the producers have played down the romance and upped the show’s political and historical themes: in the show’s opening episode. “The female audience for Outlander is there. Now we’re simply expanding that fanbase to include men,” Starz CEO Chris Albrecht told Buzzfeed.
Not everyone is convinced that they had to. In her Slate review Paskin concluded that they should have gone heavier on the romance, arguing that what makes the story unique is its female eye. Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen went further stating: “If men avoid this show it’ll be out of their own lack of adventurousness and reticence – dare I call it cowardice – to engage with a mode they would otherwise love simply because a woman is their guide.”
She has a point. Outlander should not be considered a lesser show simply because it tells its tale of action and adventure from a woman's stance. Nor, given the strong early ratings, which have seen the show renewed for a second season after only one episode, do Moore and co necessarily need this elusive male viewer – the true key to Outlander’s success, as it always is, will be not who watches but how many.