Bodice ripper*: A controversial term for the earliest of romance novels with a certain formula. Sure, they call to mind those notorious covers of the '70s and '80s where the hero grips a heroine who's effectively spilling out of her top as they both appear to be in the throes of never-ending orgasm. And for those well-versed in the genre, there are other qualities bodice rippers are known for, most importantly the content. Overall, the bodice rippers of old do share commonalities. Yet breaking some aspects of the ancient mold doesn't automatically prevent inclusion. And in light of this, Diana Gabaldon's Outlander, beloved as it is to its legions of fans and for all its glory in busting through genres to appeal to millions, is every bit the bodice ripper.
For many, the term bodice ripper is immediately negative. They're realistic, but not pretty. Never mind the fact that I gained more knowledge about very specific events in history and the human element in historical nuances from bodice rippers than I did from their textbook counterparts, and to this day Stormfire—the mother of all bodice rippers—remains one of my very favorite novels. The truth is, the characteristics that define a bodice ripper spill from the pages of Outlander, and in many ways Outlander is as polarizing as that infamous name.
“You know, there are two aspects to this curious situation of yours,” Anselm said, absorbed in tearing bread. He glanced aside at me, a sudden smile lighting his face. He shook his head in wonderment. “I can scarcely believe it still, you know. Such a marvel! Truly, God has been good, to show me such things.”
“Well, that’s nice,” I said, a bit dryly, “I don’t know whether He’s been quite so obliging to me.”
“Really? I think so.” Anselm sank down on his haunches, crumbling bread between his fingers. “True,” he said, “the situation has caused you no little personal inconvenience –”
“That’s one way of putting it,” I muttered.
Claire, the time-traveling English nurse, and Jamie, the honorable young Scottish warrior, have to go through wind, rain, the fires of hell, and time itself not only to be together, but just to survive. Outlander may not be the bodice ripper one remembers; nevertheless these are the qualities that make it so, love it or hate it, which is often the case:
1) First and foremost, bodice rippers are epic sagas, filled with dramatics and sweeping declarations, bold and brash characterization, great adversity, and exaggerated events. Outlander most obviously accomplishes this by going outside the bounds of time and place through the liberties of time-travel. But more than that, Claire is frequently a woman without a country, torn between ravaged post-World War II England and brutal 18th century Scotland in the midst of the Jacobite uprising. History is vibrant here, which baseless as they may seem, is the case in most bodice rippers, and Claire and Jamie are the vessels through which we see the saga unfold. Life amongst a Scottish clan is never easy. There is very real war, the question that rears its head over and over again of whether Claire is an English spy, and Claire battles an unconventional conflict that rips her between two worlds, which ups the stakes continually in Outlander. And let's face it, there are some speeches Jamie makes to Claire that are absolutely swoon-worthy.
2) Bodice rippers are also known for their harsh, often abusive treatment of their heroes or heroines, whether to each other or at the hands of others. Diana Gabaldon takes pride in her series, as she should, but she certainly isn't very kind to her characters. Claire is mistaken as a whore immediately after she's transported by the stones, Jamie has been beaten and flogged severely by English prior to the book's opening, and Claire is very nearly sexually assaulted by Black Jack Randall. Most shocking to readers is Claire's strapping by Jamie after she bucks orders and runs away and worst of all, Jamie's rape by Randall, the pinnacle of horrific events in the novel.
3) Typically bodice rippers also feature a truly evil, psychopathic villain, and this can certainly be said of Captain Black Jack Randall. From the moment Claire first encounters him outside the stones, he's a sadistic bastard who stops at nothing to conquer and control. His actions against Jamie cause no end of shuddering, as Jamie really is the sacrificial lamb in a scene that is so wholly unjust it's an outrage.
4) One of the more usually frustrating elements of a bodice ripper is extended separation of the hero and heroine, as external conflicts are more commonly the enemy than internal ones. In Outlander, Jamie and Claire are together throughout the bulk of the novel to give that much-needed time to fall in love, but as is often the case, happiness isn't allowed for long as outside forces conspire against them, and it's particularly epic because of what their separation in the climax leads to. Good things usually don't come from the separation of the hero and heroine, and it's no different here.
5) Outlander comes complete with an arranged marriage, as bodice rippers often force the hero and heroine together initially just as much as they force them apart later, leading to no end of suffering. Many times they also come with a virgin heroine, though Outlander really turns this around by having strapping hunk Jamie remain the virgin until marriage. In this case, Claire needs to be fully united and loyal to the Scottish to avoid surrendering her back to Randall and the English. Though it's not exactly a punishment, it's still an inconvenience in that it takes the choice out of Jamie's and Claire's hands.
6) Bodice rippers are infamous for the TSTL heroine, that heroine who hurts as much as helps herself, whose poor decisions and sometimes annoying qualities result in copious eye-rolling as we embark on her misadventures and can sometimes be downright unforgivable. In Claire's case, though we're sympathetic to her plight, attempting to escape the first chance she gets alone after marrying Jamie when she doesn't know where she's going—mind you—resulting in her nearly drowning then getting captured is true TSTL behavior. One of the main issues with Claire throughout the book is her constant hand-wringing and endless fretting over the sole objective to get back to Frank, who never seems that great to begin with, even as she seems willing to give herself to her new marriage. But where she loses me completely is after she's found a modicum of happiness with Jamie, when she at first chooses to return to Frank after Jamie vows to get her back to the stones and leaves the decision in her hands. Though in many ways Claire is more progressive than the general bodice ripper heroine, a given considering Claire's time-traveling backward 200 years from the book's modern day 1945, in other ways she's every bit the TSTL heroine.
7) Outlander certainly contains the larger-than-life elements that are synonymous with bodice rippers, from the accusations leveled at Claire of practicing witchcraft to Claire's full-scale attack along with Jamie's compatriots of Wentworth Prison to break Jamie out after he's taken, and even Jamie's near-death close call after the rescue. No one gets a break in bodice rippers, and there's no exception here.
8) Bodice rippers often tip the scales from chivalry to sexism with completely helpless heroines and heroes who alone can save the day for heroine. And though it's not so evident—and Jamie is no chauvinist—there are traces of that in Outlander, from his having to marry Claire to avoid suspicion of her being an English spy, his arrival just in time both to save Claire from being whipped by the Scots on one occasion and raped by Randall and his men on another, his sacrificing himself for Claire and offering himself in her place to Randall. Yes, Claire is strong but that doesn't mean she doesn't still need saving a time or ten.
9) Bodice rippers contain scheming, often idiotic other love interests to horn in on the two people who against all odds are meant for each other. Outlander's answer to this is Frank, Claire's husband who doesn't get a lot of page time but is no less interfering, and Laoghaire MacKenzie, the simpering miss with her sights on Jamie who's bound to become a problem. These two manage to stir up trouble between our hero and heroine, both now and foreshadowed down the road.
10) But one of the greatest qualities of a bodice ripper is the misunderstandings and miscommunications that cause problems between the hero and heroine for too long, usually adding to the overall page count. Outlander certainly has its fair share, primarily in the form of Claire not telling Jamie about the time travel, and thus her whole other life. To her credit, when they're married Jamie asks for secrets but not lies, and though Claire toes the line and technically the situation she's in is outside of her control, by not trusting Jamie sooner, she causes both of them undue pain and trial, and this above all, is classic bodice ripper.
*Editor's note: This post was written before Vanity Fair posted its article, which got an H&H rebuttal.
Want more? Here's a roundup of some of H&H's most popular Outlander posts—so far
- Recaps of Episode 1 and Episode 2 by Anna Bowling
- A Beginner's Guide to Outlander by Team H&H
- Outlander-ish Dialogue: Jamie Fraser's Jamie-isms by Charli Mac
- Outlander's “Just a Bodice-Ripper”? Really, Vanity Fair?! by Megan Frampton
- Romance's Most Hated: In Defense of Outlander's Laoghaire by Rachel Hyland
- First Impressions of Outlander Episode 1, “Sassenach”: Wait 'n' See by Elizabeth Poteet
- Anticipating Starz's Outlander: 5 Things the Series Shouldn't Change by Kate Nagy
- Friday Beefcake: Claire's Choice—Jamie Fraser and Frank Randall by Team H&H
- Time Travel, Highlanders, History, and More: What to Read After Diana Gabaldon's Outlander by Megan Frampton
- A Love Letter to Diana Gabaldon's Outlander by Aniko Eva Nagy
- Romantic Couple: Jamie and Claire from Diana Gabaldon's Outlander by Charli Mac
Tiffany Tyer is a writer and editor who loves reading and analyzing all things romance. She also works as a vocalist, a tutor, and a non-profit ministry assistant, and she loves it that way. Her book reviews can be found at Happy Endings Reviews, a blog she co-founded.