Yes, you read that right. Oh, I am not about to suggest that she is a paragon of all the virtues—or, indeed, any. But I have always felt mighty sorry for the poor wee lass, and now even more so, since she (like Tara Thornton, Lori Grimes and Sansa Stark before her) is about to be hated by whole new multitudes, courtesy of the forthcoming Outlander TV adaptation.
For those who have read Diana Gabaldon’s epic historical time travel romance series, Laoghaire is often ranked second only to the ruthless, power-hungry sociopath that is Black Jack Randall in general and abiding villainy. But I beg leave to offer a dissenting view. A view that takes into account her tender years, the times in which she lived, her father’s brutality, her station in life and, above all, the bitter pangs of love unrequited.
First, a little background. When Laoghaire MacKenzie is but sixteen years of age, she is accused by her father of “loose behaviour; consorting improperly wi’ young men against his orders.” As a result of this (unproven, but who cares, even if it was?) charge, she—a member of Clan MacKenzie, and therefore under the stringent command of a Laird who has not the slightest problem with the public beating of women—is sentenced to be whipped at the hand of the clan’s massive, terrifying enforcer, right in front of everyone.
This is a fate from which she is saved by the stalwart Jamie Fraser, who altruistically volunteers to take her place in the beating, much to her doe-eyed relief and gratitude. (Why he can later somehow bear to mete out a similar punishment to his time-displaced wife Claire is a question for another day.) Every wrong that Laoghaire commits from then on stems directly from this incident, the very worst kind of vicious slut-shaming that, horrifically, still goes on in the world, but that we in the West look upon as a shocking relic of an era long gone by. (Though it lives on verbally in courtrooms, classrooms, dorm rooms and elsewhere, where victim-blaming and gendered double standards still hold much sway.) Which is why Laoghaire cannot be judged by our modern sensibilities—her actions, and reactions, are born out of ancient ones, and so it is only by those that she can really be understood.
There are many crimes with which Laoghaire is commonly charged by Outlander readers—selfishness, vanity, immaturity, attempted murder (x2)—but I would contend that she can be excused of all of these, given her age and circumstances. Even later on in the series, when she is decades older, has been married three times and borne two children, all of her frailties and fractiousness can be attributed to the harshness of the life she was forced to endure, and the general powerlessness with which she is beset.
Now, look. It may be true that (in her first so-called “murder attempt”) Laoghaire sent our heroine, Claire Beauchamp/Randall/Fraser, to see suspected witch Geillis Duncan just when she was due to be apprehended by forces arrayed against her supposed Dark Arts. But even assuming that Laoghaire knew for sure that Geillis’s arrest was imminent (and this is by no means certain), and that she was fanciful enough to conceive of this as a possible method of Claire-disposal (which, actually, is pretty certain), why shouldn’t she have taken such an excellent opportunity to rid herself of one she could only have seen as an enemy? That’s not evil, it’s just being efficient, at least according to the frontier justice morality of the 1700s Highlands.
We have seen enough of Laoghaire by this stage to know that she’d had a childhood crush on Jamie, which can only have been strengthened by his gallant championing of her cruel punishment when she’s all grown up. Then Claire spies Jamie canoodling with a “yellow”-haired girl and fears that his next beating will be “on his own account, if they weren’t more careful in choosing a meeting place.” Laoghaire, then. He’s “consorting” with Laoghaire (this confirmed directly in the text later), doubtless further raising her hopes that her hero returned her regard, and would take her away from what, if we read between the lines, must be a hateful home life with a most hateful father. (No, I cannot ever forgive him for the public-whipping-of his-daughter incident, no matter how era-appropriate it might be. I just can’t.)
Let us also remember that Jamie is, at this stage, entirely penniless (as well as being an outlaw), and yet Laoghaire loves him, or at the very least believes herself in love with him, despite this—hardly in the best interests of a young woman seeking to set up her own household in these hardscrabble times. Let us also remember that for Laoghaire, and all the thousands of girls like her in most every century except the most recent, marriage to a provident husband was the very pinnacle of ambition to which they could aspire. So Laoghaire, starved for affection and taken with a man who showed every evidence of an equal interest in her (cf. the beating, the canoodling), sets aside her natural inclination for security all for the love of him—only to have him wed another woman. And, moreover, a woman who is not only older and frighteningly competent but is an outsider besides—and one who, not to put too fine a point on it, had been pretty damn condescending towards Laoghaire in their few previous encounters.
So if—and I repeat if, since it is not entirely for sure that Laoghaire had the wherewithal to engineer this assassination attempt, as Claire is so wont to claim —Laoghaire did knowingly and wilfully send this interloper to her doom, who can blame her, since according to the custom of her people, the killing of such foes was a perfectly reasonable resolution to conflict? Who can then later blame Laoghaire when, after Claire has been (in her eyes) long-dead—and in Jamie’s eyes, long-back to the future—she marries Jamie and is then disillusioned to discover that this man she has long loved will never give her what she wants: his love in return?
And you know what? Even leaving aside any excusing of her peccadilloes with the mitigating factors that she is a) a teenage girl thwarted in love; b) a teenage girl treated as chattel by her father and community; c) served badly by disastrous marriages and the limitations placed upon females at that time; and d) without any kind of support network and/or role model on which to base her behavior; there is still much in Laoghaire that is, well, good. We see in An Echo in the Bone (2009) that she has fallen for a servant who is differently-abled (showing that she can see past the mere superficial), but whom she would not even consider marrying because she would thence lose her well-negotiated alimony payments from a deservedly guilt-ridden Jamie (showing that she is eminently practical!). But when her grandson Henri-Christian falls ill, and only Claire—with her twentieth century medical knowledge—can save him, she agrees to set Jamie free of his financial burden if only Claire will attempt to save the boy. If nothing else, Laoghaire proves to be a good mother (somewhat better than the careless Claire, if it comes down to it—I mean: Brianna), by which she is able to rise above her (quite justified, I feel) desire for revenge upon people who have Done Her Wrong up one crag and down another.
Which, let’s face it, Claire doesn’t manage nearly so well.
And this, of course, is why Laoghaire is so very hated amongst certain sections of the Outlander fandom. She is hated because Claire herself hates her, and when your first person narrator is so prejudiced against someone from the very outset, it is difficult for any reader to remain objective.
Almost from their first meeting, Claire is jealous of “young” Laoghaire, the “girl” Laoghaire. Even as Claire prepares to leave her new husband in old timey Scotland and return to her actual husband Frank in the 1940s, she ponders Laoghaire with what I can only call resentful venom:
I found that the thought of Jamie sharing Laoghaire’s bed upset me as much as the thought of leaving him. I cursed myself for idiocy, but I couldn’t help imagining her sweet round face, flushed with ardent longing, and his big hands burying themselves in that moonbeam hair...
For Claire, Laoghaire represents everything that she fears—she’s basically the Prom Queen mean girl archetype existing since time immemorial, and who as a species seem to have a knack for putting up others women’s backs. Claire is no paragon of all the virtues, either, and this young lovely for whom Jamie took a beating was never going to win the heart of the already smitten, though fighting it, outlander, even as far back as Chapter 5. This is further evidenced when Claire returns to the past upon the death of Frank in Voyager (Book 3, 1993) to find that in her twenty year absence Jamie has married (and then, to be sure, separated from) Laoghaire. Laoghaire has grown haggard in the intervening years, and her shrewishness has increased exponentially—but mightn’t you have become a harsh-worded harridan, too, if you had discovered that your fondest wish had been forlorn, and that the man of whom you had long-dreamed would never, even in marriage, be truly yours? And, in fact, would be kind of a let-down, bed-wise? But as bellicose as Laoghaire might be to see Claire back from the dead (and in bed with her husband), it is Claire who is most overwrought, not because Jamie remarried, but because he married her.
Damn him! How dare he? If he had married again, thinking me dead, that was one thing. I had half-expected, half-feared it. But to marry that woman—that spiteful, sneaking little bitch who had tried to murder me at Castle Leoch*... but he likely didn’t know that, a small voice of reason in my head pointed out.
“Well, he should have known!” I said. “Damn him to hell, how could he take her, anyway?”
If this were Gone With the Wind, Laoghaire would be Melanie. If this were Little Women, she would be Amy. In Buffy she’d be Faith and in Veronica Mars she’d be Madison Sinclair. There is always, in even the most reasonable and confident of women’s lives, that one rival (often, but not always, a scheming, manipulative wench) to whom it is all but impossible to concede even the slightest victory without wanting to claw her eyes out. For Claire, that woman is Laoghaire. Poor, sad, hard-done-by Laoghaire, who acts as a foil to our heroine’s innate grace and goodness even as she also highlights several of her less attractive qualities.
So, yes. Poor Laoghaire. Sins she may have committed, but we should try to understand why she committed them, and perhaps even to understand that, by her lights and by the code of her people, they were not even sins at all. Twisted she may be, but it was the bleakness of her life that made her so. She’s rather like a comic book supervillain that way.... just, one led astray by the fickle affections of a strapping, handsome Scotsman with a time traveller for a wife.
I mean, hey. It could happen to anyone.
* I again repeat, if she actually did that...
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.