Aug 1 2014 8:30am

Romance’s Most Hated: In Defense of Outlander’s Laoghaire

Nell Hudson as Laoghire in OutlanderPoor Laoghaire.

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?

Outlander by Diana GabaldonAnd 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.

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1. KateNagy
PREACH IT. I've always felt sorry for Laoghaire. She's been in love with Jamie since girlhood and married him in good faith after Claire's presumed death, and then when Claire quite unexpectedly returns, everyone is like "Hit the road, wench! Sucks to be you!" She's the collateral damage to Jamie and Claire's explosive love, and she deserved better.
Rachel Hyland
2. RachelHyland
Yes! Thank you, Kate. I knew I could count on you. (Meanwhile, how... pointy is Nell Hudson in that photo up there? All patrician arched brows and disdainful frown. NOT the Laoghaire I always imagined from the books -- could perception of the character have informed the casting?)
3. Scarlettleigh
It has been too long since I've read the books to give an informed rebuttal or agreement. And honestly, I don't remember hating her.

I tend to want characters to rise above their upbringing. But Ms. Gabaldon had to add conflict and Loaghaire was the vehicle.

But you definitely wrote a persuasive argument!
rachel sternberg
4. rae70
I disliked Leghair ;-) in the book... and thought she was a down right b! But your arguement has won me over and I am feeling a small bit of sympathy for the character :)
Rachel Hyland
6. RachelHyland
@ Scarlettleigh

Why, thank you. It is my gift, to be able to persuade those who don't actually disagree with me.

@ rae70

Then, my work here is done. (And: ah, yes, the "Leghair" thing. I really should have addressed that; it makes my case all the stronger!)
7. Trix
I completely agree with you. I don't hate Laoghaire at all, I feel sorry for her!! If we put ourselves in her shoes, how can we blame her for her actions?! Of course, trying to have Claire killed, and shooting Jamie were not clevre actions - but when you truly think of what she's been through, as pointed out by you above, you can't hate her. And if you do, it's petty!! IMHO.... :)
8. nakita
yes. thank you so much! I made a huge post about this on my blog and got so much hate from the fandom but it honestly only made me love Laoghaire more. And the sad thing is Ness (the actress who plays Laoghaire with such perfect and lovely naive but hopeful vulnerability) gets so much hate from the fandom too just because she plays Laoghaire :/ but she's actually so intelligent and sweet and I wish more people would take the time to value both her and Laoghaire for the great person/character each is.
9. CRooster
Though your arguement is sound and I see your points. I am new to this fandom, she is shallow for not marrying someone just for allimony checks. Yes that is practical for the time but women also married whomever they could whenever they could and all that glitters is not gold, MOVE ON! Seriously, though Jamie is a scoundrel for fooling and canoodling her and Claire can be a hard narrator to continuosly put faith into, Laoghaire is still considerably shallow for the time. Murder might have been the game in those days but women at least had guile.
10. beatigger2
I’ve never hated Laoghaire, and I’ve read the series thrice. You’re points (most all of them) are thoughtful and, imho, right on. However I’ve points that differ from yours: Laoghaire was caught in an affair/messing around with John Robert MacLeod - a married man from Killiecrankie. Her being Not so innocent after all. But you’re right, Jamie came in like a white knight and chivalrously bore her punishment so as not to ‘shame the lass before all who know her’. Up to this point, Jamie hadn’t really shown any interest in the girl at all – even dissed her in the hall the night Gwyllyn was performing – but having been ‘saved’ she fell for him hard (throwing herself at him, “consorting with him”, which was in fact reckless, but shows she’s not an innocent at all).
She did try to kill Claire: Laoghaire did know that Geillis’s arrest was to be that night, Colum closed the castle gates-forbade anyone from leaving, and She gave the note to Claire which prompted her to go to Geillis Duncan’s the very eve she was to be arrested as a witch. In the TV version she testifies against Claire/but doesn’t(or did) in the books (I think?). She put an ill-will under Claire’s pillow – clearly trying to do away with a foe with what resources she has.

And she did shoot Jamie: brought a gun with her during a time when possession of a firearm was illegal and rode miles with the intent to do so – to force him at gun point to come back to her – or kill him. ‘If I can’t have him no one will’ theme.

Also is Laoghaire starved for affections? Mrs. Fitz is very motherly toward her, she has friends in the castle and could very well have a mother living. She’s described as beautiful and there is every evidence that she is aware of her physical charms – even uses them on Jamie first after the beating/defending her honor and trying to seduce him later.
And also Jamie is an attentive lover: Claire did teach him to pay attention to his paramours: Geneva Dunsany and Mary McNabb – but Laoghaire shunned Jamie in bed, broke out in tears, not speak to him for intervals and he didn’t know what he’d done wrong. Not saying it’s not partly his fault, but she pushed him away, then clung to him sobbing, pleading like a child… the dynamics are that is was a bad fit. Was Jamie too much sexually for her, too lustful (he does like rough sex and can be vigorous) or was she frigid due to her previous marriage? Her daughter’s comments to Clair on the ship to Jamaica indicate so.

And the alimony: When Laoghaire is caught ‘consorting’ with a man intimately, - well, Jenny says in the letter she’s ‘living alike a Laird’ and why should she do anything to cut off the income. Heck yeah, that’s shrewishness. That’s a ‘stick it to him’ attitude, a ‘he’ll pay for dumping me’ and not entirely a eminently practical attitude – a sneaky, ‘have my cake and get what I can from the ex.’ She’s selfishly taking advantage (and not letting go of) guilt-ridden Jamie.

Basically, Laoghaire is a very well rounded character, with shrewdness, somewhat immature, with frailties and victim of the times she lived.
11. MacCaba
Did Laoghaire really marry Jamie in good faith? Well she says she did but was she honest with him about why she married him? She admits it was because she needed someone to support her and her children, she didn't really need him just the income but wanted him to need her. Had Laoghaire been at all nurturing in her relationship with Jamie the marriage would have worked. Did she tell Jamie that she tried to kill Claire? At least give him the opportunity to understand her actions and make an informed decision regarding marriage to her. Laoghaire did indeed try to kill Claire, you find that out in a later book when she confronts Briana in a very nasty and mean spirited way I might add. Laoghaire wanted Claire to burn to death. Jamie says that Laoghaire seemed to like him well enough before the marriage but after the marriage she changed. I don't feel sorry for Laoghaire I think she has some kind of personality disorder I mean she believed Claire must be a witch because Jamie loved Claire and not her. In her mind it was simply impossible that Jamie didn't choose her over Claire, is that narcissism or what. Laoghaire also tried to kill Jamie when she demanded he divorce Claire and stay married to her, not necessarily come back and live with her, she just didn't want Claire to have him. Laoghaire may love her children but even a murderer can love their family, and Laoghaire wasn't above using Claire when the need arose. Also Laoghaire never faces any punishment for her crimes and feels no remorse nor accepts any responsibility for her actions. Sorry I don't feel any sympathy for her.
As to the way Claire feels about Laoghaire well who can blame her? Claire is jealous for sure but Laoghaire did try to seduce Jamie and she did try to get rid of Claire so she could have Jamie. I don't know about anyone else but I don't know that I would feel any differently about Laoghaire if I were Claire. Claire's feelings stem from her love of Jamie and Jamie is equally Jealous of anyone who would try to get too close to Claire let alone anyone who,would try to seduce her.
12. Stephen Llewellyn
In many ways Laoghaire is the 17th century, opposite sex version of Frank. ie. she is the character who has the misfortune to fall in love with someone who is True Love to someone else and all the misfortunes that goes with that role. Poor Loaghaire. Poor Frank. Fate's pawns. It is ironic that Claire treats Frank so badly when she returns to the 20th century while Jamie just moves on.
13. marie lindsey
Give me a break will you. She is a lousy human being period . What do you mean by she had it so ruff? She is a spoiled child and then grows up worse. Some people can't help it.
14. Munira
Listen, I never had a problem with the crazy love sick puppy. It's Jamie I was mad at. It's so typical for guys to never be fully clear to pining women. Then he goes and marries her. No, my beef is with Jamie, always has been always will. I think you can't blame Claire either, her reactions are justified. She almost died for god's sake because of Leghair. All this could have been avoided if Jamie behaved like a man instead of like an idiot.
15. Julia Meadows
This was such a refreshing point of view. It lifted some of that heavy hate I felt for her character. Put in perspective. I am very glad to have read it.
16. josephalmlj
Some points to consider. Difference between Claire being spanked by Jaime and Laoghaire being spanked. Jaime when he resided with the Mackenzies had been publicly punished in the hall. These punishments are bare ass spankings. Jaime was denied the right of the other punishment (being punched because he was still considered a child) and for a 16 year old male or female this would be a humilation not easily born. Jaime remembers what this humilation felt like and wanted to spare did not signify that he cared for her he just wanted to spare her the embarrassment. Claire was spanked in the privacy of their chamber...even through everyone knew Jaime was spanking her it was still private. Laoghaire's belief that Jaime was hers and that he loved her was the book and on the series it is clear that Jaime is interested in Claire and a kiss does not a relationship make.
17. SueS
You say "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." I say you can't have it both ways.... You can't defend her by saying she can't be judged by modern sensibilities when you're judging her father and the laird by those same sensibilities. She was to be punished as was the norm for the time for behavior that was considered immoral. We might not like it or agree with it by today's standards but too bad. You expect the reader to view her treatment through the glasses of modern mores but then to remove those glasses when viewing her subsequent actions? I don't think so. She was a spoiled brat who had a disappointment as a teen and chose to let it twist her life. She made a life time of bad decisions and spent a great deal of her time exacting revenge for those she felt she "owed". If Jamie weren't so honorable, he probably could have done something about her, but guilt, no matter how misplaced, is a powerful thing.
18. Linda S.
Personally I can't STAND Claire. She is horribly miscast. Why Jamie would ever prefer her to that young beautiful girl is beyond me. Claire is the least likeable character in the whole series. Her and Jamie just always looked so wrong together. I mean , how quickly she forgot about her husband and where she actually belongs? Instead she wants to stay in the past, where she should NOT be and take jamie away from the girl he first loved. I just can't stand her, her smugness, (eww, she is homely and old what does she have to be smug about??) her annoying voice, always miserable attitude, yuck. IRL a Jamie would not be with a Claire.
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