Well, a long Droughtlander makes for hours of reflection and so here I am lately thinking about Geneva Dunsany. You know- the aristocratic young woman who coerces Jamie into sleeping with her via sexual blackmail, consequently becomes pregnant with his child, and then dies in childbirth?
Yeah, that one. Her character pops up quite a bit in fan chats because her actions- and her relationship with Jamie- are some of the more complicated events of the Outlander canon. And, like most things that make us think or reflect or argue or discuss, there are no easy answers when it comes to Geneva.
Geneva, both in the novel Voyager and in the Outlander television series, is tough to like. She’s beautiful but spoiled, intelligent but manipulative, brave but childish, and very much like another character who generated just as much controversy in her day: Betty Draper of Mad Men.
If you’ve never seen an episode of Mad Men, I urge you to stop reading now (major spoilers ahead!) and go give it a try. It was exceptionally well done and the show was my first foray into any real fandom. Seriously, it’s really great.
The two shows have more in common than one would initially think. Both are period dramas with hugely talented ensemble casts and phenomenal writing. They trade heavily in romance— Outlander in actual romance, Mad Men mostly in the romance of nostalgia- but they both provide poignant cultural commentary. And, finally, they both feature beautiful- but unlikable- female characters.
Mad Men, which centers on the 1960s life, family, and career of an ad man named Donald Draper, aired from 2007-2015. Although Don is the protagonist, it’s fair to say that no character during the show’s run generated quite as much debate as Betty Draper, his wife (and, later, ex-wife). Played by actress January Jones, Betty is an ex-model, Bryn Mawr-educated, Italian-speaking beauty turned upper-class homemaker. During the show’s heyday people either loved to loathe her or rushed to defend her. On one hand she is petulant, prone to immature decisions, and suffers from the consequences of her own narcissism. She slaps her children and is manipulative with her friendships. She is vindictive with her hired help and rarely emotes any sort of empathy for others.
BUT. In the earlier seasons we see she is trapped in an unfaithful marriage where her husband repeatedly manipulates her, violates her privacy, and lies to her. Her attempts to re-start her modeling career are intentionally stymied by Don and a competing ad agency. She is unable to easily obtain a divorce due to the gender-biased state laws of the era, and her request for an abortion is dismissed without discussion by her doctor. She is trapped. And a beautiful animal that is trapped will destroy its cage and everything within reach.
That sounds familiar, right? Two hundred years separate Betty and Geneva but their situations are strikingly similar. Like Betty, Geneva (brilliantly portrayed by Hannah James) is confined by the limitations of her time. She is educated but her intelligence is wasted. She’s trapped in a marriage she does not want. She’s self-assured but there is no place for her independence in the world to which she was born. Like her horses, Geneva is merely a beautiful commodity to be traded. Like Betty, she is trapped.
It is certainly a gilded cage, and there are many who would argue (not incorrectly) that aristocratic women fared better than those of the lower classes of this time. But, as Lady Isobel astutely observes, a cage is still a cage.
Betty Draper and her physical presence have a much larger role in the world of Mad Men than Geneva Dunsany has in Outlander; we meet Betty in the pilot episode and she is a prominent character throughout all seven seasons. Geneva, in contrast, is featured for exactly one episode (Episode 304: Of Lost Things). Despite her short time onscreen, however, she is arguably just as important; her actions set a trajectory for the other main characters (Jamie, Claire, Lord John, etc) for years to come.
So let’s just get the problematic stuff with Geneva and Jamie out of the way now, because I know it will come up. The short answer is…it’s very complicated. If we are going by modern, twenty-first century legal standards, what Geneva does- blackmail Jamie into sleeping with her- is considered quid quo pro harassment. We’ve heard a lot about quid pro quo harassment lately with the MeToo movement; women are told they will advance in a career, or are threatened with losing a job, if they do not perform sexual acts.
Is it rape? It’s a tough call but it probably could be considered rape in a court of law. Rape is defined as sexual intercourse or other penetration without someone’s consent, and consent given by coercion or under duress is not valid. Any lawyers out there feel free to weigh in.
What’s clear is that Geneva’s actions are unquestionably and unequivocally wrong. I can understand why she felt she had to make them, but I cannot defend them. Understanding someone’s motives does not excuse them.
(I’m also choosing not to discuss Book Jamie versus Television Jamie’s actions re: consent and rape. That’s a blog for a whole other day and I’m keeping this on Geneva for now).
Do we have to like Betty and Geneva? No, we do not and I’m not arguing that we should. I do not think Geneva, as portrayed in the novel or on the show, is a good person; most of what she does is fairly inexcusable. I think, under different circumstances, she had the potential to be a good person- more on that later. But the point is not to like these characters or even to sympathize with them. The point is to try to understand them, because understanding Geneva and Betty reveals a lot about the larger context of the societies from which they come. That is, these unlikable women really reflect what is unlikable about our culture.
In eighteenth century England an aristocratic woman was commonly betrothed in childhood and marriage was viewed as a mostly financial transaction for the acquisition of land and wealth. Once married, a woman was bound by the laws of coverture, which essentially stated that upon marriage all of her legal rights were subsumed (and basically made irrelevent) by her husband. Husband and wife were one person in the eyes of the law, with the husband being the “one person.” Divorce had to be granted by an Act of Parliament and was mostly only given to men; for a woman to obtain a divorce she had to prove adultery or cruelty, which could be nearly impossible. A woman like Geneva, even if unhappy, was stuck.
Jump forward two hundred years to the time of Betty Draper and things…aren’t much better. New York State in the 1960s had some of the nation’s toughest divorce laws; for a woman to leave her husband she had to definitively prove he had committed adultery or abuse…gee, why does that sound familiar? There was no alimony and child support was not mandatory. Leaving an unhappy marriage could leave a woman poor and pariahed.
I think it’s fair to argue, then, that the actions of Geneva and Betty are in large part reactive to the constraints placed upon them. Would they be better people if allowed more freedom or under different circumstances?
Hard to say, but I think the answer for Geneva is yes. I’ve argued before that Geneva is actually quite similar to Claire in terms of temperament— they are both fiercely independent, intelligent, and brave. But whereas Claire was raised in a free-range environment by a non-conforming uncle and then later married to two progressive-minded husbands, Geneva has only ever known restriction. Given a different life- a life more like Claire’s- I think she had the potential to use her qualities for the greater good.
And I think the series creators felt similarly. Geneva and Claire are costumed almost identically in Season 3, highlighting the comparison:
Geneva is almost Claire 2.0, but something went wrong. Her path veered too off course and she doesn’t have Claire’s moral compass to get her back on any sort of righteous path.
In the end both Geneva and Betty fall victim to a death representative of their respective eras: Geneva dies in childbirth, Betty dies of lung cancer. Neither one affects history in any sort of substantial way but they represent millions of women constrained by their circumstances. We don’t have to like these characters and we probably shouldn’t. But if we understand Geneva and Betty then perhaps we can continue working toward a world where a woman’s worth is more than her beauty, her name is more than her husband’s, and her life is freer than the generation before.
photos: STARZ, AMC