• Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

    Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon
    Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

    Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon is such a long novel – around 860 pages – that I wrote this review in stages. When I started writing, I was 250-350 pages into the book. Now I’m closer to 675 pages and my opinions haven’t changed at all. But this is less a book review than a developmental editor’s first impressions of the book.

    The Outlander series is massively successful and has been adapted for streaming TV. The screen version has doubtless brought the characters and story to an even bigger audience. And that, in turn, will have led to more book sales.

    I’ve only seen the first two series and a bit of the third one – if I remember correctly. I’d once tried to read the book some years ago but bailed out around page 72. I don’t think I was really in the mood to read it then.

    I am more in the mood now. And I couldn’t help but read it at least a bit through the filter of developmental editing.

    The setup

    Gabaldon fairly sets up Claire’s normal life with Frank during their second honeymoon in Inverness. She doesn’t enter the stones for quite a while. This makes sense since Frank and their marriage need to be set up first.

    We need to see what Claire leaves behind when she passes through the stones.

    And from that, we also get the contrast between post-war austerity and the eighteenth century.

    Another thing the first 60 pages accomplish is to fill the reader in on Black Jack Randall, Frank’s redcoat ancestor.

    When Claire meets him, she’s at least armed with a little information – and so is the reader.

    We also learn about Claire’s nursing background and her newer interest in botany, the latter encouraged by Frank. Both will become vital in giving her a role and some status when she travels to the past. Healers are a big deal in the days before antibiotics and other modern medicines.

    There are other little things set up too – including Roger, who is more important later in the series.

    And both the reading of the tea leaves and the palm reading create some foreshadowing of Claire’s future. Add to that Frank seeing the ghost of the highlander that watched Claire through the hotel window.

    The reader will know the ghost to be Jamie. But neither Claire nor Frank know that yet.

    Moving at a leisurely pace

    Because this book was published in 1991, it is a great deal meatier than most modern novels.

    This was the time before social media. A time when the modern attention span was in a better state.

    But there were times in the 1946 Inverness chapters when I wondered if things shouldn’t have been speeded up just a tad. But in 1991, I might have had a different opinion on this. And, of course, it doesn’t help when you’ve seen the television series first.

    Nevertheless, it seemed important to build up the ‘modern’ world first, to show the contrast with the old world. And to understand Claire well, it helps to see her in her own time.

    Where the plot stretches credulity

    Funnily enough, passing through the stones into the past was not the part I found hard to believe. No, it was much of her thoughts and behaviour after she arrived there.

    While it’s clear that she and Frank were trying to reconnect after their years apart in the war, their marriage didn’t seem so bad that she’d forget about him so easily.

    Days and weeks go by with barely a reminder that he ever existed. There are times when she ought to be reminded – any reference to her as a widow, for example.

    Your characters are impacted by their pasts

    As a developmental editor, I’ve often seen manuscripts where a character forgets important bits of their past and no longer reacts to past trauma. Even when there are obvious trigger points, the character doesn’t remember or isn’t impacted.

    If you want to create realistic and three-dimensional characters, then it’s worth thinking about how someone in the real world would react in the same situation.

    In the real world, a woman separated from her husband would long to get back to him and would worry about him being frantic about her whereabouts. She would frequently think about him, and anything in her new vicinity that might remind her of him or her marriage would trigger a thought, an emotion, a memory.

    Claire tells us that she thinks about Frank a lot. But she doesn’t show us the evidence. Not in her thoughts, memories, longings, or moods.

    A missed opportunity for internal conflict

    In reality, she’d be suffering from a massive internal conflict – stuck at the castle, in this strange world, and wondering if she’d ever see Frank again.

    But in the book, she settles into life there a little too easily.

    We’re told that she’s busy with healing and so on, but this would not stop her thinking about Frank or the world she’s left behind.

    But this leads to other issues too. Claire ought to wonder more about how she comes to be here. She should miss modern amenities more. She ought to question her reality – even wondering if it’s all a dream.

    A real person, transported to the past, would be thinking: this can’t be true. They’d likely be dazed for days or weeks. They might acclimatize over time, but every so often they’d be thrown back into a clash of past and present and the impossibility of their new reality.

    I’m not sure how other readers feel about Claire largely not thinking of Frank. Since she means to try and escape the castle, thinking of him more, and showing how much he means to her, would heighten the emotional incentive. As it is, she seems oddly detached from him.

    It’s as if Frank is no longer real.

    Of course, he doesn’t exist in this period and she might ponder how he feels very distant and unreal now. But that doesn’t really happen in an obvious way.

    Few memories, little conflict, reduced motivations

    There’s a chain of events, goals, and desires that ought to propel her forward into risking escape. Frank should be one of the prime motivators. Not to mention her worrying that she might never escape this world.

    She might also think of Black Jack Randall just a teensy bit more – he almost assaulted her. If the events of the book really happened, she’d also picture the day she gets to tell Frank how charming his ancestor really was. Though she’d also consider the likelihood of Frank believing her.

    At the end of what would be described as act one, Claire has failed to escape back to the stone circle, but she has left the castle. She’s now on the road with Jamie, Dougal, and Callum’s lawyer. Claire hopes to make a getaway during the journey.

    To the circle of standing stones. And with luck, back home.

    Cross Stitch

    Even here, Claire is not thinking about Frank, which I found rather jarring. Is it meant to reveal something about the true nature of their marriage? It doesn’t really come across that way.

    When Claire’s forgetfulness creates an odd detachment

    It seems more that the plot and the details of this old world have submerged Frank and her memories of him.

    Yet, in reality, since she is not in a relationship with Jamie yet, she should feel that pull towards Frank. He should be in her thoughts more. There could have been a few little memories scattered about. Just to flesh out their relationship a bit more beyond the move to the past. And also to show that she does actually care about him.

    Sometimes it seems she doesn’t. Her narrative voice is often oddly detached. There’s also a lack of reflection at times.

    As I read further and further into the story, I started to wonder when she was going to give Frank any thought again. When would be the next occasion? And I started tearing strips off the paper I was using as a bookmark, and inserting these strips into any place where Claire gave thought to the past. There weren’t many strips of paper inserted.

    On page 433, Claire asks herself what she’s doing here ‘for the thousandth time’. But I saw no evidence of her asking this over and over in earlier scenes. On the next page, she talks about ‘which husband?’ as she has a jolt of panic and remembers her halfway-successful attempt to escape. There’s some reflection on her situation, and then she’s immersed back into the eighteenth-century present again.

    Sidelining the modern world helps immersion

    Keeping her past at bay does allow for greater immersion in the Jamie storyline. It means that there are fewer points of friction and interruption in the historical world, but it’s precisely that clash between modern and historical, between the two lives, that could have created greater internal conflict.

    In truth, she doesn’t really try hard enough to escape. When she finally has the opportunity to go through the stones, Frank has been largely absent for around 500 pages, so he’s distant to the reader and also to Claire. Which makes it conveniently easy for her to make her choice.

    Another thing that doesn’t get dealt with much is the absence of modern conveniences. Claire’s time with Uncle Lamb comes in handy here because it means she grew up used to being without modern amenities. But that might also be a missed opportunity in terms of showing the clash between twentieth century and eighteenth century.

    Weighing up narrative choices and outcomes

    I think I understand why the author made her choice. Had Claire been constantly thinking of home, her attention would have been less on those around her and the immersion in the eighteenth century could have been less powerful.

    Nevertheless, as I got to the halfway mark and beyond, I wondered what Frank’s absence was meant to signify. A weak marriage, a narrative choice to keep the plot rooted in the eighteenth century? Or maybe just addressing the basic problem of introducing Frank first, leading to the reader’s loyalty first going with him, and then running into a clash of loyalties later with Jamie. Sidelining Frank avoids this problem.

    I do think it comes at a price. There are character and psychological credibility issues, not to mention missed opportunities for internal conflict and interesting contrasts.

    Try putting yourself in her position. Ask yourself, how much will you miss your old life and the conveniences… not to mention your husband?

    And the dangers of this old eighteenth-century world must be all too obvious to Claire. Should she really want to stay there long while there’s a chance of getting away?

    Gabaldon went to the bother of setting up Frank and Claire at the beginning. He comes back in a later book, and maybe that was her real intention. To set him up because he won’t be around again for quite a while.


    I’ve not yet finished the book. It feels like it’s taking forever to read and I have to tackle it in chunks. There are also quite a few controversial scenes that reviewers have pointed out elsewhere. Relating to sexual and domestic violence. However, I was more interested in developmental issues. And it was this issue of Claire’s detachment from her modern past and past events in the eighteenth century that particularly stood out.

    I think the TV series makes a bit more effort with Claire’s past. Including a memorable scene of her picking plants to the tune of Run Rabbit Run. A great clash between two centuries that’s perhaps easier to achieve on screen.

    Another advantage of a screen adaptation is all the little visual clues and details – like a wobbly line of sewing machine stitches in series three. Claire, discovering Jamie didn’t die at Culloden, decides to go back to the past and transforms some of her modern clothing into something that would pass in the seventeen hundreds. She’s perhaps a better surgeon than she is a seamstress. Though she still does a great job.

    Character-related costume detail

    I might write more on Outlander, including some of the interesting visual aspects of the adaptation. If you haven’t seen the series, the costumes, locations, and cinematography are fabulous. But whether I read any more books in the series remains to be seen.

    In the meantime, another chunky historical novel worth reading is Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, also set in the eighteenth century. My review of the French Revolution epic is below.

  • A Place of Greater Safety

    Camille Desmoulins on the original cover

    A Place of Greater Safety: The Pre-Revolutionary Background:

    Louis XV is named the Well-Beloved. Ten years pass. The same people believe the Well-Beloved takes baths of human blood… Avoiding Paris, ever shut up at Versailles, he finds even there too many people, too much daylight. He wants a shadowy retreat….

    In a year of scarcity (they were not uncommon then) he was hunting as usual in the Forest of Senart. He met a peasant carrying a bier and inquired, ‘Whither he was conveying it?’ ‘To such a place.’ ‘For a man or a woman?’ ‘A man.’ ‘What did he die of?’ ‘Hunger.’ 
    (Jules Michelet)

    Sir Francis Burdett, British Ambassador, on Paris: ‘It is the most ill-contrived, ill-built, dirty stinking town that can possibly be imagined; as for the inhabitants, they are ten times more nasty than the inhabitants of Edinburgh.’

    Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety

    Winner of the 1992 Sunday Express Book of the Year Award, this French Revolution novel is a hugely ambitious work.

    It’s a complex narrative tapestry following three of the main characters of the revolution – Danton, Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins. We also hear from the women in their lives and other characters.

    Camille Desmoulins

    Camille (who appears on older covers of the novel as above) is in fact the lynchpin. Not just in terms of acting as a link between his more famous friends. But also in inciting the original riots that led to the storming of the Bastille.

    Mantel portrays him as a mercurial character: youthful, egotistical, neurotic, moody, arrogant, bisexual. And forever tossing his long dark hair in between writing furious articles against the old guard. He is courted by all sorts, politically and otherwise.

    Because of his beauty and diminutive size, most of the other characters try to protect him. Not always realising how sly and manipulative he really is. The rest want to murder him, or go to bed with him, or possibly both.

    He has his eye on an older woman, before making a cunning sideways shift to her daughter, Lucile.

    Danton, never a model of probity himself, suggests he might have both. Though Camille doesn’t mean to fall in love with his would-be mistress’s daughter, he does. But it’s also clear that he’s in love with Danton.


    Danton is, appropriately, a larger than life character – with a huge appetite for sex, women, food, conflict and dodgy dealings.

    While Camille stammers, Danton bellows, since he possesses the strongest pair of lungs in the Cordeliers district.

    He has a knack for always being somewhere else when the trouble starts. And his physical unattractiveness in no way impedes his appeal to women. Far from it, Camille’s young wife is thoroughly wound up about him. Much to Camille’s vicarious enjoyment.

    There’s a curious threesome thing going on throughout this novel. First with Camille chasing both the mother and daughter, then with his interest in Danton and young Lucile, and then Lucile’s attraction to both Camille and Danton. But it’s an underlying tension rather than something played out for real.


    Robespierre is a very different personality, and possibly the least well-drawn.

    Even by the end of the book, he’s something of an enigma.

    The novel begins when the three men are still young. Camille is four. Later, Camille attends Louis Le Grand school. There, Robespierre, who is a little older, takes charge of him.

    Camille, soon something of a celebrity at the school, is Robespierre’s first and only friend.

    Some of the other friends and opponents in the future revolutionary struggle are also students. Mantel includes a true event when the new king and queen pay a visit to the school. The pupils have waited in the rain for the royal couple to arrive. The scholarship boy has memorised his speech ready to greet them.

    But Marie Antoinette is bored. And the king orders the coach to leave even as the scholarship boy still recites his speech.

    ‘Never mind, de Robespierre,’ a priest commiserates, ‘it could have happened to anyone.’

    ~ A Place of Greater Safety

    No hint is given later that Robespierre ever dwelled on the incident. He’s portrayed as very much against the death penalty, a young lawyer of high principles.

    But it’s the extent to which he is willing to pursue his principles that’s the problem.

    He wonders if he could sacrifice a friend to his beliefs before he realises he has no friends.

    Then he remembers, he has Camille.

    The narrative threads come together

    While Robespierre begins his law career out in the provinces, Camille meets Danton in Paris. There they represent opposing sides in a court case.

    Camille tells Danton about his distant cousins – Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, and Antoine Saint-Just. The former, according to gossip, murdered his wife. The latter is currently in prison for stealing the family silver.

    Years later, Fouquier-Tinville will head the tribunal which tries Danton and his friends.

    And when Saint-Just finally appears, he’s worse than Robespierre in his po-faced political extremism. It’s hard to imagine him capable of any youthful indiscretions.

    However, he did once nurture ambitions to be a poet.

    Camille, who abandons law for writing and publishing, makes the fatal mistake of ridiculing some poetry Saint-Just sends him. A slight which Saint-Just never forgets.

    Narrative viewpoints

    Mantel takes an often wry omniscient view of her characters, but also allows them to speak for themselves.

    So Danton takes over the narrative in places, as does his wife Gabrielle. Camille’s would-be-mistress and eventual mother-in-law Annette is another viewpoint character, as is her daughter, Lucile.

    Sometimes the narrative is third person, sometimes first. Mantel also weaves in contemporary quotes and accounts from her real-life characters.

    She can also turn on a pin from a revolutionary cutting off someone’s head, to a London playbill on the very next page:

    18 August 1789

    At Astley’s Amphitheatre, Westminster Bridge
    (after rope-dancing by Signior Spinacuta)
    An Entire New and Splendid Spectacle


    From Sunday 12 July to Wednesday 15 July (inclusive)

    displaying one of the grandest and most extraordinary
    entertainments that ever appeared
    grounded on
    Authentic Fact

    Because of the complexity of the characters and events, there’s not much time spent on description. Some of the dialogue is written in script form.

    Marat looms on the edges of the book, huge and loathsome in appearance.

    The king is clueless about politics. He’s also subject to the stronger influence of his wife, Marie Antoinette. His cousin, the Duke of Orleans, is ambitious for the throne, and also manipulated and advised by his mistress.

    Choderlos de Laclos, the author of Dangerous Liaisons, is in the duke’s pay. He’s a spy and recruiter of useful people – like Camille.

    When the reader becomes complicit

    A Place of Greater Safety is not just an account of events leading up to the Terror. It also draws the reader into a compact with the characters.

    By making Danton and Camille attractive personalities, she seduces the reader into their dubious machinations. So that the reader themself ultimately colludes with them.

    Perhaps the most chilling scene in the book takes place once Danton, Camille and their friends are in power. They draw up a list of people who will be executed. Camille is left to bargain for the life of an ex-lover.

    Swept up in events, they have all moved beyond the point of no return.

    What these amusing, entertaining and seductive characters do in that room is nothing less than evil.

    And as Camille’s agitated father-in-law points out, Camille is now part of the new establishment.

    ‘You don’t understand, anyone who wants to make a revolution, has to make it against him.’

    ~ A Place of Greater Safety

    But Camille, ever one to risk political suicide, wakes up to reality. He turns on the Terror itself when he writes a tract comparing current events to Rome during the reign of the emperor Tiberius.

    Conditional Absolution

    The title of the novel’s penultimate chapter is Conditional Absolution. Camille partially redeems himself. But in doing so he pits himself against Saint-Just. And Robespierre, the man who once wondered whether he could ever sacrifice a friend for his principles.

    Danton’s fate is well known. As is Robespierre’s.

    Most people will not have heard of Camille and some of the other characters – don’t look them up on Wikipedia. Read the novel instead.

    It’s a fabulous account of good ideas gone bad.

    Mantel also spares plenty of humanity for all her characters. From Marie Antoinette needing to urinate before her execution, to the ridiculous but still likeable Duke Philippe of Orleans.

    However, there is a word of warning. The cast of characters is large and the book runs to almost 900 pages.

    A Place of Greater Safety will either defeat you or take over your life. For me, it’s quite possibly the best historical novel I’ve ever read.