So, Season 4 of Outlander on Starz debuted back in November and this is my first post for the season. This season is based on Diana Gabaldon’s fourth Outlander book Drums of Autumn which sees our heroes, Scottish Highlander Jamie Fraser and his twentieth century time-traveling wife Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser, settling in Colonial America in North Carolina in the mid-1760’s. The drum beats of the American Revolutionary War are beginning to be heard in the distance with only Claire really knowing what’s to come. In the present day era of the #MeToo movement, women’s empowerment, racial equality and the intersectionality of all of the above – this season is quite timely. There are those who think that there is some kind of political agenda on the part of the producers to push a “woman first” narrative, and to be too PC about the Native Americans. But, the series is based on the book, which was published in 1996. While I don’t intend to get political in this post beyond this paragraph, our American history is fraught with these uncomfortable topics. Women were chattel and even those of wealth and privilege held little to no property or actual power even when they did. Native Peoples were treated as savages, called savages, and they did, in fact, fight back against their diminishing world. Slaves were held and laws were enacted to maintain the “peculiar institution” for as long as possible. Into all this is drops a woman (and, spoiler alert, eventually her daughter) who left the twentieth century in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s respectively, at the height of the roiling Women’s and Civil Rights movements. And through all that, we’re seeing a production which is being produced in the 21st Century at a time where all of these issues remain as front and center as ever. We can’t help but feel, as Claire does, uncomfortable at the depictions of slavery and her inability to actually circumvent it. We have to look at the treatment of Native People for what it was – European people looking for opportunity and a better life moved into a new place and pushed out those who were there because they saw them as “less than”. There was great violence coming from all sides. It was a time of great promise and accomplishment for some and just the opposite for others. The history of the world was ever thus, I suppose.
Enter River Run.
In the story, Jamie’s Auntie Jocasta MacKenzie Cameron (younger sister to his dear late mother) is the mistress of a large plantation called River Run on the Cape Fear River, near Cross Creek, North Carolina. In the story, the plantation was purchased by her third husband, Hector Cameron, in 1746 after they immigrated from Scotland and it produces timber, pitch, turpentine, tobacco and indigo. It’s a large and successful plantation with over 100 slaves and Jocasta is one of the wealthiest women around. She’s formidable, despite her widowhood, advancing age and blindness.
Outlander’s production designer Jon Gary Steele has had quite a vast array of sets and settings to create over the course of the series. Filmed primarily in Scotland, each season has seen very different stage sets. Season 1 was primarily Scotland in the 1740’s and 1940’s. Season 2 moved to the opulent Paris of the 1740’s into the seat of political power and nobility, including scenes at Versailles. Season 3 encompassed twenty years in the mid-twentieth century Boston, 18th century Scotland, and the West Indies. (You can read all my past Outlander posts here.) And Season 4 has a smattering of twentieth century Scotland and the US, but is mostly set in North Carolina of the 1760’s. Jamie and Claire are settling Fraser’s Ridge, 10,000 acres in the wilderness of the mountains of North Carolina. So those sets are naturally quite simple and homespun. In other words, they are beautifully done, but not so much fun to write about.
The River Run set is an interesting take on the lifestyle of the wealthy plantation owner class of colonial American south. One that surprised me, to be honest. The sets are clearly designed to showcase how wealthy and successful River Run is. This is the height of 18th century design – in Europe. But, I can’t help but wonder how truly accurate it is for Colonial America. (More on that to come.)
The bedroom features a whole lotta imported silk. And the gray painted woodwork and trim… hmmm… heavy.
Jocasta throws a party to introduce Jamie and Claire to her neighbors. She intends to make Jamie her heir and put him up as the public face of River Run – whether he’s interested or not. Claire is absolutely not interested in owning slaves and Jamie comes to understand and agree with her views on the subject.
And a refreshing moment on the veranda with Jamie and Jocasta.
So, the River Run sets are undoubtedly gorgeous. But, do they feel right for a hot climate? And for Colonial America where so much had to be imported at great cost? After all, furniture capital of the US, Hickory, North Carolina, wasn’t yet a thing. On initial watching, I kept mentally comparing them to historic Colonial house museums here in Massachusetts. Given the climate differences, one expects Boston to have darker, heavier interiors. But North Carolina? Then, I wondered if the sets were created as an homage to the Cameron’s Scottish background – where things would definitely be heavier due to the colder climate. The Lallybroch sets are an example of this.
While researching this, I came across this quote from Jon Gary Steele:
When we first designed River Run, I had imagined it with pale, cool colors from looking at hundreds of plantation houses, but once we got closer, I changed my mind as pale colors just don’t feel Outlander to me.
The tobacco-inspired walls actually have about seventeen layers of paint on them, with a red base, building towards the depth of color of dried tobacco leaves, to show how the estate made its money.
Jocasta was very wealthy so I wanted her house to reflect that. She has a number of slaves so everything is very shiny and polished. The fabulous teal, floral, silk damask fabric that we have used for her chairs and sofas was the inspiration for the rest of the color palette of the house, so the house has balance and beauty.
I also went back to the book and searched for Diana Gabaldon’s descriptions of River Run. (This is where Kindle versions of books comes in very handy!)
River Run was an “imposing two-storied house, colonnaded and multichimneyed. The house was spacious and airy inside, with high ceilings and wide French doors in all the downstairs rooms. I caught a glimpse of silver and crystal as we passed a large formal dining room, and thought that on the evidence, Hector Cameron must have been a very successful planter indeed. The house and all its furnishings were simple but well crafted, beautiful, and arranged with something more than just taste.”
Various quotes from: Gabaldon, Diana. Drums Of Autumn (Outlander, Book 4) (Kindle Location 3504). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
So, clearly Steele, and this season’s set decorator Stuart Bryce, chose not to go with Diana’s description. I’m torn. I’m all for artistic license, I really am. I don’t believe that an adaptation, which this series is, has to follow the book letter for letter. I’m actually annoyed as all get out by the viewership/book fandom who whines about every wrong height or eye color of the actors, or changes to the story line. But… hmm…
What do you think?
In my next post, I am going to do a compare and contrast between these sets and the actual historic house museums of two very important contemporaries – both of whom are “characters” in the books. Can you guess who?