Ah, February! The month of love, romance, chocolates, and roses. Sentimental ballads fill the air, engagement rings are presented on bended knee, and promises of love are whispered by blushing lips, freshly kissed. But the fairy tale doesn’t happen for everyone. Outlander celebrates the love of its two main characters, but there is another who was not as lucky in love.
How does it work out for some and not for others? Finding the love of your life, I mean. Some people get lucky, like Claire and Jamie. They lose and find each other over and over again, across centuries! But what happens when it doesn’t work out? How do you bury the pain you feel for someone you’ve loved and lost? How do you endure solitude and loneliness without the love of your life, the one you thought you’d be with forever?
One Highlander makes a valiant effort, and through the grace of human frailty offers up a wee keek into his personal heartache. There’s not much to go on, but that makes speculation all the more fascinating. What happened? Who am I talking about? The one, the only, Murtagh Fitzgibbons Fraser.
The love of Murtagh’s life was Ellen MacKenzie. Yes, that MacKenzie – sister to Colum and Dougal. We learn of Murtagh’s love for her via snippets that come and go so quickly they’re easy to miss. You have to be on your toes, observant, and tuned in to Murtagh’s facial expressions, guarded as they may be. He keeps his love and heartache for Ellen hidden safely beneath that gruff exterior. So, let’s see what snippets we can find and where they take us. I did a lot of stop/rewind/play, but it was worth it.
Before Jamie and Claire are married, Jamie asks Murtagh what he thinks of her (Mistress Beauchamp). Murtagh replies simply, “She’ll do.” But those two words carry huge emotional weight. Murtagh’s endorsement of Claire as a wife to Jamie (and a glimpse of Murtagh’s enduring love for Ellen) comes when he holds Jamie’s brooch in his hand and says, “Your mother had the sweetest smile. Would warm a man to the backbone just to see it. Claire’s smile is just as sweet.” Ellen is still on Murtagh’s mind and in his heart. You see that pang of love and loss in Murtagh’s eyes as his emotions come to the surface, and then disappear just as quickly. So many years have passed and it still hurts. Broken hearts never really heal. You bandage it as best you can and carry on. You don a mask and build a wall around your shattered dreams.
Why did Ellen choose Brian Fraser over Murtagh? Perhaps Murtagh didn’t tell Ellen of his feelings for her and his “show, not tell” method didn’t do it for Ellen. Haven’t we all been there? Admiring from afar, wondering if it’s even possible for “that someone” to feel the same way about you as you feel for them. Was he afraid Ellen would reject him? What could he do (if anything) to win her heart? Murtagh throws caution to the wind, much like we’d do today, hitting the “send” button on that email you really don’t want to send, but you have to know, one way or another. Perhaps it’s a phone call or that dreaded meeting in person. Existing in limbo becomes more painful than probable heartbreak. You’re pretty sure it’s not going to be good news, but at least you know where you stand and can brace yourself for the physical heartache that’s bound to follow.
So, back to the “throwing caution to the wind,” Murtagh style. During the MacKenzie gathering, Murtagh kills a wounded boar with just a dagger to prove his bravery to Ellen, “to prove myself worthy of her – be the kind of man she desired.” An amazing feat, which should have sent a clear message to Ellen, but it wasn’t enough to win her love. My romantic heart gets a little mad at Ellen here, then I remind myself that it’s a work of fiction and events have to play out the way Diana Gabaldon intended. But a part of me wants to know what it was about Murtagh that made him not good enough in Ellen’s eyes. I’d have married him in a New York minute! At any rate, Murtagh has the boar’s tusks made into bracelets and gives them to Ellen as a wedding present. Painful as it might have been to watch, I would have loved to been a fly on the wall. Where did he give them to her and what did he say? How did Ellen respond?
In “The Watch,” Jenny gives the bracelets to Claire and tells her, “Someone gave them to Mother as a wedding gift, but she never would say who. My father used to tease her now and then about her admirer, but she wouldna tell him, either, just smiled like a cat that’s had cream for its supper.” Is it possible that Ellen had a warm spot in her heart for Murtagh? If he knew, would it have brought him any comfort? If he saw her wearing them, might she be thinking of him? He gave it all he had, but it wasn’t enough. He has no choice but to carry on and hide his feelings from those who might whisper, wonder, and pry. Is the surly, gruff exterior we see in Murtagh a cloak to cover his pain and heartache? Is it a protection mechanism he uses to ward off future emotional attachments? It’s easier to make yourself unavailable than to risk further damage to an already broken heart. Force yourself to focus elsewhere and pretend it doesn’t matter.
Another sliver of love shows itself when Murtagh lets down his guard to Claire when they stop for the night in their search for Jamie, who’s been captured by the redcoats. She makes the mistake of accusing Murtagh of never losing someone he’s loved. Murtagh rails against Claire and during their heated exchange, he reveals his love for Ellen (although he never speaks her name). Claire realizes who Murtagh is referring to when he tells her the story of the boar and the tusk bracelets, which she has with her. “I lost someone at the MacKenzie gathering, many years ago,” he confides to Claire. Time passes, but the pain is slow to ease and, in some cases, never does.
Murtagh shields his broken heart by compartmentalizing people in his life where love and/or affection are concerned. It makes it easier to cope, interact with them, and not be caught off guard. Compartmentalizing enables a person to control how far a relationship will be allowed to progress – perhaps only friendship will do, if that. Protecting your heart may not include exchanges with the opposite sex beyond polite conversation, which you expertly steer away from anything personal or emotional. Friend requests on Facebook are deleted, emails go unanswered, and phone numbers are changed. It’s all driven by fear and pain, and it’s a mighty beast to conquer.
Still, Murtagh’s a living, breathing male who has desires and an eye for the lasses. It’s more superficial and probably more lust than love. Suzette, Claire’s maid, is the lucky recipient of his attention, but they appear more like friends with benefits rather than a relationship with any depth that has the capacity to endure. Murtagh appears interested enough to ask Fergus about Suzette, but when Fergus infers that Suzette has a steady stream of visitors, Murtagh knows into what compartment she fits, and the wall surrounding Murtagh’s heart grows a bit taller and stronger. It looks like Ellen will remain the sole occupant of the “love of my life” section.
Murtagh offers to wed Mary Hawkins to give her and her unborn child a life away from Black Jack Randall. It’s a noble gesture, but Murtagh’s not in love with Mary. He’s doing the honorable, Highlander thing (separate compartment). It was a spur of the moment decision, and Murtagh’s not exactly the kind of guy that would take to domestic life. To his credit, the offer was made in good faith, revealing a Murtagh that can still love at some level, on his terms, within his comfort zone. Claire comes up with a better financial solution for Mary and Murtagh agrees. Still, the idea of it makes me wonder if Murtagh and Mary could have made a go of it.
So what’s to do? Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” I’m not so sure – I’m still puzzling that one out.