Claire Beauchamp Randall is a WWII nurse who falls back in time to the late 1700s when she steps through a Stonehenge-esque circle of, well, stones.
In the 18th-century Scottish highlands, where she finds herself after her bit of time travel, she flees rapacious soldiers, finds new friends in a castle, and even meets a strapping young Scottish lad who is as skilled on the battlefield as he is in the bedroom (this dude's blood is always pumping). Claire marries young James Fraser and decides to stay in Scotland with him, and, at the close of the novel, she might even be having his baby. Do they make kilts in infant sizes?
When we first meet Claire she has just finished a four-year tour as a Royal Army nurse in World War II. She's moved to Scotland with her husband, Frank, to rebuild their lives, but their reconstruction takes a hiatus when Claire gets sucked two hundred years into the past by a stone circle. Don't you hate it when that happens?
Any other woman would probably be dead—or worse—within minutes of landing in the Scottish highlands, but Claire is quick-witted and resourceful. Plus, her knowledge of medicine makes her a valuable resource for Scottish soldiers to keep around. Bayonet wounds and dislocated limbs don't faze Claire at all.
Claire isn't your typical nurse, though. She also has a passion for botany, which really comes in handy during a time period when you can't just pop over to Walgreens for some Anusol to cure your hemorrhoids. Claire knows that a nice paste of groutweed is just what the doctor ordered for that, and she's open-minded about leeches and other homeopathic methods of healing. In this time, it isn't called homeopathy, either: it's just called staying alive.
It's good that Claire came from World War II instead of, say, today. She's a lot more practical, relying on her wits rather than her smartphone. Plus, having seen the horrors have battle, she's much less squeamish than any other civilian woman. And her salty mouth helps her fit in with the guys. Even in the 1940s, exclaiming "bloody f***ing hell" (1.111) at a tea party isn't atypical for nurse Claire.
Her practicality helps her survive. She marries Jamie to stay out of the hands of the cruel Jonathan Wolverton Randall, though it definitely doesn't hurt that Jamie's hot and a passionate lover to boot. But they're not just in it for the sex, although there is tons of that (pardon us while we take another cold shower…). They're always honest with each other, and not only does Claire tell Jamie that she's a time-traveler… he believes her. Go team.
A modern woman is just the type of woman for James Fraser. He doesn't need a woman who will sit at home and pop out kids—he needs a woman who will accompany him, nurse him, make him laugh, arouse him, and even kill for him. We can't imagine Jamie ending up with anyone else but Claire.
Of course, if their marriage were perfect, that would make for a boring book. Thankfully, Claire's modern mentality and Jamie's, shall we say, more traditional values, clash in very explosive ways. The most notable incident of this is in Chapter 22, technically called "Reckonings," but also known as the "Jamie beats Claire with a belt so hard that she can't ride a horse after, but she kind of likes it" chapter. No really—she even tells him she loves him later. Even Jamie doesn't quite get it, saying:
"Then I beat you half to death and tell ye all the most humiliating things have ever happened to me, and you say ye love me." (22.213)
Hey man, to each her own. Fetishes aside, though, in this chapter, Diana Gabaldon takes a Harlequin romance tradition—formerly dominant female submitting to dominant male—and explores it in an interesting way by making us see Jamie's perspective on the matter.
Claire really is in a different time period, and she put dozens of men's lives in danger by her actions—that's why Jamie beats her. He needs to make Claire understand that she's not living in her cushy life where she can screw up and no one dies. Whether there's another way for him to have done this other than through corporal punishment is sort of beside the point, since it works because Claire trusts Jamie's judgment.
And as well she should. He's an expert at survival in the Scottish highlands, and she quickly learns to defer to him for matters of survival, just as he learns to let her take care of him in all her mystical science-y ways. This demonstrates prudence on both of their parts, a willingness to forgo ego in favor of, well, not dying. So maybe it's prudence and survival instincts.
Claire acts as nurse, lover, and yes, even mother to Jamie, sometimes all at once. She takes care of him, but often gets fed up at his acting like a little boy, just wanting to run off and play instead of waiting to heal. Even after he almost dies, Claire says:
"I recognized the symptoms of returning health, and was glad of them, but was prepared to put up with only so much of this." (40.50)
This is exactly what Jamie needs: As a Scottish man, he's both man (especially in the bedroom) and boy who needs taken care of. In fact, the only way for Jamie to survive after being raped by Randall is to be treated by someone who is nurse, lover, and mother, all rolled into one—a complicated reality that Claire not only understands, but effectively navigates.
Claire nurses Jamie back to health, and then taunts him into having sex with her (just read it to see what we mean). They have a rough-and-tumble session in a monk's abbey of all places, and Jamie calls her "mother" after sex.
And it's not creepy. Or not too creepy; instead it's kind of sweet. Claire says, "Come then, come lay your head, man" (39.166) and cradles him to sleep. This doesn't come out of the blue. It all harkens back to a conversation Claire has with Jamie's sister, Jenny, back in Chapter 30, in which she says that sometimes men just need to go back into the womb in order to feel safe.
That's what Claire does best: She makes Jamie feel safe.