The Observations by Jane Harris

Victorian sensation from the maid’s perspective…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Bessy Buckley may be young in years but her hard and sordid upbringing means she’s old in experience. Fleeing from her hometown of Glasgow in search of a better life, she finds herself more or less accidentally taking a job as maid at Castel Haivers, the home of Arabella Reid and her husband James, halfway along the road to Edinburgh. Arabella is young, beautiful and kind, and the affection-starved Bessy is soon devoted to her new mistress. But the job has some strange requirements, such as that Bessy must keep a journal of her actions and thoughts every day, and show it to Arabella on demand. Soon Bessy finds she’s not the first maid to whom Arabella has shown peculiar attention; in particular there was a girl named Nora, who died in circumstances that seem to cast a dark shadow over the household…

In some ways, this is a take on the Victorian sensation novel complete with touches of Gothic horror, insanity, shocking deaths and so on. But what makes it feel fresh is the perspective of Bessy, our narrator. She’s both feisty and vulnerable, strong but sometimes unsure of herself, devoted to but clear-sighted about the flaws of her mistress. She’s learned to take care of herself in a world that hasn’t shown her much care and has retained the capacity to love, despite love having been in short supply in her brief life to date.

However, it’s Bessy’s voice that is so special – a real tour-de-force from Harris in recreating an entirely credible dialect and slang for that place and time. Bessy (like the author) is Irish originally, as were so many Glaswegians, and I loved the way Harris managed to give her language an authentic touch of Glasgow-Irish at points. Contrary to popular belief I wasn’t around in 1863 when the book is set, but a lot of the dialect words and speech mannerisms are familiar from my youth, and the pawky, irreverent, occasionally bawdy sense of humour is just about perfect. I’ve seen non-Scots say they found it a bit tricky at first to get used to the language, but for me it was as natural as listening to people who were elderly when I was a child. It’s not overdone – it’s more the rhythms and style that make it work rather than excessive use of specifically Scots vocabulary.

Jane Harris

The story itself unfolds slowly and perhaps stays a bit low-key to really compete with true sensation novels. But I liked this more realistic approach and found the whole thing stayed very well within the range of credibility. It takes us to some dark places, not least in Bessy’s childhood, but Bessy isn’t the type to wallow – she prefers to shut her mind off to the bad memories as much as she can, and her resilience and strength make her an extremely likeable protagonist to spend time with. She’s not always wise in her actions but her intentions are usually good, and she’s hard on herself when she gets things wrong. There are some nicely spooky moments and plenty of drama to keep things ticking along, but the main joy is in the language and characterisation. While we get to know Bessy intimately, Arabella is more enigmatic – perhaps the reader understands her a little better than Bessy does. Again Harris is very skilled at playing into the reader’s expectations of this type of novel while leaving Bessy struggling to understand the psychological forces at play – the intellectual and physical repression of women, the Victorian tropes of hysteria and insanity, the Gothic horror of candlelit gloom and Freudian dream sequences, the hints of unacknowledged lesbian desire, etc.

I might have criticised it, as some have, for being a little too long and drawn-out for its content, but I enjoyed Bessy’s voice so much that I never found it dragging and would happily have stayed in her company for as long as she liked. Loved it, and will be seeking out more of Harris’ work – highly recommended!

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Book 11 of 20

44 thoughts on “The Observations by Jane Harris

    • It’s hugely enjoyable – I kinda wish there was a Bessy series. I just looked up the audiobook and discovered Jane Harris read it herself and has given Bessy a much more Irish accent than Glaswegian, though, but because of all the crossovers between Glasgow and Ireland, there’s not much difference when it’s written down. It’s actually made me realise just how much Glaswegian has been influenced by Irish dialect.

      • I have Scottish ancestors who came here from Northern Ireland and I’ve not been able to trace that journey from Scotland to Ireland. I’d like to understand more about movements back and forth between Scotland and Ireland.

        • It all seems to be very confusing – there was a lot of coming and going depending on where work was available at any point in time, so that it’s quite hard sometimes to pin down whether ancestors were Scottish or Irish. My mother’s family went over and back about three times over two generations, changing the spelling of their name from the Irish to the Scottish and back too – as a result I have no idea how much Irish blood I have… if any! But we’ve always thought of ourselves as about a quarter Irish.

          • I’ve just finished listening to an audio version of The Observations, wonderfully read by Jane Harris herself. I loved the story for everything you described in your review, and for the narrator’s capacity to give individual and (in my uninformed experience) authentic voices to each character creating a rich story world with engaging (or repelling) characters. Like you, I was sorry to leave Bessy’s company.

            • Oh, I’m so glad you loved it too! I listened to the sample of the audiobook back when I was reviewing this and thought she sounded great, so I’m pleased to hear you were impressed. I must get hold of a copy sometime – I think it would be one that could be even better as a listen, especially for people who maybe don’t “hear” the accents in their minds as they read. As usual, I still haven’t got around to reading any of her other stuff… maybe next year!

        • Christine, your ancestors probably were from what today we call Northern Ireland – if you look at a map you can see just how close the Scottish coast was to Ireland in the north.

          • Yes, I think people from the South often went to Liverpool rather than Glasgow, though I have a feeling religion came into it too – didn’t it always?? My mother’s family were Catholic, so seemed to head to and from Dublin rather than the North as far as I can work out.

  1. This sounds like my kind of novel, especially if the Scottish speech seems authentic, and we don’t have to put up with any form of the flimmy-flammy heroine common to actual Victorian Sensation Fiction.

    • Ooh, I just looked up the Audible book to see who narrated it and it’s the author herself! She sounds excellent on the sample too. However, I notice she’s given Bessy a much more Irish accent than Glaswegian, though, but because of all the crossovers between Glasgow and Ireland, there’s not much difference when it’s written down. It’s actually made me realise just how much Glaswegian has been influenced by Irish dialect.

  2. I’ve always thought that particular language patterns are really effective way to show-not-tell about characters, FictionFan, and it sounds as though that’s done very well here. The story sounds interesting, too! And that sounds like such an interesting perspective from which to tell the story. Hmm….may have to add this one to the *whispers* TBR.

    • Dialect and slang are such hard things to get right, especially in historical fiction, but when an author succeeds then it really adds so much to the story! I loved that she used the maid’s perspective too, especially such an irreverent one as Bessy – so much fun seeing her observations of her social “betters”. Haha – go on! I promise I won’t tell anyone… 😉

    • It was my first too but now I’m really keen to read her other books. Bessy’s voice is great and her attitude is so irreverent – her observations of her social “betters” are lots of fun. 😀

  3. I’m torn. The plot sounds wonderful, but I’m a bit hesitant about the dialogue as well as its slow beginning. I just finished a long, drawn out story, so it might not be the right time for me to consider this!

    • It’s always hard to judge when it’s your own dialect, but I really didn’t think this would be hard for non-Scots – it would maybe just take a few pages to tune into the rhythms, I think. It sat on my TBR for eight years, so maybe you’ll get to it one day too… 😀

  4. Hmm this sounds like a really good book-I think i’d like it too. Especially bc it’s gothic 🙂 Tell me, what’s your definition of ‘sensation’ novel? I’ve never heard that term but I feel like I should know what it is…

    • Sort of Victorian Gothic, with maidens in peril and evil villains and mysterious spooky happenings that are usually human rather than ghosts. Oh and lunacy! Characters who are mad, characters who’re driven mad, characters who get locked up in asylums even though they’re not mad… 😀 Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White is one, and things like The Castle of Otranto and The Mysteries of Udolpho.

  5. Oh, this sounds great! I have spent quite a lot of time in Glasgow because one of my best friends is married to a Glaswegian, so hopefully the dialect wouldn’t be too difficult to get into, even though that’s something that normally puts me off in books. And the story sounds wonderful!

    • I don’t think the dialect should cause you any problems, and Bessy is such a great character to get to know. The main story takes place a few miles outside Glasgow, but some of the flashbacks of Bessy’s earlier life are set there, and she gives a great picture of the seedier side of the city. If you get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! 😀

  6. Glad you enjoyed this! I loved it too and don’t remember finding it too long or drawn-out at all. I can highly recommend Gillespie and I, which I thought was even better and even more like a Victorian sensation novel.

    • I loved Bessy as a character – she’s so well done, and so likeable! Oh, thanks – I was wondering what one to go for next, so I’ll stick Gillespie and I on my wishlist. I do love a bit of sensation… 😀

    • I think you’ll enjoy it – Bessy is so much fun, and I loved the way Harris used all the sensation conventions but with a feisty heroine rather than a swooning one!

  7. I’m in a minority it seems in that I didn’t love this book. In fact I found myself half way through before realising I had already read it once before – that shows you how little impact it made on me. Even now I couldn’t tell you what the plot was about. Gillespie and I was a far better, more memorable novel for me

    • I suspect if I hadn’t loved Bessy’s voice so much I might have felt the story was a bit understated for a sensation novel. But there’s something so wonderful about an author getting your own dialect and humour right, isn’t there? I’m sure that’s a huge part of what made me love this so much. I’m really looking forward to getting to Gillespie and I now… 😀

  8. I read Gillespie and I for a book club and it evoked seriously strong responses from the various members. Most people hated it! I liked it. Though it was very long and I could see where it was going, I enjoyed the ride and the voice very much. So this one interestes me. There would appear to be overlaps – other than in the protagonists who seem very different indeed. I didn’t care for Gillespie’s narrator (can’t recall her name); Bessie sounds much more fun! I am very tempted. And add my recommendation re Gillespie – though I’m going to take a punt and suggest that you won’t like it as much as this one!

    • Ooh, intriguing! Now I want to read it even more to see if you’re right! 😀 Bessy is great – I loved her imperfections and her humour. I’m quite sure it was that aspect that made me not mind the book being a bit longer than it should have been. So if I find I don’t like the Gillespie narrator as much, it could easily make me more critical… 😱

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