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