The Observations by Jane Harris
A powerful story of secrets and suspicions, hidden histories and mysterious disappearances set in Victorian Scotland.
Scotland, 1863. In an attempt to escape her not-so-innocent past in Glasgow, Bessy Buckley—a wide-eyed and feisty young Irish girl—takes a job as a maid in a big house outside Edinburgh working for the beautiful Arabella—the "missus." Bessy lacks the necessary scullery skills for her new position, but as she finds out, it is her ability to read and write that makes her such a desirable property. Bessy is intrigued by her new employer but puzzled by her increasingly strange requests and her insistence that Bessy keep a journal of her mundane chores and most intimate thoughts. And it seems that the missus has a few secrets of her own, including her near- obsessive affection for Nora, a former maid who died in mysterious circumstances.
Giving in to her curiosity, Bessy makes an infuriating discovery and, out of jealousy, concocts a childish prank that backfires and threatens to jeopardize all that she has come to hold dear. Yet even when caught up in a tangle of madness, ghosts, sex, and lies, she remains devoted to Arabella. But who is really responsible for what happened to her predecessor Nora? As her past threatens to catch up with her and raise the stakes even further, Bessy begins to realize that she has not quite landed on her feet.
The Observations is a brilliantly original, endlessly intriguing story of one woman’s journey from a difficult past into an even more disturbing present, narrated by one of the most vividly imagined heroines in recent fiction. This powerful story of secrets and suspicions, hidden histories and mysterious disappearances is at once compelling and heart-warming, showing the redemptive power of loyalty and friendship. A hugely assured and darkly funny debut, The Observations is certain to establish Jane Harris as a significant new literary talent.
"The Observations" was the book set by my book group in March. It was the first piece of writing by Jane Harris that I had read. I read a paper back edition that was 521 pages - as far as I was concerned it was 500 pages too long! It is set in Scotland in 1863. It is told in the first person by the heroine Bessy Buckley, a feisty young Irish girl. She takes a job as a maid in a big house outside Edinburgh working for Arabella. She thinks Arabella is very beautiful and she refers to her as "the missus". Bessy lacks scullery skills required in her new position, but it is really because of her ability to read and write that she is employed. Bessy is intrigued by her employer but puzzled by her strange requests and the requirement that Bessy keep a journal of her daily chores and her innermost thoughts. The missus has a few secrets of her own, including her affection for Nora, a former maid who died in mysterious. circumstances.
Giving in to her curiosity, Bessy makes a discovery and plans a childish prank that backfires. Yet although she becomes caught up in a tangle of madness, ghosts, sex, and lies, her devotion to Arabella remains strong. Bessy wants to know who was responsible for what happened to Nora. "The Observations" is generally accepted to be a brilliantly original and intriguing story and may well establish Jane Harris as a significant new literary talent.
However, I considered it to be overly long. It contained a great deal of unnecessary graphic detail and repetition. The description of mental health care in the 19th century was either poorly researched or fabricated. Also the ending, where the whole story is re-explained in the last 20 pages or so, was weak. I found the book bitterly disappointing. It did not live up to its reviews.
Jane Harris is a British writer of fiction and screenplays. She has written many short stories that have appeared in anthologies, but her first novel, "The Observations", was short listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007 and the UK book store Waterstones, has chosen her as one of its 25 Authors for the Future.
She was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and spent her early childhood there before her parents moved to Glasgow, Scotland. When she left school she studied English Literature and Drama at Glasgow University, then trained as an actress in London, England.