Summary and book reviews of The Observations by Jane Harris

The Observations

by Jane Harris

The Observations by Jane Harris X
The Observations by Jane Harris
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2006, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2007, 416 pages

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Book Summary

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.

My missus she often said to me, 'Now then Bessy, don't be calling me missus.' She said this especially when the minister was coming for his tea.

My missus wanted me to call her 'marm' but I always forgot. At first I forgot by accident and then I forgot on purpose just to see the look on her face.

My missus was always after me for to write things down in a little book. She give me the book and pen and ink the day I arrived. 'Now then Bessy,' says she, 'I want you to write down your daily doings in this little book and I'll take a look at it from time to time.' This was after she found out I could read and write. When she found that out her face lit up like she'd lost a penny and found sixpence. 'Oh!' says she, 'and who taught you?' And I told her it was my poor dead mother, which was a lie for my mother was alive and most likely blind drunk down the Gallowgate as usual and even if she was sober she could barely have wrote her own name on a magistrates summons. But ...

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About the Book

When she runs away from Glasgow in the early 1860s, departing so precipitously that she leaves her overcoat behind, teenage Bessy Buckley knows all too well the sordid, ugly life she is leaving behind. However, not even her own powerful imagination can prepare her for the strange new life that awaits her. Through Bessy's narrative, which she relates with both gritty humor and heartrending pathos, the reader enters the world and mind of a Victorian working-class girl and shares in her none-too-gentle passage toward self-knowledge and independence.

Chance and necessity combine to lead Bessy to accept work as a maidservant at the country estate of James Reid, a self-absorbed petty aristocrat bent on ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

A brilliantly spirited first novel set in Victorian Scotland that parodies the sensationalist fiction of the Victorian era - think Wilkie Collins with a dry and dark sense of humor...continued

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Media Reviews

The Guardian - Liz Hoggard
Refreshingly, the main arc of the book isn't a romance. Bessy, we sense, has already had a lifetime of sex. What she craves is understanding. In many ways, the novel is about the act of writing - and the escape it represents for women. When Arabella first asks her maid about her thoughts, Bessy writes in her diary, half-scandalised, half-thrilled: 'What are you thinking of? What a thing to say. In my entire life, nobody had ever asked me such a question.'

The Independent - Catherine Taylor
As the title implies, this is a book about watching and being watched, writing and being written about..... The supreme controller of this sumptuous narrative is Bessy herself, arch manipulator to the end, as she - and Harris - effortlessly show how compelling a rattling good story can be.

The Times
Bessy Buckley can hold her head up with Moll Flanders and Becky Sharp as a living, breathing mortal .. her speech is is peppered with happy similes, drawn from the slums of Dublin and Glasgow .. What one takes away is Bessy Buckley's earthy voice, clear as a bell, ringing out her tale of love, loss and redemption.

The Observer (UK)
Harris is already being spoken about in the same breath as Sarah Waters and Michel Faber. In Bessy, she has created a bawdy, picaresque character who holds our attention for more than 400 pages. The Observations combines the best qualities of literary fiction with page-turning accessibility.

Sunday Herald (Glasgow)
I wept at the end of this brilliant first novel because I was so moved at the way Jane Harris sustains the vivacity, eloquence and pathos of her tale. Comparisons might well be made with Michel Faber and other writers who have turned to the Victorian cat's cradle of social and sexual tensions for context. But Harris' exploration of this territory is unique, not least in the ebullience of the language that issues from Bessy Buckley's errant Irish tongue. Bessy is an unforgettable character .. her observations bring extraordinary verve and veracity to the novel .. These are Harris's raw materials: obsession, domination, transgressive love and above all sexuality, repressed and otherwise. Harris has distilled these themes into a superbly uncorseted evocation of life in Victorian Scotland that never falters.

Scotland on Sunday
The Observations is an astonishing imaginative feat, brilliantly written in bravura, bawdy style ... Harris' richy comic, deeply touching novel is destined to be one of the publishing sensations of the year ... what makes it such a thrilling read is Harris' lively language and sheer love of words.

Publishers Weekly
Sharp, funny and tender-hearted.....[Harris] manages the pace, period and book-within-a-book conceit nicely.

Booklist - Kristine Huntley
[Harris's] unique, witty voice distinguishes this boisterous novel.

Kirkus Review
A confident, fresh, roguishly charming first work.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Household servants in Victorian Times

According to The Victorian Web if a Victorian household could afford only one servant it would likely be a 'general' maid-of-all-work (usually a girl of 13 or 14) similar to the role Bessy takes on. Next would come a house-maid or nurse-maid, followed by a cook. Only once this female trio was in place would the first manservant be employed, usually with indoor and outdoor responsibilities, such as waiting and valeting and care of the horse and carriage. To maintain a household staff at this level would have taken about £500 in 1857. If more servants could be afforded the roles of the household would become increasingly more specialized - such as a dedicated ladies-maid, kitchen-maid, nursemaid, butler, coachman etc.

In the list of...

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