I bought The Observations by Jane Harris during a conference held in my university. The local bookshop set a small stand there with some very interesting books and me, working for the university press, could not resist buying a book. I get a lot of review copies for which I am incredibly grateful, but buying yourself a book is one of the most pleasurable things to do.
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.
I was drawn to the book because of the cover, mainly because I thought it was the author’s portrait. I was wrong, it is the main character’s portrait and it is part of series that does the same which is both innovative and very interesting. I like the freedom books give me to imagine characters, so this was a bold decision by the publishers. Having said that, I did not imagine Bessy as the young woman portrayed in the cover, mainly because she is said to have brown hair and the portrait shows a red-headed woman. Another reason I bought the book is because the description reminded me of my beloved Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. I do not know why I keep buying books that remind me of my favourite readings, but I have found myself doing this of lately. Time will tell if it is a good buying strategy.
having those two reasons to read the book in mind did not help me enjoy it. I should have sat to read with an open mind and be thankful of the story Harris wants to tell. Although Bessie is a mysterious young girl, she is not Grace and she does not need to be. She has her own story and now that some weeks have gone by, I appreciate her journey. Harris’ story is an everyday one: this is how servants lived, or at least some of them, and theirs is probably not a well-known tale. Bessie is a young, intelligent woman who had grown up without money and enduring more than any kid should. On the contrary, her mistress, Arabella, has led a comfortable life. However, both women will find themselves enduring life at Castle Hivers.
The relationship between Arabella and Bessie becomes central to the pot and together they explore key issues for 19th century women, especially madness. At a time when women were taught to desire marriage and maternity, Arabella proves society that she is capable of much more than that and Bessie begins a journey of self-discovery and improvement by her side. Harris explores literacy, creating a daily habit of reading and writing and how both activities were considered masculine, and therefore unsuitable for women. Hand-by-hand comes the creation of a female madness that tries to ostracize those women who did not meet the normative life created for them as wives and mothers.
I only gave the book 3 stars at Goodreads because although it was an interesting story, I did not enjoy it much. I do recommend The Observations to anyone who likes learning about everyday life and domesticity in 19th century Scotland.