Waterstones has been selling Jane Harris’s The Observations at half price for the last month and, well, it’s been very hard on me. You see, I pass Waterstones every single day on my way home from the university library…and some days, it calls to me. Softly, insinuatingly it whispers: Vicky, Vicky. It wants to lure me off the beaten track, off the path leading homeward, into its airy conditioned coolness. It’s like a hyena in that way - it knows it just has to get me away from the rest of the pack and I’ll be defenceless. More than anything it wants to sell me Victorian pastiches in hardback. It knows me all too well; it makes me want to betray my terminally squeezed bank account and myself.
But I have resisted – huzzah! – and triumphed and haven’t bought a book in at least a month.* (And there you were thinking you were going to hear a tale of woeful bibliophilic weakness!…) Instead I got The Observations from the city library, from whence it came straight out of the cataloguing department and into my eager little hands. And it really was very enjoyable, being replete with all the things a Victorian pastiche should have – a buxom Irish maid with a dubious past; a beautiful, frail mistress with her own secrets; a vengeful ghost in a creaky attic; a verbosely-inclined parson and a miserly wannabe politician.
Our scene is the isolated, somewhat dilapidated Castle Haivers not far from Edinburgh; the year is 1863. (Incidentally, I thought the Scottish context would change the tone of the novel at first – the vast majority of the Victoriana I’ve read has been set in or around London – but it doesn’t really. It allows Harris to vary her accents and her scenery but otherwise we may as well be in Kent.) The buxom serving wench, also known as Bessy Buckley, is our charmingly earthy narrator and the novel itself comprises an account of her curious time as an “in-and-out girl” serving the lonely mistress of said Castle, Arabella. The text, Bessy elaborates, is specifically for the perusal of certain “discreet gentlemen” who would never (she is sure!) allow such a delicate document to come to publication.
At first it seems that Bessy is without guile; she starts so swiftly, so succinctly and without any of the usual flourishing:
“I had reason to leave Glasgow, this would have been about three four years ago, and I had been on the Great Road about five hours when I seen a track to the left and a sign that said ‘Castle Haivers’. Now there’s a coincidence I thought to myself, because here was I on my way across Scratchland to have a look at the Edinburgh castle and perhaps get a job there and who knows marry a young nobleman or prince.”
She doesn’t apologise for herself – for her poor punctuation, or her “rustic” patter – she doesn’t protest her unsuitability to set down her experiences. It feels like astonishing confidence. She tells us that she was 15 “with a head full of sugar” on the day she saw the sign for the Haivers estate(making the writing Bessy around 19 years old) and thought “she would have a quick skelly at the castle”, maybe find a place to sleep around there. But no sooner is she in the driveway than she sees a “woman running about the gravel drive and lawn. This way and that she went, waggling her hands in the air and every so often clapping.” Bessy suspects she might be a “gobaloon” before she sees the lady is chasing a pig; she runs over to offer her help and before she knows it has been employed as the Castle’s new “in and out girl”. It is something Bessy says in passing that particularly catches Arabella’s notice (for it is she) and leads her to offer the job: she has “seen a sign that said “Castle Haivers”. Evidently Bessy can *read* and, its quickly ascertained by the mistress, can write as well.
Her new employ is to involve all kinds of household tasks - she is to be the only servant - but most especially it is to involve writing and reading. Arabella gives Bessy a little account book and instructs her:
“This book is yours….I will see to it that you are taught everything you need to know about the work about the house. But in return, every night, I want you to take the time to write down what you have done in this book, from the moment you get up until the moment you go to bed, leaving nothing out.”
She also gives her a copy of Bleak House by Charles Dickens and open access to the Haiver’s library.
This isn't the end to Arabella's strangeness. There are more disconcerting tasks for Bessy in the weeks that follow – Arabella wakes her in the middle of the night, speaks to her in a curiously flat voice and orders her to make cocoa that she doesn’t want to drink. She asks her to sit down on a chair and then to stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down on her order. Bessy is understandably confused, but something about Arabella (perhaps her own vulnerability?) catches at her emotions: she begins to harbour a childish love for her mistress, like that for a mother, or a sister, or even, perhaps, a lover. She decides she would do anything for her, anything at all. And so when, a few weeks later, Arabella’s politically ambitious husband James comes home from business in Edinburgh, Bessy is jealous understandably.
Then while rummaging discontentedly in her mistress’s things one day she finds a notebook, entitled “Observations on the Habits and Nature of the Domestic Class in My Time” and filled up with discourses on how best to train a maid to obedience and domesticity. Bessy discovers, to her horror, that not only has Arabella’s attentive if bizarre behaviour all been part of her pet social experiment but also that her mistress knows about her own dark past. Because Bessy, it becomes clear, isn’t “Bessy” at all and she certainly isn’t a housemaid by trade. The section on her in Arabella’s Observations is all too clear, being subtitled “Bessy: The Most Particular Case of a Low Prostitute”. It’s contents are not flattering and, filled with a horrible sense of betrayal, Bessy decides upon a course of revenge. She’ll frighten her mistress a bit; she’ll pretend there is a ghost in the attic. She discovers that one of Arabella’s previous maids, indeed Arabella’s favourite and most promisingly obedient, was accidentally killed by a train the year before. Nora, she decides, will just have to come back from the dead…
The plot unfolds from there as Bessy’s fake haunting quickly becomes all too real and macabre and as Arabella descends into a state of extreme hysteria. Meanwhile the evidently mysterious events surrounding Nora’s death, and behind Bessy’s own flight from Glasgow are disclosed. Now it has to be said that all this is rather slow and that the ending turns out to be a little disappointing: too neat, too gentle, not the twist we might have been expecting. Certainly it’s fun and readable, but its also a little obvious in its revelations: Bessy in her retrospective eagerness to tell the story drops too many clues for us. We can make an educated guess at what’s behind it all from the mid-point.
Nevertheless, what makes The Observations a page-turner is Bessy herself. Not what happens to her, but what she is – how she works, how she thinks, how she discloses. She’s an excellent character study, peeled open by her own words. At first it’s her kooky voice that gets you, along with her good sense of humour. She peppers her writing with words like “banjaxed” and “gobaloon”; she has sound comic timing:
“I sat there for what felt like an age with a bucket in one hand and a great pink tittie in the other. It wasn’t my own tittie. It was the cows.”
Her punctuation is all her own (her commas are particularly arbitrary) and she often confuses her euphemisms: at one point she sits as still as a “scone” rather than a stone. And then it’s her own strong sense of how a book should be written that really grabs at you – she’s a reader in her own right after all and races through the Victorian classics that Arabella loans – she’s got her own rich ideas about tension, shocks and how a ghost story should run its course:
“Sure enough, when I slipped my hand inside the pocket my fingers closed around a small key. I slid it into the lock of the desk and turned it, then opened the drawer.
There was a dead baby in there! And some jam! And a tin whistle!
No there wasn’t really.
It was only a whole clatter of notebooks and a big old ledger…”
What looked like guilelessness at the beginning is actually storyteller’s cunning: she’s knows what to put in and what to leave out.
The narrative then is inherently suspect: how can we know Bessy is telling any of the truth? How can we know for example that the overly neat ending that niggled me isn’t all her sweet invention, a way of exonerating herself from any part in what looked like inevitable tragedy? Certainly we can’t trust anything she says about herself. Until the revelation in Arabella’s Observations we’ve had no real intimation of a sexually sordid past; we don’t know why she was hurrying away from Glasgow. At one point she accidentally reveals the nature of her edited narrative: she remembers how, on the walk to Castle Haivers, a boy about her own age dogged her for a while, making sexual advances. In the screened version of her text she recalls that she stamped on his foot and told him to “flip-off”. It’s only later that she makes casual reference to how she had to bite him when he had her down on the ground. Her nearly-rape is disturbingly glossed over. Similar obliquity surrounds her former life as a child prostitute, although the mental and emotional scars are evidently there. She has an innate fear of her mother and, when threatened with a return to Glasgow, is filled with self-loathing:
“As I stared into the dying embers of the fire, I kept on seeing a vision, like a picture of the future. There was me, down the Gallowgate, laying drunk in the filthy gutter and some brute in dirty clothes and big boots is stomping on me. And as he kicks me over onto my back, my face just visible behind the tangle of my hair, you can see that I am smiling. Smiling. Because I know that such treatment is more than I deserve.”
Of course, we can’t really trust that either. It might all be fiction. But then that’s the point of novels and tellingly, it’s those parts that move me and that seem emotionally real that I choose to believe in most. Harris has done a masterly job at questioning the function and limits of fiction and she has done it under the cunning, playful veil of the Victorian Gothic. I, like all readers both inside the book and outside it, have made my own choice about what I’ve just observed: subjective as that choosing inevitably must be, it certainly is enjoyable.
[*This is a big fat lie. I bought two books last Friday, three if you count the one I bought under the pretence of it being for Esther…but I continue to assert that they don’t count: they were second hand. They were Elizabeth Von Arnim’s The Enchanted April (because I’ve been having a bit of fetish for early 20th century women’s fiction), Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes (the one purportedly for Est) and an obscure little treatise: The Higher Education of Women (1866) by one Emily Davies. My purchase of the last one turns out to be a sound investment given that Amazon has it priced at £15.95 and I bought it for £1.99.]