Synopses & Reviews
An extraordinary historical novel about a peculiar friendship between the mistress of a Scottish estate and her irresistibly appealing housemaid.
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.
"Bessy Buckley comes upon Castle Haivers on her way to Edinburgh in 1863. An Irish girl, she's in 'Scratchland' to improve her station, and ends up a scullery maid to a strange, lovely mistress, Arabella Reid (on whom she develops something of a crush), despite her lack of experience. Bessy's discovery of Arabella's book, The Observations, which she is writing about servants she's had and their cooperativeness, tests her loyalty to Arabella ('the missus') five-fold and sets in motion a tragedy (complete with supernatural elements). Bessy learns that being above-stairs is no guarantee of happiness, and others may have as much to hide as she does. Sharp, funny and tender-hearted, Bessy is an accomplishment for Londoner and first-time novelist Harris, who also manages the pace, period and book-within-a-book conceit nicely. (June 19)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Bessy's unique, witty voice distinguishes this boisterous novel." Booklist
"[An] entertaining debut....Rollicking and engaging. A confident, fresh, roguishly charming first work." Kirkus Reviews
"The Observations is a deliriously captivating tale of sex, ghosts, lies and mysteries. But that's not the good part; the good part is our narrator Bessy, a 15 year-old Irish maid living in Scotland with the freshest, sharpest, naughtiest and most charming voice you're apt to encounter in literature for a good long time. I adored her, and couldn't put her story down." Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and The Last American Man
"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." The Observer (London)
is a hugely assured and darkly funny debut set in nineteenth-century Scotland. Bessy Buckley, the novel?s heroine, is a cynical, wide-eyed, and tender fifteen-year-old Irish girl who takes a job as a maid in a once-grand country house outside Edinburgh, where all is not as it seems. Asked by her employer, the beautiful Arabella, to keep a journal of her most intimate thoughts, Bessy soon makes a troubling discovery and realizes that she has fled her difficult past only to arrive in an even more disturbing present.
About the Author
Jane Harris's short stories have appeared in a wide variety of anthologies and magazines, and she has written several award-winning short films. In 2000, she received a Writer's Award from the Arts Council of England.
Reading Group Guide
1. Bessy is a poor girl who finds it best to deny that she has a family. Her mistress, on the other hand, is married to a landowner preparing to make his entry into national politics. How does their enormous difference in social status shape their relationship? Do they ever truly overcome this gap, and if so, at what cost?
2. What is Arabella Reids view of the working classes before Bessys arrival? Does her acquaintance with Bessy change Arabellas view of her supposed inferiors, and if so, how?
3. Arabella is virtually obsessed with chronicling and analyzing the thoughts and actions of her maidservants. How would you characterize the motives behind her research? Is her interest propelled by kindness, aggression, voyeurism, or some other emotional or intellectual force?
4. The Observations is a novel of competing narratives. One of the struggles between Bessy and Arabella takes place over who will have the right to explain who Bessy is and, thereby, determine her identity. How does Arabella perceive Bessy in her secret manuscript, and how does the novel as a whole challenge and correct Arabellas observations on this point?
5. After his wifes ordeal, James Reid finally praises Bessy for her loyalty to Arabella during her illness. Is he correct, or do Bessys actions following Mrs. Reids collapse sometimes tend to thwart and endanger her recovery? Does Bessy, perhaps on an unconscious level, still desire to harm Mrs. Reid even after the latters breakdown?
6. Although they never meet, Bessy and Nora are implicitly compared throughout the novel, with Nora being represented as the good girl and Bessy figuring as the bad one. Despite these implied designations, however, it is Nora who is destroyed by sexual mistreatment, whereas Bessy survives and achieves a degree of triumph over her past. What accounts for this difference in outcome?
7. At the end of the novel, Arabella announces that her new magnum opus will treat the subject of insanity. However, she comments to Bessy that this work is barely begun. Few if any of the characters in The Observations are free from some kind of obsession or emotional disturbance. Choose a character other than Arabella and offer an analysis of her or his mental health.
8. Early in the novel, Bessy is resistant to Arabellas command that she write about everything that befalls her. At the end of the novel, however, we learn that she has written the entire story we have just read at the behest of Dr. Lawrence, who, like Arabella before him, takes a clinical interest in her observations. Why and how do you think Bessy has so completely overcome her reluctance to express herself?
9. In her relationship with her mistress Arabella, Bessy is almost simultaneously rebellious and anxious to please. What accounts for her powerfully conflicting emotions?
10. The Observations deals with the lives of women whose fortunes have almost always been worsened by the selfish desires of men. How do women in the novel deal with the demands of masculine self-interest? In what instances are their responses successful, and why?
11. Throughout The Observations, Bessy makes judgments about her own character and actions. In this novel, in which analysis and surveillance take place everywhere, how accurate is Bessy when it comes to observing herself?
12. When asked to sum up Bessy in a single word, her fellow servant Muriel says, Irish. What perceptions and values are associated with Irishness in the novel? Do these perceptions remain constant, or do they vary depending on person and circumstance?
13. James Reid pins his hopes for Parliament on the state-of-the-art fountain he buys for the town of Snatter. The railroad, an innovation still within the time of living memory for people in this novel, violently claims the lives of two characters. What comment do you think Harris is making about the collision of traditional lifestyles with rising technology?
A CONVERSATION WITH JANE HARRIS
It seems that everyone who reads The Observations is fascinated by the narrative voice of Bessy Buckleyby the freshness of her diction, the earthy glow of her humor, and her inventive use of slang. How were you able to devise a voice that is so coarse and untutored yet so thoughtful and engaging?
I think it comes mainly from my background, from my Irish and Scottish family and friends, in particular my mother, Kate, and my aunt Sheila and my friend Noeleen. Lots of Bessys sayings and turns of phrase belong to them, as does her sense of humor. My mother, who was brought up in Belfast, is always saying Jesus Murphy, for instance. I checked that these phrases would be historically feasible and then used them. Both my mother and aunt are great storytellers and have wicked senses of humor. And my aunt is a very optimistic person, so I gave Bessy that indomitable quality. In addition to what I used from family and friends, I found a few dictionaries of historical slang that were useful. There were also times when I simply made stuff upso some of it comes from my imagination.
Your novel has prompted comparisons with Fielding and Thackeray. In the books atmosphere of destitute but attractive servant girls, spooky country estates, and deranged mistresses locked in their rooms, I thought I caught a whiff or two of Jane Eyre. And yet, of course, The Observations is nothing if not original. How does an author handle the task of responding to classical models without simply repeating them?
Yes, there have been lots of comparisons with other writersit seems inevitable when people are trying to classify a new writers work. I read a lot of nineteenth-century literature during the writing process, concentrating on Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Charlotte Brontë (so Im not surprised theres a whiff of Jane Eyre, especially in the spooky bits!). I hope there are a few things that make Bessys story seem fresh. One is the fact that it is being narrated by Bessy herself: a servant girl with a shady past, an immigrant, someone who is definitely situated on the margins of society. That gives it a more modern twist since most of those nineteenth-century tales were narrated by protagonists such as Jane Eyre and David Copperfield whoeven if they were relatively poor or shabby genteelwere at least better educated than Bessy. I also hope that the voice is a distinguishing factor in The Observations. I immersed myself in heavily voiced fiction, both classic texts (such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye) and more modern novels, such as Peter Careys wonderful The True History of the Kelly Gang and Patrick McCabes The Butcher Boy.
Among your American readers, it is likely that many of those who have visited Scotland have seen the districts between Glasgow and Edinburgh only through the window of a trainperhaps traveling the same line where Nora Hughes meets her end. What led you to choose this land as the setting for your novel? Does it hold a special significance for you?
It is exactly because this place has no significance for me that I chose it. In fact, I had completed a draft of the novel before I had ever really visited there and I, too, had only really passed through in train or car en route to Glasgow or Edinburgh. I wanted a kind of no-mans-land, somewhere indefinable. In Scotland, fiction is often clearly identified with one of four regions: the east coast and Edinburgh, the west coast and Glasgow, the Highlands, and the Lowlands. I wanted the book to exist outside of these well-trodden territories so that it couldnt be easily pigeonholed. I also wanted this lack of specificity to add to the otherworldly quality of the book. When I did visit the area I was pleasantly surprised that my imagining of it came very close to the reality.
Despite her many punctuation lessons with her mistress, one of the signature qualities of Bessys writing is that she can never get the hang of sentence boundaries. When writing the novel, did you find it difficult to suspend your knowledge of grammar and adapt to Bessys more chaotic mode of expression?
Actually, it was the other way aroundI found that Bessys punctuation and grammar overtook me so much that it kept cropping up in everything else I wrote, from e-mails to work correspondence. I think it still lingers even now (so apologies if my punctuation is terrible).
Given the utterly humiliating and poisonous moral environment from which Bessy emerges, some may find it astonishing that she retains so much humor and determination. To what do you attribute her extreme resiliency?
I worked in a high-security prison as writer in residence some years ago and was astounded by the black humor and resilience of inmates and staff. It seems that some people find humor a great way of coping with the impossible. Either you let circumstances bring you down or you rise above them. I gave a quality of optimism and humor to Bessy that I saw in some of those prisoners, both male and female. Also, it would have made for a pretty depressing read if Bessy had been ground down by her past. What makes her a sympathetic heroine is that she keeps going and is never depressed for too long about what happens to her.
At the core of The Observations is an unusual friendship that somehow survives class division, betrayal, and madness. What is the understanding of friendship that you would like to impart to your readers through this novel?
Exactly thatI love it that the two female protagonists are unlikely friends, but that somehow they end up saving each other.
Of the many sorts of fear your novel addresses, perhaps the most recurrent might be termed scopophobiaa fear of being watched or looked at. Why do you suppose it is that human beings, who are so often famished for attention, harbor such deep anxieties about being watched?
Well Im no scientist so all I will be doing is supposingbut I imagine it goes back to something very primal, from a time when we were wary of being stalked by predatory wild animals. On a more personal level, I dont like the limelight and I hate having my photograph taken.
It is a nice irony that, at the end of the novel, Bessy ends up being Arabellas observer, and it is her account of her former mistress, not the other way around, that becomes a matter of interest to the psychological profession. Do you see Bessy as having triumphed over Arabella or as merely having risen to a level at which they can regard each other as equals?
I definitely dont see Bessy as having triumphed over Arabella and neither does she. I dont actually even think that Bessy would ever consider herself to be Arabellas equalshe is loyal to her and touched that Arabella considers her a friend but will always hold her in a certain amount of awe.
Readers who have themselves attempted to publish their work will get a chuckle out of Bessys exchanges in chapter twenty-four with prospective publishers of her mistresss manuscript. Is there any personal history behind this bit of satire?
Yes, I had fun with that. I suppose some of it is based on my experience of short story writing some years ago, before I got sidetracked into writing for film and then writing this novel. I remember one rejection from a tiny magazine. The editor had simply written on the story I had submitted Not quite, which seemed to me both hilarious and humiliatingalthough I imagine that his vast power had gone to his head and that humiliation was his main intention.
For Bessy Buckley, writing is obviously an avenue toward self-knowledge. Has writing been a means of self-discovery for you as well?
Oh yes. Not just a means of self-discovery but a means of self-fulfillment and survival.
The last page of the novel indicates that, now that Bessy has penned her own life story, she is tempted to make up another story out of [her] own head. What do you suppose this story might be like, and do you intend to write it?
Well, Im not sure that Bessy will write something out of her own head. But I have not dismissed the possibility that we will see the further adventures of Bessy, whatever they may be. A lot of people who have read the novel have told me that they are dying to know what happens to her next and the narrative is open-ended enough to be revisited. I am writing something different now, but have it in mind to take Bessy on another adventure a few years from now.