After reading and reviewing Jane Harris’ latest novel, Gillespie and I, I became interested in Harris’ fresh writing style that I also learned that she came to the literary limelight via a critically acclaimed debut novel, The Observations. I read the advanced praises and reviews to see what the fuss was about and became convinced to read the novel that made Jane Harris a familiar name in Victorian fiction.
The Observations, like Gillespie and I, also takes place in 19th Century Scotland, and it tells the story of a15-year-old Irish city girl going by the name of Bessy Buckley, who escaped her rather eccentric and dysfunctional family back in Glasgow to seek a new life in Edinburgh. She accepts a job as a maid in a lone house known as Castle Haivers despite the fact that she lacks basic housekeeping skills. Arabella Reid, the lady of Castle Haivers, simply hired Bessy to be the new maid because of her basic ability to read and write. At that time, Bessy realizes the rather strange behavior that the lady of the house displays, from being ecstatic to being angry from out of the blue, back to being ecstatic again. As part of Bessy’s tasks in her job, Arabella provides her rather odd tasks from sitting and standing up repeatedly to requiring her to record all of her daily tasks and personal thoughts with the empty journal and pen that was provided.
What the readers are seeing from Bessy’s journal entries aren’t just about her duties, but also her observations of her new surroundings, in particular the “missus,” Arabella, which I thought at first was the basis of the novel’s title. It turns out later that the mistress herself is writing about her own observations through a manuscript titled The Observations, writing her observations of her current and past servants before Bessy’s arrival, listing out characteristics and features of each servant in order to provide tips and analysis on what the ideal servant should be like. By the time she comes to her own section, she discovers that Arabella may have found out about her past at the peak where she and the teenage maiden were already forming a close bond with each other. With this, Bessy decides to take a little revenge by playing a childish prank involving a former maid who recently died and was also a highly-regarded servant by Arabella. Sadly, Bessy’s little prank backfires, causing her beloved missus to break in to inexplicable madness, and the past Bessy left behind was gradually catching up to her in the present.