The Observations by Jane Harris

Watching me, watching you - aha!

Catherine Taylor
Sunday 23 April 2006 00:00
Comments

Scotland, 1863. The narrator, Bessy Buckley, a young Irish immigrant, has abruptly left her dubious position as a "housekeeper" in Glasgow and is desperately seeking a new situation before her murky past catches up with her. An encounter with a woman chasing an escaped pig and Bessy's chance remark that she can read and write leads her to be engaged instantly as an "in and out girl" to the sprawling Castle Haivers estate. Her new employer is the beautiful Arabella Reid, whose alternating extreme displays of affection and strict discipline soon prove addictive to Bessy. Moreover, Arabella has some unusual requests for the new maid: that she obey all instructions, however odd, and that she keep an intimate account of her everyday experiences and thoughts - her "observations" - in a diary for Arabella to read at her leisure. This is to be kept secret from Arabella's cold, remote husband, who has parliamentary ambitions.

Yet Bessy is no pushover. Enamoured (one poignantly childish scene has her carving her mistress's name on a raw potato) as she is, she is also mischievous, irreverent, boisterous and used to looking out for herself. After a shaky start, she confidently embellishes her diary entries to Arabella's satisfaction. Bored at being cooped up in the large, secluded house, piqued at Arabella's apparent ambivalence, Bessy begins to eavesdrop and to snoop. She discovers that Arabella has been keeping her own book of observations, a thorough physical and psychological examination of each servant who has passed through her hands. and that she is guiltily haunted by the memory of Nora, a model of obedience, who came to a sticky end on the nearby railway line. Seized by an irrational jealousy of Arabella's favourite, Bessy decides to use this knowledge to concoct an elaborate ghost story, in the process unleashing an unstoppable and enormously entertaining spiral of events. For this is Harris's gift: structures are set up to be subverted, and for all the dark substance of the book, including child prostitution, rape, madness, alcoholism and emotional neglect, her skill lies in constructing a playful conceit. Bessy is her co-conspirator, surely one of the most striking characters in recent fiction: cynical, disruptive, tender and very, very funny.

Her language is a mixture of dialect, coarseness and erudition: "fartcatcher" and "duplicitous" are used almost in the same sentence, and with no sense of incongruity. Caricatures abound, from the sour milkmaids ("the Curdle Twins") to Hector, the farmboy with wandering hands, and po-faced Reverend Pollock, renamed "Reverend Bollix" by our heroine. Castle Haivers is no Italianate Castle of Otranto, but a "crumbling, draughty old wreck in a dismal landscape scarred by pits and with the stink of cows trapped under a leaden sky". As the title implies, this is a book about watching and being watched, writing and being written about. Windows, keyholes, and looking glasses all play their part, as do actual books (Arabella gives Bessy a copy of Bleak House to read on her first night at Castle Haivers; she hopes it isn't an omen); assumed and mistaken identities, diaries, letters, newspaper notices, ballad sheets and religious tracts. 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.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in