It's 1863: Bessy Buckley, 15 years old, like something out of a folk tale crossed with Moll Flanders, has set out on foot from Glasgow with her bundle of belongings to seek her fortune. She is on the road to Edinburgh when her eye is caught by a sign pointing towards Castle Haivers. Not taking warning from the name (it means a load of nonsense), she turns in that direction and promptly finds herself up to the oxters in mud in pursuit of a pig.
Thus begins Jane Harris's exuberant excursion into Victorian Scotland. Bessy's robust narrative is by turns intriguing, alarming and very funny, as circumstances pluck her out of a low life down the Gallowgate and deposit her in a situation scarcely less hazardous. She is taken on as a maid at Castle Haivers (only a ramshackle mansion), near the evocatively named village of Snatter. Her new mistress gives her a book to read: "It was called Bleak House. I hoped it wasn't an omen".
It is and it isn't. An even more prescient volume might have had "Cold Comfort" in its title, had such a thing existed at the time. Castle Haivers is abundant in oddities and alarms, visitations and disturbances in the night. Bessy's new acquaintances include Hector the barefoot Highlander and his constant lust, a couple of rough and sour milkmaids, a vile cleric called Reverend Pollock, and a literary plagiarist by the name of Flemyng.
Bessy's ability to read and write is what drives the plot. The young mistress of the house, Arabella Reid, is engaged on a magnum opus concerning the demeanour and habits of domestic servants, and she requires housemaids to keep an account of their daily doings. She also makes them stand still while she measures the length of their noses, and subjects them to lessons in punctuation.
Bessy, earthy and sensible, brings considerable alacrity to the proceedings, immersing herself in all her chores, both physical and mental. She does it to please her mistress, for whom she has conceived an affection. But things take an even more pointedly Victorian turn as a prank instigated by Bessy gets out of hand and an extra dimension of insanity enters into the imbroglio. If it's a sign of craziness to whack a reverend about the head with a shovel, then someone in this novel is off their rocker.
All this is treated with enormous gusto and expertise, with nicely judged lapses of grammar and prudence lending authenticity to Bessy's wry and engaging version of events. She's a doughty and resourceful heroine, overcoming abandonment and abuse, going with the flow of social history and literary invention, making good - but not tremendously good. The Observations adds up to entertainment of a high order.
Patricia Craig's biography of Brian Moore is published by Bloomsbury
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