If you’ve read much in the way of Victorian pastiche, you’ll know it’s a tricky business. It can be as marvelous as Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith or Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night, or it can be as annoying as Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. It can be immersive, historical, and distinctive, or it can be forced — a little piece of modern morality set in corsets and candlelight. The Observations is Victorian pastiche, but it is so much its own book that comparisons to any of these novels would give you the wrong idea. Jane Harris has taken a sharp left turn (into Scotland this time, as it would happen) and we are just along for the ride.
The Observations is narrated by 15-year-old Bessy Buckley, on the run from an iffy past in Glasgow. She accidentally becomes a maid for Arabella Reid, the mistress of an estate outside Edinburgh. Arabella asks Bessy to do a series of strange tasks, the most important of which is to keep a journal of everything she does each day. (A lot of this novel strains belief, and Bessy’s literacy is a piece of that.) Despite the oddness of her situation, and her own fierce independence, Bessy is delighted by Arabella, and soon wants to do whatever she asks.
Bessy soon discovers that the journal she’s been asked to keep is meant to provide material for Arabella’s own monograph, The Observations — a study of the habits and character of the domestic classes. At the same time, Bessy discovers Arabella’s obsession with a former maid named Nora, who died under mysterious circumstances. Feeling unhappy and betrayed that Arabella might like someone else better than her, Bessy engineers some fake Nora-haunting incidents that backfire when Arabella begins to believe, first that she’s really being pursued by Nora from beyond the grave, and later that perhaps Nora may still actually be alive. During this time, as Arabella’s mind slips, we learn more about Bessy’s past and family.
This book is gothic parody, more Wilkie Collins than anything else (well, Wilkie Collins as written by a foulmouthed Irish former prostitute.) Harris piles one incident on top of another: ghosts, madness, drunkenness, depravity, guttering candles, misers, the railroad, a pig escaping. I was waiting for psychic twins; it wouldn’t have been out of the question. Please do not take this as me complaining! I love Wilkie Collins.
Bessy’s voice is the most distinctive thing about the book. It’s a raucous, rollicking, first-person narrative: “I said, ‘Oh flip,’ and keeled over in a dead faint. I would have fell in the cowpat if missus hadn’t leapt forward and caught me …Jesus Murphy you wouldn’t think a few hens could stink so bad … I was up and down like a drabs drawers…To tell the Gobs honest truth I did not give a first-light fart for full stops and the rest…. When he stepped forward as if to kiss me I grabbed his danglers and gave them a twist. ‘Make your own babies,’ I says. ‘Now away and flip yourself.'” As the story continues, Bessy’s voice becomes more measured and less intrusive (and we hear Arabella’s educated voice as well — an interesting narrative trick) but this is an intentionally melodramatic piece. Harris’s skill is that there’s pathos and genuine feeling as well as the bravado and the vulgarity.
This is a book about deception and counter-deception, unreliability and social expectations, the power of women when they’re powerless. I found it hugely enjoyable and I barely stopped to breathe; it made me laugh and I didn’t ask too many questions. If this is the kind of thing you like… well, you might like this a lot.