When she runs away from Glasgow in the early 1860s, departing so precipitously that she leaves her overcoat behind, teenage Bessy Buckley knows all too well the sordid, ugly life she is leaving behind. However, not even her own powerful imagination can prepare her for the strange new life that awaits her. Through Bessy’s narrative, which she relates with both gritty humor and heartrending pathos, the reader enters the world and mind of a Victorian working-class girl and shares in her none-too-gentle passage toward self-knowledge and independence.
Chance and necessity combine to lead Bessy to accept work as a maidservant at the country estate of James Reid, a self-absorbed petty aristocrat bent on capturing a seat in Parliament. Mr. Reid’s obsession, though, pales in comparison with the peculiarities of “the missus.”
From the outset of their relationship, Arabella Reid perplexes her new employee with a battery of bizarre commands. Perhaps the strangest but most urgent of these is that Bessy must keep a journal, detailing her most trivial actions and innermost thoughts. As Arabella’s behavior grows increasingly erratic, Bessy soon discovers that her entire life is the consuming subject of her mistress’s experimental scrutiny. When she further discovers that Arabella is at work on a secret manuscript, a book of “observations” on the behavior of domestic servants, Bessy is horrified that her sordid past is not as carefully concealed as she has supposed. Bessy impulsively responds by seeking vengeance, and her stratagem for getting even unleashes an extraordinary chain of events marked by guilt, passion, betrayal, and madness. Standing just at the margins of Bessy’s and Arabella’s relationship are two other compelling figures, one apparently angelic and the other appallingly satanic. Arabella is haunted by the memory of Nora Hughes, a nearly perfect maidservant who preceded Bessy in Arabella’s employment and whose tragic death raises unanswerable questions. Bessy is likewise tormented by the memory of her mother, Bridget, whose mistreatment of her only child beggars description.
As remarkable for its astute sketches of its minor characters as it is for the rich, authentic voice of its narrator, The Observations is the outstanding debut novel of the noted short story writer Jane Harris. Both through the clinical perspective of Arabella and the cynical but indefatigably hopeful eyes of Bessy, the reader, too, is invited to observe the foibles of ambition and the destructive power of untrammeled lust. More significantly, however, the novel is a book about the act of writing itself. Arabella, who carefully conceals the existence of her manuscript from her husband, uses her work to pursue a life of the mind that would otherwise be denied her. Bessy, for her part, gradually learns through the keeping of her journal that she has thoughts worth preserving and a life worth fighting for. As she learns about writing, Bessy also learns about loyalty and the courage to survive in a shattered world.
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.
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 Bessy’s 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 up—so some of it comes from my imagination.
Your novel has prompted comparisons with Fielding and Thackeray. In the book’s 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 writers—it seems inevitable when people are trying to classify a new writer’s work. I read a lot of nineteenth-century literature during the writing process, concentrating on Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Charlotte Brontë (so I’m not surprised there’s a whiff of Jane Eyre, especially in the spooky bits!). I hope there are a few things that make Bessy’s 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 who—even if they were relatively poor or “shabby genteel”—were 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 Carey’s wonderful The True History of the Kelly Gang and Patrick McCabe’s 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 train—perhaps 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-man’s-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 couldn’t 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 Bessy’s 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 Bessy’s more chaotic mode of expression?
Actually, it was the other way around—I found that Bessy’s 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 that—I 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 scopophobia—a 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 I’m no scientist so all I will be doing is supposing—but 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 don’t 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 Arabella’s 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 don’t see Bessy as having triumphed over Arabella and neither does she. I don’t actually even think that Bessy would ever consider herself to be Arabella’s equal—she 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 Bessy’s exchanges in chapter twenty-four with prospective publishers of her mistress’s 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 humiliating—although 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, I’m 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.