To tell the gobs honest truth I did not give a first-light fart for full stops and all the rest. I thought my page looked fine while her page looked like it was covered with goat droppings with all the wee dots and spots on it. But as my Mr Levy used to say, choices choices, life is full of choices. I thought to myself would you rather be up in your room where there is no fire and a draft coming through the window or would you rather be down here warming your titties by the coals and watching the lovely Arabella as she gives you a lecture on commas and capital letters and maybe from time to time holds your hand and takes you into her confidence?
I studied a lot of punctuation.
So writes Bessy Buckley, whose wonderfully original, vivid, narrative voice is guaranteed to be like nothing you have ever read before. Aged about fifteen (she's not too sure herself), Bessy has escaped from her drunken dissolute mother who wants to put her back on the Glasgow streets, and chance has caused her to stumble into a job as an "in-and-out maid" at a run-down Scottish estate, Castle Haivers. It is 1863. Her new employer, the lovely Mrs Arabella Reid, is beautiful, fragile, and definitely eccentric. She insists on Bessy keeping a journal (hence the punctuation lessons), and not only does she get her to do a series of incomprehensible tasks -- she wakes her up in the middle of the night to make cocoa, measures her nose, gets her to stand up and sit down on command -- but she proves to be obssessed with her last maid but one, Nora, who has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Despite the eccentricities, though, Bessy soon adores Arabella and feels she will do anything for her.
The tasks become more comprehensible when Bessy manages to get a look at a book her "missus" is writing: Observations on the Habits and Nature of the Domestic Class in My Time. But, deeply upset by the entries she reads about herself, which are subtitled "The Most Particular Case of a Low Prostitute", Bessy decides to teach Arabella a lesson.
Hell's teeth, how can I explain the wretched despair I felt, except to say my heart was banjaxed. I was no more than a 'thing' to Arabella, a thing that might be experimented upon, toyed with and cast aside at a whim when it had outgrown its use.
Bad cess on her.
Bessy's lesson, involving a fake ghost, will have terrible repercussions for Arabella and indeed for Bessy herself, but you will need to read this great novel to find out what they are.
This was actually a re-read for me as I first read it when it came out in 2006, which was before my blogging days. I actually picked it up this time in slight desperation -- I'm in France and somehow the books I brought with me to read don't seem at all attractive, though I was really looking forward to them when I was in England. So when I spotted The Observations on the bookshelf I thought I'd see how it stood up the second time around. And the answer was -- remarkably well. In fact I can truthfully say I enjoyed it as much as I did the first time -- of course you know what's going to happen but at the same time you spot a few things you missed.
If you wanted to be analytical about the novel, you could say an important theme was oppression by both gender and social class. Arabella, despite her strangeness, is an intelligent woman with no outlet for her need to research and write -- she has to keep her Observations hidden from her husband, who has no idea she is writing a book. As for Bessy, despite her horrendous upbringing, she is as sharp as a knife -- observant, witty, with a huge appetite for books (she gobbles up Bleak House in just a few days) and a great deal of healthy scepticism -- and once she gets the hang of the commas and full stops she's an excellent writer. Her relationship with Arabella is beautifully observed -- it's clear that once she gets over her initial crush she could be a really good friend to this very isolated and fragile woman, but the gap between mistress and maid is so huge that the likelihood of it ever happening seems slim. And, of course, it's also a book about writing, its power and its dangers, despite Bessy's initial scepticism about Arabella's request for a journal:
Jesus Murphy I thought to myself what possible interest could that be to any man jack and I may have said as much except not in those exact words and then the missus says if you do it I will give you an extra shilling so I thought well gob if it made her happy.
But I am being too pert. To tell the truth I did not care a duck's beak for the extra shilling. I just wanted to please my mistress.
This is a cracking story, full of incidents, twists and turns, with wonderful secondary characters, gothicism, ghosts, madness and more besides. Read it for that, if you like, but above all read it for Bessy, her terrific voice and her indomitable spirit, her warmth, and her intelligence. Though the story covers less than a year, she grows up tremendously over that short time, and by the end we can see she has turned into a truly remarkable young woman.
Jane Harris's recent Gillespie and I has made a huge splash, and perhaps everyone who read that will have already gone on to read this too. If you haven't, please do -- I can't recommend it highly enough.