This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.
There seemed to be something of a vogue for Victorian novel pastiches a decade or so ago. May be it was the turn of the twentieth century that sparked it off or maybe it was Sarah Walters’ success which began with her first novel, Tipping the Velvet. I’m not a huge fan of what almost became a genre in itself but I read Jane Harris’ first novel The Observations for a work assignment and loved it mainly because of Bessy, its wonderfully sassy narrator.
Only fifteen years of age and Bessy already has a past as colourful and inappropriate as the yellow satin gown she wears to walk from Glasgow to Edinburgh in search of work. To escape unwanted male attention, she takes the turning for Castle Haivers and is soon employed by its mistress Arabella who asks her for a record of her days working as a maid. When she finds the reason for this puzzling request in the Observations, Arabella’s record of experiments she has conducted in an attempt to find the perfect servant, Bessy is appalled at her own character assessment and decides to take revenge setting in motion a chain of events that she will bitterly regret. Narrated in Bessy’s sly, earthy, often very funny, voice, Harris’ novel is part ghost story, part mystery, and ultimately a heartening tale of redemption.
Harris followed The Observations with the equally brilliant Gillespie and I which features a quintessentially unreliable narrator, always a favourite device of mine. There’s been nothing from her since – six years ago now – but I’m still hopeful.
What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?