I bought The Observations at a library sale. The book also bears the stamp of a second hand bookstore that I haven’t been to in a very long time – perhaps a year – and it looks like a well read copy. It is also a first novel.
The name of the author did not jump up at me at first, but when I looked it up on goodreads.com, I saw that she had written another novel whose name was quite familiar, “Gillespie and I”, a novel I had seen at the bookstore, picked up but didn’t buy. Now I will have to.
What attracted me to The Observations was the cover – very Victorian, and as I am a great fan of the genre, I decided to buy the book and read it as soon as possible.
The story is told from the perspective of Bessy Buckley, a girl with a dubious past, who is on her way to finding a job and starting anew. The place is Scotland and the year 1863. She finds employment at Castle Haivers which is not a castle at all but a fancy name for an estate that could have used a bit more care and a few more servants. Her new masters, Arabella and James Reid, are an odd couple – she is very observant, talkative, and locks herself up in her room to write. He is tight with money, selfish, and a no-nonsense aristocrat. As the story evolves, however, other character traits emerge and manage to change the perspective on these two people.
Bessy settles in her new life and has a few mishaps at first. It becomes apparent to her mistress that she was never a housekeeper nor a farm hand, and as she decides to find out more about the new maid, so does Bessy tries to find out more about her mistress. There’s a lot of humor in the book, mostly coming from Bessy’s doings as she snoops around while at the same time taking a liking to her new employer and trying her best to please her. She goes so far as to put up with Arabella’s strange requests of sitting up and down repeatedly and to let herself having her measurements taken, such as having her head measured, as well as the distance between her facial features. And when her mistress is occupied elsewhere she manages to read the book Arabella keeps under lock and key.
There is mystery throughout the book, and it becomes apparent to Bessy, as she begins to know her mistress, that something is amiss in the Reid household. Burned pages of a journal belonging to a former maid, an old trunk that belonged to Nora – another one of the former maids of Castle Haivers, and the odd request that she write down her own thoughts for her mistress to read, lead Bessy to believe that there is a secret Arabella is trying to keep under wraps. This she is not able to do for a very long time, as Bessy begins to put facts together and in the end arrives at the horrible truth.
Bessy’s natural humor shines throughout the book. She is a kind-hearted girl but she also lies, steals her mistress’ key and concocts a most devious plan that will have a powerful effect on Arabella. In spite of this I couldn’t help but sympathize with her, especially as the story goes back and forth in time and the reader is given glimpses into the young girl’s life before she became a maid.
Bessy’s voice is very distinct and her use of the vernacular gives the book a unique language that is both engaging and many times quite funny. Her daily adventures on the farm include trying to milk a cow (and failing), cleaning a carpet with a piece of wet newspaper and learning how to use punctuation under the patient instructions of her mistress.
What I liked most about the book was its engaging pace that never faltered and the constant discovery of yet another little detail that made the mystery that more baffling. It also has all the elements that I love in a story: the isolated house, strange noises in the attic, a tragic past, a villain, and more than a bit of humor thrown in for balance. If you’re a fan of historical novels, you’re going to enjoy this fun ride through the Victorian era.
Some paragraphs I liked:
She leaned in and says quietly, ‘Look at the spaces between the words.’
It was a clue. Well, I looked hard at her ‘Dear Father’. There was a space between the two words right enough. Then I looked at my ‘got up’. There was a space there too. But the two spaces seemed much the same to me and one space plus another space is just a bigger space no matter how long you look at it.
Most of all she seemed to like the part about my mother and her good works which for dear sake was the bit I had invented! on account of I had forgot to remember what I was thinking about whilst I was working so I just made up the first thing that came into my head.
‘This part about your mother,’ says missus. ‘Write more like this.’
‘I’ll do that marm’, I says, thinking well for dear sake if she can’t tell the difference that’s easy enough, I’ll just make things up all the time.
I had a quick skelly about the place but could find nothing and was on the verge of heading back down when I seen somebody coming towards me up the stairs. Crumbs and Christopher it scared the behicky out me.
The master was sat in the wing armchair opposite my Arabella. He flicked his eyes at me as I came in then glanced away again almost immediately. For dear sake he was a daddy longleg so he was! So tall and lean he barely fit the length of him in the chair. You would have put him older than missus but no more than 45 and just a shade off handsome on account of his phiz being on the lengthy side and he was not exactly going bald but lets just say his forehead was high.
*Read in December 2013