It’s a rare feeling to be swept up by a book in the childhood way, but when it happens it’s extraordinary: deeply familiar and strangely unsettling. I was staying in a large house in the middle of a French field when I first discovered Rebecca at a ridiculously advanced age. The house seemed to take on the same eerie feel as Manderley as I read on into the night. At about three in the morning I was still reading when I heard the sound of footsteps in the attic above us. I dropped the book, woke my sleeping boyfriend, told him we were about to be murdered in our bed, and made him run out with me into the field to take refuge in the car. We sat there for five minutes before he managed to persuade me to let him go inside and search the place. I sat there with the engine running and the headlights trained on the doorway as he disappeared back inside. When he finally re-emerged, having searched the entire place including the attic, he suggested that perhaps it was the spirit of Rebecca herself I had heard, or else the old water-heater clanking. Which makes me wonder: how can a story still so frighteningly take hold when we’re supposed to have banished the fear of ghosts? What is the trick that makes the reading chill? How is it engineered?
Jane Harris’s first novel, The Observations, which is set in 1863, has all the necessary ingredients for a Rebecca-like absorption. There’s a bright young Irish maid for a heroine, with a mysterious past that is only gradually revealed; a beautiful mistress with her own set of secrets; and a rambling old house complete with creaking attic. The book opens as Bessy, running from trouble in Glasgow and desperate for work, arrives on foot at a grand house near Edinburgh, where she hopes to be taken on as a lady’s maid by Arabella, the smart English mistress of the estate. Here a clever thing happens. Ara-bella is about to dismiss Bessy as a potential servant – she has lied about her knowledge of farming – when a chance comment changes her mind. Bessy asks for directions to Castle Haivers, having seen a signpost to it from the main road. Arabella is astonished. It turns out that this unpromising coarse-looking girl can read. She offers her the job at once. The stress on the significance of reading in the novel’s opening pages is a signal: Harris knows that to involve readers you don’t only need a racy plot, but must also satisfy their nostalgia. So she fills her book with books.
On her first day, Arabella presents Bessy with a copy of Bleak House and a notebook, and tells her she must write in it every evening, detailing everything she has done from the moment she gets up in the morning to the moment she goes to bed. Bessy is a bold, resourceful heroine, but doesn’t quite know what to make of her luck. She says of herself at the end of her first day: ‘So there I was with two pens, my two titties, Charles Dickens, two slice of bread and a blank book at the end of my first day in the middle of nowhere.’ She fails to write anything at all in her journal that first night. Following much encouragement from her mistress, she writes this brief entry at the end of her second day:
got up done a few light chores for missus nothing else strange or startling
This is not deemed adequate by Arabella, who gives her a basic lesson in creative writing: ‘I wasn’t just to write what I did, the chores and all, I was to write down how I felt about what I did and what thoughts went through my head as I did it.’ Bessy, however, is a quicker student than her teacher suspects, and sees that a writer must also keep her audience in mind. Friday’s entry is much fuller:
then she showed me the garden vegetables i was interested and where the sheep got in to eat them last year i was shocked then i carted about a ton of manure across yard i was highly delighted when that was done while working i was thinking about my mother if only she was still alive and doing her good works especially with the poor men down on their luck just a smile from her and a kind word as she passed by on her way to worship brightened their day she was truly an angel sent from heaven
Bessy emerges as an expert storyteller: the recollection of her kind mother is fabricated. Like all great storytellers, she knows what to play up and what to leave out.
Friday’s entry is peculiar for leaving out the actually interesting events of the day, because she isn’t sure how her reader would react to their inclusion. What goes unrecorded is the fact that her mistress is starting to act strangely. That morning Arabella made her sit down and stand up repeatedly in response to barked instructions issued in a loud, flat voice. Then, later in the day, Bessy was subjected to a punctuation lesson. ‘The truth was,’ Bessy confides to the reader, in the safe privacy of her main narrative, ‘some days you just wouldn’t know what to expect from missus.’ But she becomes fond of her all the same, even though the strange rituals continue:
I always did my best to please her. Once or twice more in that first month she bid me sit on the straight back chair and told me to close my eyes and then it was the old game of stand up sit down stand up sit down, flip me could I see the sense in it, could I chook but I went along with it as far as I was able. The 2nd time she asked me I went up and down ten times but more than that I would not do. On the 3rd occasion, I got to 26 times but on the 27th something in me rebelled and like the broken horse, I went down but would not get up.
One evening, when her mistress is out, Bessy makes a discovery that turns her affection sour. She goes in search of the key to her mistress’s locked desk drawer. She finds it, inserts it in the lock, turns the key and – she is relishing her role as storyteller, never letting us forget that she is the creator and author of this tale – opens the drawer to exclaim: ‘There was a dead baby in there! And some jam! And a tin whistle!’ She’s tricked us, of course: ‘There wasn’t really. It was only a whole clatter of old notebooks.’ On the first page of the first notebook, however, a strange title is inscribed: ‘Observations on the Habits and Nature of the Domestic Class in My Time’.
Arabella, it seems, has been writing her own book – a study of house servants, based on her observations of her own domestic workers. Suddenly, the strange rituals, odd requests and invitations to wear her mistress’s clothes start to make sense: they are standard tests of temperament and pliancy. Arabella has been scientific: she has recorded the facial measurements of each of the girls she has employed, a phrenological approach that seeks to find a correspondence between the positioning of the ear and suitability for domestic labour. That she makes the girls keep a journal proves that she recognises to some extent the usefulness of interiority as a way of understanding character (‘to know how and what they think – surely then one would understand how to get the best out of them’), but perhaps Arabella has missed the full narratological point. Bessy’s predecessors weren’t always bright enough to think very much at all, and Bessy’s flaw in Arabella’s eyes may be that she thinks too much. The pages Arabella has devoted to her are devastating. For all her efforts to leave her past behind her, it seems Arabella knows exactly who she is. The Bessy section is headed: ‘The Most Particular Case of a Low Prostitute’. Few of Arabella’s remarks are flattering. Arabella says she fears that a ‘bad temper’ may lurk beneath Bessy’s superficially sunny disposition, that her new maid ‘lacks discernment in attire’, that she has ‘very little common sense’ and seems ‘rather “deadened” and lacking in some element – perhaps emotion?’ But these are merely initial prejudices. As the observation progresses, and Arabella reads more of Bessy’s journal, she begins to warm to her, and the final entry records her anxiety that ‘readers might be forgiven for thinking that I have been misguided in (perhaps) cultivating her affection a little too much.’ ‘I must now disengage from her,’ Arabella decides. Perhaps Bessy’s narrative skills have affected her reader more than she can admit.
All these books within books have a curious effect on the main narrative, which we are mysteriously told has been written for the ‘private perusal of one or two particular gentlemen’. Bessy’s journal entries, artfully selective as they are, work as a reminder that narrative is inherently suspect. They teach you to be on the lookout for evasions and half-truths. So when Bessy runs into a lecherous halfwit on the Great Road that passes by the house, his ‘jack’ showing prominently through his trousers, and says she gave him the heave-ho by stamping on his foot and giving his ‘danglers’ a twist, we aren’t necessarily right to believe her. A little later on she mentions in passing that the hem of her petticoat is dirty, from where the boy had lain on top of her. What? This is news to the reader. And there may be more to Arabella’s withdrawal than Bessy confesses. Bessy remarks that when Arabella smiles, dimples appear in her cheeks. All very prettily admiring, we think, until she adds: ‘It made you want to bite them.’ There are moments when maid and mistress are sitting close and Bessy is overcome by giddiness, longing perhaps to be closer still.
Her hinted-at feelings for Arabella may go some way to explaining the strength of her reaction to the ‘Observations’: ‘Hells teeth, how can I explain the wretched despair I felt, except to say that 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 thoughts turn to revenge, and an opportunity soon reveals itself. She becomes interested in the story of Nora, the servant at the house before her, who was killed by a train. She steals up into the attic one night and finds a trunk containing the dead girl’s possessions. The next morning, Arabella nervously questions her: did she hear noises in the attic in the night? And then it hits Bessy: ‘She was scared of ghosts . . . And in that moment the idea formed in my mind, a way to get my own back. It was only a childish prank. How could I ever have foretold the terrible consequences of what I was about to do?’ What unfolds from this point on is a ghost story – a ghost story created by Bessy for her mistress to inhabit. She makes use of her journal – which her mistress reads nightly – to fabricate ‘inexplicable happenings’, accounts of objects moving or vanishing, strange noises in the attic. She unleashes the full power of her writing skills – skills her mistress has cultivated in her. But a few simple words finally do for Arabella. In the dirt on the attic window Bessy writes, with a trembling finger: ‘Help Me My Lady.’ Bessy’s journal records that she pointed the words out to her mistress, on which Arabella collapsed in a faint and had to be taken to bed. Bessy’s ghost story now veers out of her control. Arabella, properly spooked, becomes delusional and, from her bed, thinks she is communicating with the dead maid.
I won’t say any more about the story, but there are enough satisfying twists and turns to keep a cynical adult reader up half the night. Suffice it to say that Bessy regains control of her narrative only at the very end, when events have consigned her mistress to a fate that she might not have initially chosen for her, but that comes to suit her very well. In the interim, the plot allows for a search and rescue scene almost ripped from the pages of Bleak House; a scene that might belong in early Hardy, in which a drinking fountain is publicly unveiled in the town square; and scenes of the imprisoned madwoman that depend on Jane Eyre. Bessy’s schooling in Victorian fiction – she races through the books her mistress lends her – shows up in the story that she has created. It’s the way she tells it that matters. Historical romances can only be derivative – that is their point – but Bessy is an original narrator. She is down to earth and worldly, not easily led, the very reverse of the impressionable young girl of gothic fiction. She’s impossible not to like. To be both story-addicted and a properly grown-up cynic: now that’s a trick.