The Observations by Jane Harris

8 January, 2013

The Observations

November 2012’s book group choice was The Observations by Jane Harris, a book I’ve been meaning to read since its publication in 2007. I kept coming across it in my local library but never managed to get to it. So I was pretty excited, especially since Harris’ second book, Gillespie and I, had been garnering lots of attention and praise in the book world.

Set in 1836 near Snatter, a village close to Glasgow, The Observations is a reflection on the early life of Bessy, one maid. Her previous master, a Mr. Levy, who had suddenly perished, left her homeless and penniless and very reluctant to return to her exploitative mother Bridget. And Bessy finds herself in a new position as an in and out girl in a creaky old mansion inhabited by an English lady who seems rather sweet, if not eccentric. And soon they develop a strange relationship, one of mistress and servant, scientist and experiment. For Arabella Reid, Bessy’s mistress, is keen to further her understanding of the servant (i.e. lower) class and has been studying her maids for a while. Bessy, who is literate, agrees to keep a diary for Arabella to read. But she soon learns that her new mistress has also been writing her thoughts in a secret book titled The Observations. Slowly, we learn about Bessy’s past and that of Arabella and the strange and unfortunate death of Nora, Bessy’s predecessor. As Arabella succumbs to visions of Nora, Bessy finds herself in an increasingly surreal situation where she has to try and reconcile all the secrets and lies both for herself and her mistress and to protect her new home.

Bessy’s voice is extremely strong and I wasn’t sure how I would fare with the novel. However, before I knew it, I was immersed in Bessy’s life story, her vibrant, no-nonsense and very positive nature captivating me. It’s a very accomplished debut and deserves all the praise it has received. However, I don’t know why, but I found the book a little slow and couldn’t wait for it to be over. I don’t know whether my expectations were far out, but I was expecting a big secret, reveal or even a ghost. Arabella’s story made sense, as did Nora’s, but it didn’t wow me much. I loved the gothickness of the tale, Harris’ writing style was interesting and well delivered, Bridget was terrifying and yet. Maybe Bessy’s personality was too bouncy and was out of phase with the overall gothic situation she found herself in. Bessy is, after all, one for brightly coloured silk and satin whereas Arabella is all dark and shadows.

But The Observations was universally loved in my book group with Kim giving it a 10. I gave it a much lower mark but it probably had a lot to do with the mood I was in. I am, however, looking forward to reading Harris’ next book, Gillespie and I, which had most of the book world raving with praise.

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14 Responses to “The Observations by Jane Harris”


  1. I’ve read Gillespie and I but not The Observations. Even though it’s a long book I didn’t find Gillespie and I too slow so maybe you will enjoy it more.

  2. Eva Says:

    I gave up on this I think about a hundred pages in, maybe one hundred fifty (Arabella was locked in her room after the Nora thing). I just didn’t find it convincing and found myself longing for Sarah Waters instead. Sooo, at least you’re not completely alone in your feelings on it! 😉

    • sakura Says:

      I did find myself wondering when the book was going to end and yes, there was something that didn’t convince me and I’m not sure whether I grew to like Bessie’s voice in the end.

      Ah, Sarah Waters, I hear there’s going to be another book soon. I can’t wait!

  3. Alex Says:

    This one was really not my thing. Three years after reading it, I can’t remember one single detail of the story :S Gillespie and I on the other hand, although only giving it 3/5 is that type of book that several months afterwards I’ll still analyzing with friends.

  4. debbierodgers Says:

    I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t enjoy this one. I loved Gillespie & I and was looking forward to this one too…

    • sakura Says:

      Everyone in my book group loved this one except for me, so I still think you should give it a go. Maybe not to expect it to be exactly like G&I though.


  5. Have not ventured into her work yet, but Gillespie and I did receive some great reviews and was a disappointment to many when it wasn’t shortlisted for the was Orange now ? Prize.

  6. Shweta Says:

    Would I be a bad reader if I told you I had not heard about Gillespie and I and The Observations before reading about them here? Going by what you are saying, Jane Harris is an author I have to keep in mind while browsing the bookstores the next time around.

    • sakura Says:

      Not at all! They’re titles that have had a lot of publicity here out of the many thousands that are published each year! I just got a copy of Gillespie and I secondhand so am looking forward to reading it.


  7. I’ll start with Gillespie and I since I have that on my shelves, but the historical setting alone makes me want to read this also.


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