Page turners: The Observations

When Bessy Buckley fled Glasgow, all she had was two shillings and six Parma violets to her name – a name that wasn't even her own. The former child prostitute thought to try her hand as a servant girl, preferably at a castle equipped with a handsome prince.

"I was only 15 with a head full of sugar and I had a notion to work in a grand establishment," writes author Jane Harris. Instead, Bessy lands a job as the "in and out girl" at rundown Castle Haivers, whose mistress, Arabella Reid, insists Bessy write her thoughts in a journal. Bessy adores Arabella and tries to please her by participating in tests of her obedience. Then one day she finds Arabella's journal: "Observations on the Nature and Habits of the Domestic Class." In it are less-than-complimentary pages about Bessy, whom Arabella considers a pale replacement for her paragon, Nora, who was killed by a train.

Humiliated, Bessy concocts an elaborate revenge, but is horrified when her plan succeeds all too well and people start to question Arabella's sanity. Treatment of "insane" women in the 1800s is hardly the stuff of comedy, but Harris never lets "The Observations" get too dark. In this, she's helped by her vibrant main character – easily the best thing about the book. Bessy hails from the same tradition as "Moll Flanders": She's earthy, saucy, and determined to thrive whether it's respectable or not. Grade: B

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