Review: The Observations, Jane Harris

Y’all have heard me bitch about the New York Public Library in the past, and I will probably bitch about it in the future. Here’s the big thing about the New York Public Library, and I will preface this by saying that I am well aware these are problems created by a larger system and a greater number of patrons, rather than some sort of inherent crappiness on the part of the NYPL. I KNOW THAT. The big thing about the New York Public Library that makes me not love it is that I cannot get a large number of books I want at once. In the olden days, I would go to the library with an outsized canvas bag; I would fill it up with books from my TBR list; and then I would go home and read the books I wanted and ignore the books I didn’t want. I cannot generally do this in New York. The New York Public Library has roughly the same selection books that my home library had, but fewer of them are available at any given moment. I have to place holds (takes forever) or accept substitutes (unsatisfying). Boo. I miss my lovely, comfortable home library.

One of the many, many benefits of my old style of library-going was that I really love book sampling. In the evening before bedtime, I would climb into bed with five or six books and start sampling them to get a sense of which one I should read first. I’d read the first twenty or so pages of each, and toss them over the side of the bed if they displeased me. Sampling books in bed is lovely. I did it recently with the largest batch of desirable books I have ever managed to procure from the library in New York, and the big winner of my book sampling was The Observations, a book to which I have been weirdly resistant in the same way that I am nearly always resistant to historical fiction.

The Observations is about a Victorian Irish girl called Bessy who takes a job as a maid in a manor house near Edinburgh. The mistress of the house, Arabella Reid, is generally kind, though she sometimes acts in ways that Bessy can’t understand — angry one second and kind the next; asking Bessy to sit down and stand up, sit and stand, sit and stand, until Bessy refuses to go on. Bewildered, but enjoying the attention, Bessy becomes devoted to her mistress. When she discovers that she’s the subject of Arabella’s study of the behavior of house maids, she comes up with a plan for revenge. What begins as a silly prank spins out of Bessy’s control INTO MADNESS.


Victorians and MADNESS!

(Just wanted to make sure y’all know what’s going on in this book.)

I had a slightly grumbly mindset when I started The Observations, because of my aforementioned, inexplicable mistrust of historical fiction even when a bunch of people have said it is good and even when it is set in a time period I like (wooooo Victorians!) and even when it deals with elements of the time period that are of particular interest to me (VICTORIAN MADNESS!!!!). But it won me over. The best thing about the book is Bessy’s narrative voice. She is funny and pert and a little unreliable, and although she can take care of herself and talks tough, you can see the cracks in her facade.

I’ve probably overstated the role that MADNESS plays in this book, but only because, you know. I like MADNESS in Victorian novels. If you like MADNESS too, this book could be for you! And even if you don’t, Bessy’s narration is so enjoyable that you will probably like it anyway.

My one complaint is that the ending felt too pat. Oh how I hate an unwarrantedly optimistic ending! And that’s what this ending felt like. It wasn’t, like, happy. You would be hard-pressed to call it a happy ending. Some grim things occur. Some grim revelations are revealed. But still the ending made me feel like the author was asking me to be happier than I wanted to be. I was rendered contrary by this. I was all like, Quit it, Jane Harris! I’ll feel how I want to feel!

Other reviews are findable here! I wish I could remember who recommended The Observations to me in the first place, so that I could say thank you. I have been intending to read it forever and ever, and at last I finally did.

Lies and the lying liars who tell them

Nope, not talking about the Senator from Minnesota (that’s weird, right? The lines between entertainment and politics are weirdly thin these days. Was it always thus?). I am talking about the books I have been reading lately, which have been full of people who lack integrity. Now I am ready to read about Betsy and Tacy, whose biggest deceptions involved reading Lady Audley’s Secret on the sly (I just wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover. That would be legitimately inappropriate for a twelve-year-old).

The Sealed Letter, Emma Donohue

After I read Room (yeah, yeah, I read it), I thought it might be fun to read more books by Emma Donohue, especially after I discovered that she wrote about Sapphic love in Victorian London. I got The Sealed Letter for under two dollars at Bongs & Noodles, and I thought it would be great because it’s about Sapphic love and a scandalous divorce case. In Victorian London! What could ever be bad about that?

The problem is this: Sarah Waters has already sort of nailed Sapphic love in Victorian London. You know how when you have one specific type of book connected in your head with one specific GOD of that type of book, and then you can’t read any other book of that type without comparing it to the GOD of that type of book. This is why I have a hard time with dual timeframe books, because of AS Byatt and Tom Stoppard nailing it so hard in Possession and Arcadia, respectively. Or why I didn’t enjoy The Hunger Games as much as I could have because Patrick Ness was out there writing Chaos Walking.

Anyway, The Sealed Letter is about a lying liar called Helen who tells lies to her friend Fido, and she does adulterous behaviors and eventually she and Fido both become imbroiled in a scandalous divorce case (that Robert Browning weighed in on in a letter to a friend – he thought the two women were carrying on Sapphic relations). There wasn’t nearly as much Sapphic love as I was anticipating. I just wanted to go read Fingersmith. Actually I still do. Fingersmith. Hearts.

What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt

So in the first half of this book, events occurred. One event, then another event, then another event. I couldn’t figure out what the point of all the events was! Subsequently, in the second half of this book, stuff was happening that all seemed related (that was a nice change), but it made me feel all weak and depressed and miserable. Like when Milo and Tock end up in the Doldrums in The Phantom Tollbooth but it’s really hard to leave because the Doldrums have gotten into their brains. That’s exactly what reading this book was like. Bother.

I will say, the descriptions of the art were really cool. I love ekphrasis as much as the next person who knows what it’s called (yeah. Latin class. USEFUL.), and it was so interesting to read all the different art things that the characters were making. I wish I could do art. Artists are cool. I’d refer you to this chick, except that the full awesomeness of her art doesn’t come out until you can see her pieces in real life, because they’re mixed media, and mixed media do not always photograph to best advantage.

Oh, yeah, what it was about: It was about these two families. They were all very smart and each family had a son, and there was art and hysteria and psychopathy. It sounds like it should have been great but it just didn’t work for me. Psychopaths are lying liars. You heard it here first. (Well, probably not.)

The Small Room, May Sarton

My favorite of these three books. Litlove and Jodie of Book Gazing both read this recently and spoke of it very persuasively. It’s about a woman called Lucy who goes to work as a professor at a private women’s college; there she discovers that the pet student of a particularly impressive and well-respected professor at the college has plagiarized an article on the Iliad. Questions of psychology and individualism and integrity go flying around, and the characters answer them differently than Dorothy Sayers does.

Speaking of Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night is one of my favorite books in all the land, and it has to be said that I am more in sympathy with her characters’ unflinching demand for integrity in academia, than with The Small Room‘s professors’ desires to worry about the human element (the girl they would be destroying if her plagiarism was revealed). The thing is, people have to be responsible for the research they do. If they plagiarize, you can’t trust them again, surely, and even if they do some really good research, how could you trust that what they were writing was original?

Well, these were the things I was thinking about. I also loved thinking about the questions Sarton raises about the appropriate amount of distance between teachers and students. When I was in high school there were, let us say, certain teachers who behaved inappropriately with students. When I was watching In Treatment (had to stop because the therapist was being shady), I asked my father how, as a therapist or a teacher or anything, you head off people getting too attached. He said you have to have the boundaries clear in your head, and communicate them clearly (this far and no farther). May Sarton does a great job of exploring where the lines get drawn, and why.

Yeah. Good times. I love reading about jobs I will never have.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale


I was determined to finish this book before the end of Halloween which I have now done.  This is my bonus book to wrap up the RIP Challenge, which, along with everyone else, I thank Carl for hosting.  I’ve had fun reading all my spooky books and reading what everyone else thought of spooky books they read.  Lots of Shirley Jackson.  Lots of Wilkie Collins.  These are the books I read:

Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger
I’m Looking Through You, Jennifer Finney Boylan
The Seance, John Harwood
Silent in the Grave, Deanna Raybourn

and this one, my bonus one; and I liked Her Fearful Symmetry best.  Obviously.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is about Victorians and detectives and manor house mysteries.  I like all of these things, though murder mysteries tend to be dramatically more fun when they are fictional.  In its essentials, this book is about a three-year-old boy who gets taken from his bedroom and his throat slit – though as the author notes at the end, the search for the resolution to this mystery distances us from the child, rather than making us think about him.

As a person who appreciates detectives and their ability to solve mysteries, I wanted more triumphs for the eponymous Mr. Whicher!  In fact altogether more Mr. Whicher!  I liked it at the beginning when Kate Summerscale – good name, eh? – was telling us all about the clever things that Mr. Whicher did.  I was saddish after the Victorian public decided that they didn’t like Mr. Whicher after all, despite his being extremely clever.

I don’t like the Victorian public.  They’re jerks!  They turned on Oscar Wilde in similar fashion, like rabid wolves!  Despite his being extremely clever also.  I am going onward to read some stories and watch some TV about people who are clever, and people who talk fast.  I talk incredibly fast, and I like it when other people talk fast, and that’s why, despite the obvious flaws of both, I remain fond of The Gilmore Girls and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  (But not West Wing – can anyone explain to me why The West Wing is in any way enjoyable?  I’ve found it so boring when I’ve seen it in the past!)

Other reviews of Mr. Whicher: an adventure in reading, things mean a lot, Farm Lane Books Blog, Savidge Reads, Stuck in a Book, Caribou’s Mom, my cozy book nook, A Book A Week, As Usual I Need More Bookshelves, Semicolon, The Bookling, Scribbles, Medieval Bookworm, Sandy Nawrot, Literary License, Lesa’s Book Critiques, Thoughts of Joy, Crime Scraps, A Writer’s Pen, 1 More Chapter, and let me know, won’t you, if I missed yours?

The Death Collector, Justin Richards

Recommended by Darla D from Books and Other Thoughts – I knew I had to read this when she said “dinosaurs” and “Victorian”, and then she carried right on and said “street urchin” and “vicar’s daughter” and “clock-maker”, which is not totally unlike Ella saying “Warning, it’s very Gothic” about Blackbriar.  I am leaving for a fantastic and glorious vacation in London (don’t go anywhere, London, I am coming back to you soon!), so I had collected all my books together to return to the library before I left (I know, right?).  And still I could not return them until I had read The Death Collector.

Essentially, a nice clock-maker called George teams up with street urchin Eddie and vicar’s daughter Liz to discover what is up with two mysterious deaths at the British Museum.  There are automatons (hahaha, that word is funny), there are corpses with dinosaur bones inside.  There is intrigue!  There is deception!  Intrigue and deception!  Kids’ books are fun for Jenny!  I really found The Death Collector entertaining, and I didn’t want to leave the country without finishing it.  And if the characterization was the tiniest bit limited, the plot was fun and included dinosaur eggs, so I’m at peace with it.

Other reviews:

Books and Other Thoughts
bookshelves of doom
Washington Post on the audio book

The Case of Madeleine Smith, Rick Geary

Oh, dear, the plight of women throughout history has been really dreadful.  The Case of Madeleine Smith is a graphic novel (graphic history, I guess) about real-life Victorian lady Madeleine Smith, who may or may not have murdered her lover Emile L’Anglier (though she probably did murder him, the book strongly implies).  It’s a straightforward, fairly impersonal depiction of the story – could just as well be the Classic Comics version!  The book deliberately (I assume) sets the reader at one remove from the players in the story, so it’s more of a history than a story.  I would have liked to hear more about the trial itself.  I love scandalous trials!

It’s a pretty woeful story.  Madeleine Smith, a Glaswegian lady, gets involved with a French guy called Emile L’Anglier.  Against her father’s express wishes, she continues to correspond with him and even has sex with him.  (He lost a lot of sympathy from me by fretting over the fact that she didn’t bleed when she quote unquote lost her virginity – shut up, asshat!)  After a while, her family proposes a more eligible (richer, higher society, nonforeign) suitor for her, and she becomes engaged to him.  Emile L’Anglier is understandably upset about this, given the passionate nature of her letters.  He refuses her request to return the letters and threatens to expose their affair to her father.  Shortly after that he dies of arsenic poisoning.

I feel sorry for both of them.  I feel so sorry for Madeleine Smith, because it’s just not fair that her lover had this much power over her.  She wasn’t the soul of honor throughout their affair, or anything, but it’s legit for a girl to break up with someone.  Instead of accepting it, he threatened to do something that she couldn’t stop him from doing, something that would force her to stay with him.  Ick, ick, ick.  Taking advantage of all the things that penned women in Back In The Day.  And then she goes and (probably) murders him, and everyone calls him a vile seducer and she gets off.  Not really fair, this class business.

An interesting history in comic book form, with nice simple black-and-white line drawings.  Harvard has a glorious digital archive called Studies in Scarlet, all about these sorts of trials in the Victorian period, and they have several resources on Madeleine Smith and her trial, including a bunch of her letters to the unfortunate Mr. L’Anglier, downloadable in handy PDF format.  Sometimes technology is a pain in the ass (see Blackberry) but sometimes it is simply fantastic.  Thanks, Harvard!

What I am thinking about after reading this: Dorothy Sayers and Harriet Vane.  Dorothy Sayers wrote three wonderful books and one slightly-less-wonderful book about Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, who solved mysteries together while Peter nursed an (officially) unrequited passion for Harriet.  In the first one, Strong Poison, Harriet is on trial for the murder of her lover Philip Boyle.  She is a mystery writer and had purchased arsenic as part of her research for a book she was doing, and Philip Boyle died of arsenic poisoning, so that doesn’t look good for her.  Even worse for her, she and Philip had been lovers for some time, and had not gotten married because Philip said he didn’t believe in marriage; and then, after stringing her along in this fashion, he finally proposed to her, which irritated Harriet so much she dumped him.  (And then he died.)

Here is why Dorothy Sayers is my total hero, apart from her brilliance and wit, her skill as a writer, her radio plays where Jesus’s disciples had Cockney accents, and her many other lovely qualities: It’s all true.  Not the arsenic part, but the marriage part.  Dorothy Sayers was indeed involved with a writer who claimed not to believe in marriage, and then after a whole year, he told her that no, actually, he had just been pretending to be against marriage in order to test her devotion to him.  So she killed him.  And then had everyone say loads of nasty things about him after he was dead (in her book, I mean – not in real life obviously).  I love her.

Other views on Rick Geary:

an adventure in reading
Andi over at Estella’s Revenge

The Meaning of Night, Michael Cox

I started reading this in Bongs & Noodles one time, a while ago, and I got bored.  I am more easily bored when I’m reading at Bongs & Noodles than I am in real life – maybe because Bongs & Noodles is all full of loads of brilliant books, and my time there is finite.  Anyway, then I read about it over at Superfastreader’s blog, and it sounded so good I decided to reconsider.  As often happens, I was very pleased that I did.

The Meaning of Night is all about a Victorian gentleman called Edward Glyver who conceives a plot to get revenge on one Phoebus Daunt.  He starts out by telling you how he killed someone, so you have reason from the start to think that he is an insane person, and then you can change your mind if you like, as the story continues.  In a way this book reminded me of Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx, with the Victorian times, and the lad with the poor but honest (only not really) mother, and how he’s been deprived of his Rights by a Foul Trick (or several), and how he must discover it all with the assistance of various concerned parties.

I simply cannot resist a good Victorian mystery with an intricate plot.  I particularly like mystery-type stories that aren’t whodunnits, but whydunnits.  That’s what interests me anyway.  (How they did it is also interesting – it’s why I love Beau Geste so much, though I hear some people find the intro part tedious.)  So although I did read the end, and knew that certain people were not absolutely trustworthy, and that the protagonist was going to regret certain actions, I could have still read the book without reading the end, and enjoyed it.  I love research books, where there are documents to be discovered and appended to the narrative.  Always reminds me of Wilkie Collins.

I read this mostly on the way to and from Opelousas for our delightful Easter with my family and my new little baby cousin Rayne, who was so sweet and good; and his big brother Sully, who is learning to make phrases like “baby Rayne” and “big truck” – at the top of his lungs.  And when I got home I was very sleepy, and it was rainy, and I curled up in my bed with the rain pouring down, and I read the rest of it.  A very pleasing reading experience.  I recommend this book, but particularly if you can arrange to read it in bed while it’s raining outside.

An Inconvenient Wife, Megan Chance

I love books about the Victorians.  It’s Oscar Wilde’s fault for being one.  And I like books about mental illness, as long as they do not do that stream of consciousness thing, which I absolutely can’t stand.  So when I read about this on the other Jenny Claire’s blog, I was pleased as punch to read it; and yes, I did mess up my don’t-check-out-any-more-library-books thing in order to get this book.  And, okay, yes, since I was at the library anyway, I may have gotten a few other books as well.

An Inconvenient Wife is about an upper-class American woman called Lucy who is very depressed and anxious and has been having panic attacks, because she’s unhappy with married life.  Her husband William wants to take care of her.  After a number of failed attempts to fix her, her husband arranges for her to see a neurologist called Victor Seth.  Seth becomes obsessed with trying to make Lucy all strong and independent, and let’s just say that their doctor-patient relationship does not remain entirely a professional one.

This was a thought-provoking book – Lucy is becoming a person who does not depend on her husband and peers to define how she should behave.  On the other hand, you never feel sure that she’s doing what she wants to do and being who she’s supposed to be, because her doctor’s manipulating her, and their relationship is never going to be acceptable because he’s abusing the entire doctor-patient dynamic.  It was disturbing.  I never felt like I had found my footing.

Given the choice, I’d rather read a book that was slightly melodramatic, than one that was so reflective you couldn’t locate a plot.  However, I thought this book could have been better than it was by being just the tiniest smidge more subtle about Lucy’s mindset, and the things that were going to happen.  Towards the end of the book, a number of slightly melodramatic things happened, and they would have been completely fine (you know, more fine) if they had been handled a bit more delicately.