There are so many novels written these days which are set in the Victorian era that they even have their own category - "Vic Lit". However while there are certainly parallels with, in particular, both "Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters and "The Crimson Petal and the White" by Michel Faber Jane Harris has certainly added something new to the genre. What makes her novel stand out is the voice of the narrator, Bessy Buckley, a serving girl of tender years who finds herself in the employ of the likeable but slightly peculiar Arabella Reid. Bessy is our only entry into the world of the novel, the tale we read is ostensibly written by her, and her voice is startlingly original and entertaining. Writing in a Scottish-Victorian highly intelligent but fairly uneducated patois Bessy's narrative is full of gloriously funny, and rather bawdy, observations on the events that are played out around her. During the course of the novel she describes her life at Castle Haivers - a run down old house in the middle of a Scottish nowhere - and her dealings with Hector (an earthily vigourous young chap with designs on everything female within a radius of five miles); Master James, the owner of the house and a man with political ambitions; the pompous and hypocritical Reverend Pollock; sundry servants such as Muriel, whom Bessy less than affectionately describes as "Curdle Features" and, most importantly, the lady of the house, Arabella Reid, whom Bessy affectionately calls "Missus" in her narrative.
The plot centres around Bessy's relationship with Arabella and, in particular, the book Arabella is writing on the subject of servants. However, as Bessy digs a little deeper into the past, she discovers that one of her predecessors, the saintly Nora, died in mysterious circumstances. Unfortunate accident or something more sinister? Bessy is determined to find out and in the process she sets off a chain of events that plunge the inhabitants of Castle Haivers into a world of secrets, lies and distinctly spooky goings on.
This book really does have something for everyone and, like most of the reviewers on this page, I raced through the novel in a matter of a few days. It's laugh-out-loud funny in places (Bessy's after-dinner sing song for the Master of the house and his distinguished guests being a highlight) and distinctly creepy in others, the whole plot strand to do with Nora twists and turns and creeps in ways that would have been a credit to the likes of M.R. James, but it's the sheer exuberance and originality of the narrative voice that makes it a real winner. Bessy is quite a character and I defy anyone to be bored by her company. Highly original. Highly recommended!