Another week, another genre. To me, Vic lit suggests Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot and Wilkie Collins, but to publishers it describes the work of modern writers such as Sarah Waters and George MacDonald Fraser who choose to set stories in the 19th century. I don't blame them. Life with crinolines and carriages and calling cards was so much more elegant, provided of course that you were, unlike Bessie Buckley, on the right side of the upstairs/downstairs divide. Bessie is the irrepressible, irreverent heroine of this debut novel set in Scotland circa 1863, a maid of all work with the emphasis on all.
For a 14-year-old girl, Dublin-born, Glasgow-bred, and introduced to prostitution at an early age by her alcoholic mother, she is remarkably unself-pitying and well-balanced. She also has a talent for comic, invariably bawdy, description. A fellow servant, for instance, is summarily dismissed as "a big, long streak of what you might find in a thunder mug of a morning". In pleasing contrast to Bessie's low Irish narrative is the high-gothic plot featuring secrets, lies, ghosts, violent death, lunatic asylums and sexual deviation. All this and heaven too if you include the sheer exuberance of the reading. Before she started writing, Jane Harris, I was not surprised to learn, was an actor. It shows.