Bessy Buckley is a young woman out of place in 1860s Scotland, with no resources, wandering the countryside in search of a position - or at least somewhere to lay her head for the night. An Irish lass, Bessy is viewed with suspicion by the locals but early attracts the unwanted attention of a rude young man who travels the road with her.
Believing herself near a castle, Bessy thinks to find employment there. She soon learns that the only skills needed are those of milkmaid and farmhand, and she lies to the lady of the house, Arabella Reid, avowing her capability to perform the chores. It is soon apparent that Bessy cannot milk a cow and she is sent on her way, but when Mrs. Reid discovers that the girl can read and write, she offers her a place on the spot, her primary duty to keep a daily journal of all activities in the house.
With a murky past, at best, Bessy hopes her new employer will never have occasion to ask for references, her former “employer” an elderly man who took her in off the streets, her mother long lost to the streets. Happy enough in her new position although unsure exactly what is required in keeping a journal, Bessy is thrilled to have a place to sleep, meals and some new clothes, albeit secondhand.
Growing more secure over time, Bessy is snooping in Arabella Reid’s room when she learns there have been other girls, one of whom, Nora, disappeared and was later found dead near the railroad tracks, causing Arabella much grief. She also discovers that the woman is writing a book, Observations on the Habits and Nature of the Domestic Class in My Home; some of the remarks written about Bessy are pointedly unkind and hurt her feelings.
Miffed, Bessy nurtures a grudge that festers the more she thinks of the woman’s judgments. Growing attached to Arabella in spite of her critical comments, Bessy makes excuses for her strange exercises in the middle of the night and her employer’s often unfocused manner of attending to household duties.
Her jealousy pricked by the very mention of Nora and the effect of the girl’s name on Mrs. Reid, Bessy craves a small revenge. Unfortunately, her petty machinations result in the unraveling of the Reid household, uncovering the troubling circumstances surrounding Nora’s demise: “How could I ever have told the terrible consequences of what I was about to do?”
Grimly atmospheric and steeped in secrecy, Arabella’s journals call to Bessy. But once Mr. Reid destroys them, she must resort to other means to uncover the nature of the Reid’s marriage, the cause of Nora’s untimely disappearance, and Arabella’s floundering mental condition, although the answers are a bit anticlimactic.
With a running commentary on the habits and pretensions of the upper class, Bessy’s quirky remarks add flavor to this tale, a strange brew of social convention, the despair of a lonely, half-mad woman, and the restrictions of a patriarchal society. Bessy is bent on her own survival yet blind-sided by unexpected affection for Arabella in a Byzantine maze of hopes denied and fortunes run amok.