Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
Is the heroine of Jane Harris’s second historical novel a dangerous psychopath or a misunderstood spinster? That one could so easily be mistaken for the other is part of the fun Harris has with her readers – her first, massively popular work, The Observations, offered us a spirited young Irish maidservant’s involvement with the wackier elements of nineteenth-century gentility. How will readers care, though, for the possibly deluded, certainly lonely Harriet Baxter? That question matters because Harris’s work depends on making the strongest pact possible with her readers and she uses characterisation to do it. If John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman alerted us to the postmodern possibilities of history – the general unknowability of sources – and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White thirty years later cocked a snook at such artificiality with eye-wateringly authentic detail, where does Harris come in?
Well, she gives a nod to the postmodern ploy of the unreliable narrator, and plays around with ‘official’ testimony in the form of court records (and as they are presented in Harriet’s narrative, how do we even know these are ‘true’?). But Harris likes solidity in details too, and this book is a testimony to that effort to getting things right. We begin with a 1933 narrative, as the elderly Harriet looks back over the events from 1880 to 1890 when she arrived in Glasgow for the International Exhibition. An orphan with an independent income, she is in her thirties and unmarried. She is a classic Victorian autodidact, keen on self-improvement, and has even learnt first-aid – handy for the moment a middle-aged woman, Elspeth Gillespie, faints in front of her and swallows her false teeth. Harriet prevents the woman from choking to death and is duly invited to tea, where she meets Ned, Elspeth’s son.
Ned is a painter struggling to gain acceptance into the small world of professional Glasgow artists. He has a beautiful but somewhat frail wife, Annie, and two daughters: the surly, elder Sybil, and the adored, angelic Rose. Harriet soon becomes acquainted with his sister, Mabel, and brother, Kenneth. Living only round the corner, she finds excuses to visit and eventually asks Ned to paint her portrait. He has no time, but Annie agrees to do it. Harriet is either a nuisance, inveigling her way into another household, or a great helper, keeping an impoverished family afloat. But as she gets to know them, Sybil’s behaviour worsens, Annie becomes distraught, and when Harriet and Annie are poisoned at a New Year party, matters reach breaking point. A fatal catastrophe ensues, and Harriet finds herself remanded in prison on charges of kidnapping and murder. Is she a truly malevolent soul, or did she simply try to help, out of a need to belong? Her voice is appropriately uptight and prissy, yet this is a woman who knows about homosexuality, who walks through the city at any time of day or night, who rents out rooms for herself and engages staff. There is a hinterland to Harriet that suggests she is not quite the prim spinster she seems.
Harris’s tale is a character-driven mystery thriller and she uses Harriet with great skill to woo us all. And yet when I turned that last page, I found myself wanting to know what it was all for. To inform about the Glasgow art scene at the end of the nineteenth century? Portray women’s lives in the late Victorian world? To entertain? Perhaps we only ask these questions of historical fiction and perhaps that is unfair, but justification beyond being a ‘rattling good read’ seems necessary. This is historical fiction that merges the unreliability of the postmodern with the authenticity of the detailed doorstopper: but for what purpose? At the end of a hugely enjoyable read, I was, alas, no nearer to answering that question.
Gillespie and I
Faber, rrp £14•99, 528pp