Gillespie and I, by Jane Harris, Faber, RRP£14.99, 528 pages
In April 1933, elderly Miss Harriet Baxter sits down in her Bloomsbury flat to write a memoir about her friendship in the 1880s with the Scottish artist, Ned Gillespie, who was almost, not quite, one of the Glasgow Boys. To her readers, the infamous names Baxter and Gillespie would signify something much more scandalous than platonic affection.
Like Harris’s successful 2007 debut, The Observations, this new novel also features a Scottish Victorian setting, an audacious female voice and more than a tinge of madness. The rather pedantic opening is merely the prelude to a chilling tale reminiscent both of Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Julian Barnes’s novel Arthur and George, with a nod to Sarah Waters.
Harriet is rather slow in getting to the point as she describes her meeting with the young artist and his family, though she occasionally drops dark hints: “And there I must stop, for these recollections have made me rather too upset to continue.” Her tale encompasses anonymous letters, catchpenny journalism and court deposition, amply demonstrating Harris’s mastery of Victorian phraseology and psychology.
The Gillespie household is a strange one. The eldest of Ned’s two young daughters, Sybil, is the immediate focus of alarm. To Harriet, the girl’s unformed teeth and baleful glances give her a disturbingly vampiric look. It seems to be Sybil who is scribbling obscene images on the walls in crayon, and smearing excrement in the lavatory, perhaps unconsciously aping her father’s profession. Meanwhile Annie, Ned’s wife, is unimpressed by his pushy new friend. Undaunted by Sybil’s antics and Annie’s hostility, bolstered by Ned’s politeness and his mother’s gossipy affection, Harriet blithely inserts herself into the household.
Harris’s skilful use of voice shows Harriet variously as insensitive, kindly, interfering, innocent, sharp and obtuse. Blind to her own effect – she simply cannot see in her adoring recital of the “friendship” how ambivalent Ned is – she can nevertheless be very shrewd with regard to other people. Proceeding like a detective, she quickly sniffs out the dark secret about Ned’s brother Kenneth and either (according to your view) uses it cynically to cement her relationship with the family, or selflessly acts to preserve her new friends from ruin. As the tangled narrative plays out, it becomes clear that every attitude and event, even the most innocent, can take on a darker aspect.
Harris plays with the convention of the narrator to call into question whether we can ever really understand other human beings. She introduces layer upon layer of doubt and surmise, often through seemingly insignificant details: a pendant, a rusty stone, a bag of sugar. Hearsay and mistaken identity both function within the plot and form part of the narrative: has Harriet, like an unscrupulous counsel, been hiding key facts from us?
The second story arc – Harriet’s life as she writes her memoir – casts shadows back over the past. There is a brief, suggestive reference to a “minor misunderstanding” later in life: “so minor that it never even came to court.” Equally sinister is her bizarre scheme to strip her middle-aged companion, Sarah, so that she may inspect her skin. This entails a lot of creeping about the flat, a comic interlude at Hampstead Ponds, and even a ploy to drug the poor woman.
Perhaps the mixture isn’t quite cooked enough. Harriet’s “memoir” often doesn’t read like one. There is a scene of pure Gothic horror which turns out only to be a nightmare, and an obvious piece of symbolism in the form of Harriet’s two caged birds, Layla and Majnun, which points unsubtly to Harris’s themes of incarceration, ownership and control.
For all that, this enthralling tale will delight those with a taste for the seamy side of Victorian life; as long as they don’t require every lace in the bodice to be firmly tied up.