Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Gillespie and I

Overview

As she sits in her Bloomsbury home, with her two birds for company, elderly Harriet Baxter sets out to relate the story of her acquaintance, over four decades previously, with Ned Gillespie, a talented artist who never achieved the fame that she maintains he deserved.

Back in 1888, the young, art-loving Harriet arrives in Glasgow at the time of the International Exhibition. After a chance encounter, she befriends the Gillespie family and soon becomes a fixture in all of their lives. But when tragedy strikes – leading to a notorious criminal trial – the promise and certainties of this world all too rapidly disintegrate into mystery and deception.

Featuring a memorable cast of characters, infused with atmosphere and period detail, and shot through with wicked humour, Gillespie and I is a powerful and haunting second novel from one of today’s most striking new voices.

Background

The Glasgow Boys (1883)
A group of “Glasgow Boys” pictured at Cockburnspath, 1883. (l-r) E. A. Walton, Joseph Crawhall, George Walton, James Guthrie, Whitelaw Hamilton.

Many years ago, I hatched a crafty plan for what I thought would be a ‘simple’ novel to write: a dozen or so linked short stories, all on a Scottish theme. I did complete several tales and some were published in anthologies, but in the end, the project never came together. I put the remaining unfinished stories in a box, in the attic. Years later, searching for inspiration, I hauled out this box and read through its contents: my notes and fragments of abandoned narratives. One such fragment, much expanded and revised, eventually grew into my first novel, The Observations.

Firelight Reflections by James Guthrie, 1890
This is one of the paintings that helped me imagine scenes between the women in the story when writing ‘Gillespie and I’.

When the time came to embark upon a second book, I went back to these same old stories. In one file, I found a scrap of paper upon which I’d scribbled a few words: artist, Glasgow, nineteenth century. These words didn’t amount to an idea, they were just a time, a place and a profession, but I sensed that I had found the right starting point. At the outset, I imagined that this novel might feature a female artist, and her struggles to succeed in a masculine world: a Bessie MacNicol or Margaret MacDonald MacKintosh. However, the concept soon changed direction. I decided to set the book in Glasgow’s West End, which I know well, having lived there several times since I was a child. Something about that area of the city has always fascinated me: it is, in parts, beautiful, in other parts, seedy. One particular district, sometimes known as “The Square Mile of Murder” has, over the years, been the site of many grisly crimes. As part of my research, I returned to my hometown and, in walking its streets, began to feel haunted by darker, more sinister voices from the past. As the project evolved, I found myself writing about an Englishwoman who is befriended by a Glaswegian painter and his family, and her account of a deplorable crime that culminates in a notorious Victorian court case. Artist, Glasgow, Nineteenth Century: from these seeds grew what was to become Gillespie and I.

Map of Glasgow 1888
I spent hours poring over contemporary street maps like this one, trying to get a feel for how the area might have been at the time, and working out how my characters would have got from one place to another.

FAQ

Is Gillespie and I autobiographical in any way?

For the most part, no, although two key sequences are drawn from my own experience while I was working and living in Portugal. During that time, I did happen to save the life of an elderly Portuguese lady whom I found collapsed, unconscious on the ground. And, for a short time, I lived in the home of another lady who owned a pair of birds. The descriptions of Harriet Baxter’s birds and all of the narrative concerning them (right up until the very end) are based closely on the two birds in that house.

Can I still visit any of the locations mentioned in Gillespie and I?

  • The park where the Great Exhibition takes place is now Kelvingrove Parkin Glasgow’s West End.
  • Harriet’s Glasgow lodgings are on the top floor of one of the residences at the western side of Queen’s Crescent, just off West Prince’s Street.
  • Ned and Annie Gillespie live just around the corner from Harriet on Stanley Street, which was renamed some time earlier in the last century and is now known as Baliol Street

What did Glasgow look like in the time of Gillespie and I?

Many photographs are available to view at the Virtual Mitchell site, the online archive of photographs belonging to the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, an absolutely fascinating site to browse if you are interested in old Glasgow. The photograph below is of the southerly end of Buchanan Street, taken in about 1900. This is approximately the spot where Harriet Baxter first encounters Elspeth and Annie Gillespie one hot day in the spring of 1888. 

Buchanan Street, Glasgow, 1900

Where can I found out more about The Great Exhibition?

For anyone interested in The Great Exhibition, as mentioned in Gillespie and I, various scenes from around the Exhibition grounds can be seen here.

Where did the designs of the covers of Gillespie and I come from?

Both UK covers of Gillespie and I feature the artists’ impressions of the main building used during the Great Exhibition of 1888. The hardback cover artwork and design is by the wonderful Petra Borner – visit her website here – and the paperback cover artwork and design is by the fabulous Neil Gower – visit his website here.

Is Merlinsfield a real place?

Merlinsfield, Harriet’s father’s property, is based on a real place called Robinsfield, near the hamlet of Bardowie. This was a home and studio on the outskirts of Glasgow, once designed and used by artist Robert MacAuley Stevenson. The Robinsfield building has now been divided up into executive apartments. For more information read this article.

Extract

Preface

Tuesday, 11th April 1933

London

It would appear that I am to be the first to write a book on Gillespie. Who, if not me, was dealt that hand? Indeed, one might say, who else is left to tell the tale? Ned Gillespie: artist, innovator, and forgotten genius; my dear friend and soul mate. I first became acquainted with Gillespie in the spring of 1888 and during the course of several years thereafter we were connected through the most intimate of friendships. During this time, I learned to understand Ned – not simply through what he said – but also through his merest glance. So profound was our rapport that I was, on occasion, the first to behold his completed paintings, sometimes before his wife Annie had cast her gaze upon them. Ned and I had even agreed to co-author a volume on his life and work; but, unfortunately, that book was never written, due to his tragic and premature death at the age of 36, just as (in my humble opinion) he was about to reach the very zenith of his creative powers.

Reader, if you wonder – as I suspect you may – why you have never heard of Gillespie, this supposed genius, then be aware of one thing: that before he died, Ned burned almost all of his work, save for a handful of paintings which were in private ownership and thus inaccessible to him. I believe that he attempted to recover some of these canvases, and to my certain knowledge, one moonlit night, would have stolen back a portrait of Mrs Euphemia Urquart of Woodside Terrace, Glasgow, had not he been interrupted in the act of forcing a water closet window by the Urquart’s butler, who (apparently cut short in solitary labours of his own) had been sitting in the dark; and who – despite the handicap of having his trousers at his ankles – grasped the intruder’s shoulders as they emerged beneath the sash. A momentary struggle ensued, but soon thereafter Ned wriggled free and bounded away across the back green, chuckling (perhaps in relief at his escape?), and the butler was left holding only a tweed jacket, aromatic with pipe tobacco. A few bills in the pockets revealed Ned’s identity but, happily, the police were not minded to pursue any investigation.

The Urquart portrait therefore survives, along with a few others, but most of the paintings were reduced to ashes. It is to my everlasting regret that amongst those ruined canvases were Gillespie’s most recent and finest – if bleakest – works. I have no doubt that those precious masterpieces marked a new departure for him and would have given us a glimpse – yes! of the future! – and also of Ned’s struggles, both within himself and with his ill-fated wife and family, a group of persons who, sadly, were a burdensome factor in his life as much as they were a source of inspiration to him.

You may also wonder why I have been silent for so long, and why it has taken me all these years to put pen to paper. Perhaps I had to gain some distance from a sequence of profoundly affecting events, not least of which was that Ned, in addition to wiping out his artistic legacy, also took his own life. By that time, I was thousands of miles away, and powerless to help him. Confident of an eventual reconciliation, I never suspected that we were moving towards such a rapid unravelling, not only of our relationship (what with all that silly white slavery business and the trial) but also of his entire fate. However, let us not get ahead of ourselves. I will come to all that in due course.

Do you know: there are times when the past is so vivid in my mind that it seems more tangible to me even than my real life? Perhaps the act of committing this narrative to paper will free me of certain recurring dreams and (God-willing!) diminish my eternal aching sadness about Ned Gillespie.

Chapter 1

May 1888

Glasgow

In the spring of 1888, it so happened that I moved from London to Glasgow, following the decease, at Christmas, of my aunt, whom I had nursed all through the autumn and early winter. During those cold, dark months of sickbed vigil, London had become oppressive to me and I grew to associate the place with death and dying. After several months of mourning had elapsed, I began to yearn for a change of scene, and so, I decided to undertake a trip of some description, using a portion of the funds conferred upon me by my maternal grandfather, who had died several years previously, leaving me a lump sum and a small annuity.

It was to Scotland that I turned my sights. I had never visited there, but my mother was Scottish, in origin, if not inclination, and my stepfather – also a Scot – resided near Helensburgh. I rather suspect that, in going north, I nurtured some Romantic notion of discovering my Caledonian heritage. Perhaps it might be considered callous to undertake such an apparently carefree, touristic trip so soon after one’s close relative has passed away, but please understand that neither my mind nor heart were carefree. Fresh air was what I craved: fresh air and distraction, to escape the odour of hothouse funeral flowers, and to purge my mind of bad memories.

As you may remember, the first Glasgow International Exhibition was staged in the year ‘88. For several months, the newspapers had talked of little else, and it occurred to me that some solace might be found in a sojourn to the magnificent spectacle that was said to bestraddle both banks of the River Kelvin. Thus, in the second week of May, having closed up my aunt’s little house in Clerkenwell, I took the train to Scotland.

Travelling alone held no fears for me. I was 35 years old, and quite accustomed to making my own way in the world. Of course, in those days, the very idea of going hither and thither, unaccompanied, would have been viewed by many as unbecoming, or as a symptom of lowliness or poverty – which was not, in fact, the case. I was young, independent and modern, and although I was deeply affected by the death of Aunt Miriam, I certainly never saw myself as helpless, which is why I always took advantage of my own vigour. Admittedly, one had to be careful: gazing neither left nor right, and never (Heaven forfend!) looking any man, gentle or otherwise, in the eye.

The journey from the South seemed never-ending, and dusk was falling as we approached our destination, the train rattling on through the landscape of hills and fields, with the sound of cinders pelting the roof of the carriage. We passed village after village – some fringed by heaps of waste, others by stagnant pools – then more fields, blanched in the smoke from our engine. Soon, the fields disappeared, swallowed by the night and the lamp-lit suburbs. At last, our speed slackened; the buildings shot up higher on each side, plunging us into darkness, and my traveling companions began to gather their belongings, as the train rumbled, canting from side to side, out onto a bridge. When the gloom lifted, I glimpsed, through silvery girders, a stretch of copper-coloured water: the Clyde. The river teemed with vessels and, all along the quays, lights were blinking, whilst, above us, the reflected glow of countless furnaces turned the clouds sulfurous yellow.

That summer, the Exhibition in Glasgow was to create an influx of visitors from all over the world. By chance, my arrival was well-timed: early enough in the year to secure half-decent lodgings, yet just a few days after the brouhaha of the opening ceremony with its crowds (large, enthusiastic) and royal visit (dumpy, indifferent). Once I had settled into my accommodation – two rooms in the attic floor of a terraced house not far from the West End Park – I spent a moderately distracting week strolling around the exhibits: the Fine Art and Sculpture rooms in the Eastern Palace; the thrilling assault to the senses, both aural and nasal, in the Dynamo Shed; the Queen’s Jubilee gifts (dull but, presumably, for those that need it, terribly reassuring); a reproduction of the Bishop’s Palace which, upon investigation with the tip of my umbrella, revealed itself to be made entirely of painted canvas; and – my favourite, illicit haunt –  Howell’s tobacco kiosk with its wondrous international selection of cigarettes: Picadilly Puffs; Shantung Silks; Dinard Dainties; Tiffy Loos! Oh, how I longed to stretch out on one of those divans up in the lounge and partake of nicotinic delights! However, this was many years ago; the world was a less tolerant place than it is now, and thus I had to content myself with ladylike forays to the front counter “on behalf of my father” to purchase little darlings that I would later enjoy in private.

Not all my time was spent in the park. I found that walking seemed to alleviate my spirits, and so, once the novelty of the Exhibition had begun to fade, I began to explore the centre of Glasgow, to familiarise myself with this Second City of the Empire, this place of many hills – and it was on one of these invigorating excursions that I first encountered two ladies who, as it transpired, turned out to be close relatives of Ned Gillespie.

This would have been, perhaps, in late May. I cannot recall the precise date but do remember that it was an unusually hot day and, feeling too stuffy in my accommodation, I had taken myself for a walk into town. The streets – with their pearly awnings and gay bustle of hats and parasols – were all a-shimmer in the heat, and swarming with ‘foreigners’, with the result that Glasgow had assumed the air of a cosmopolis, resembling, perhaps, Seville, Paris or even Naples, on a fête day. In places, the city appeared to be a building site, with offices, tenements and churches under construction on all sides. The silhouettes of wooden cranes jutted skywards and, on almost every street, there appeared patches of waste-ground, piled high with planks and mounds of stone, or gable ends of half-built tenements, with hearths already provided for persons yet unborn. Whilst walking along the busy thoroughfares, I was delighted to overhear snatches of conversation in a dozen different accents and languages: there were the Scots, of course, and the English, and the Americans, but I also encountered French, German and Dutch, and another tongue, which, at first, I could not identify, until it dawned upon me that what I was hearing was the language of the Gaels, the Highlanders of Scotland and, from across the water, the Irish.

In Buchanan Street, I had paused to inspect a display of table linen in the window of Wylie and Lochhead, when something incongruous came to my attention. The pavement upon which I found myself was in shade, but the opposite side of the street was awash with sunshine and, brightly mirrored in the glass before me, I saw a woman in a black capote bonnet, stretched out on the ground, whilst a girl crouched beside her. At first I took this for some impromptu piece of street entertainment: not at all a far-fetched conclusion, given that, as a result of the Exhibition, the city was bristling with plein air theatricals of one sort or another. I turned to gain a better view. There, indeed, was a lady, perhaps in her early sixties, lying on the pavement near the entrance to the Argyle Arcade. However, now that I could see clearly, I ascertained that she was not a “comedienne”, but that she had suffered some kind of collapse. This was evident from the genuine dismay on the face of the girl at her side, a pretty golden-haired creature in print frock and tall-crowned straw hat. The girl gazed around wildly and then hailed a youth in dusty clothes who happened to be passing. I could not overhear what was said because at that moment a cab sped by, but after a few words were spoken on both sides, the boy turned and dashed up Buchanan Street, no doubt in search of help.

Meanwhile, the scene on the pavement had attracted the attention of passers-by, and a small crowd began to assemble. A bossy-looking dowager swooped in with a vial of smelling salts, but when the application of these beneath the victim’s nose had no effect, our beldam was obliged to fall back, defeated. Thereafter, a tall gentleman bent down and thrust the collapsed matron’s discarded tapestry bag beneath her neck: no doubt a chivalrous act designed to keep her head off the ground, but one which forced her chin towards her chest and tipped the capote bonnet askew. The girl tightened its ribbons and then fastened her companion’s collar, which had come undone.

Evidently, the rougher elements of the throng were treating the emergency as part of the day’s entertainment. They called out to the girl and to each other, and their comments ranged from the well intentioned (“Pinch her cheeks!” and “Sumdy away and fetch a doactor!”) to the rather less altruistic: “Anybody got any sengwiches?” – a question which seemed, to me, to typify the gallows humour of the Glaswegian.

It was at this point that I decided to see if I could be of any assistance. Over the previous few years, I had attended several lectures run by the St. John Ambulance Association, and was very familiar with their textbook First Aid to the Injured. My interest in the subject was partly that of the casual enthusiast and partly prompted by my poor aunt’s failing health. I will not claim to have been an expert, but I knew enough to see that the fumbling ministrations of those gathered around the victim might do more harm than good.

Without further ado, I hurried across the road, stepping between bystanders until I had reached the figure on the ground, whereupon I crouched down and commenced to inspect her stout person. Her lips were parted; her eyes closed, as though in sleep. Her young companion was fanning the air, uselessly, and weeping. From a distance, this girl had looked to be about 15 years old, but I saw now, as she glanced up, that she was a young woman, perhaps in her early or middle twenties. When I asked what had happened, she shook her head.

“I don’t know! She fell down. But she won’t wake up!”

“Please don’t worry,” I told her, “I’m sure she’ll be quite fine.”

And so saying, I began to feel for a pulse. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong place, or perhaps the matron’s wrist was too plump, but I could detect nothing. The young woman was staring at me with great anxiety.

“Are you a nurse, madam?” she asked.

Not wishing to disappoint her by replying in the negative, I simply ignored her question and addressed the crowd sternly. (They had been leaning in for a better view of proceedings).

“Stand back please! Give us air!”

There was a modicum of rearward shuffling, but I saw at once that it would be impossible to make them retreat to any distance. Therefore, I returned to my examination of the patient. I had already decided the most likely possibility: that she had fainted in the unaccustomed heat. There was, furthermore, a chance that she might have banged her head upon falling, and rendered herself unconscious. However, as I peered down at her face, I saw that matters were graver still, for her lips had turned an unmistakable shade of blue. A bad sign, I knew, but – I will admit now – for the life of me, I could not remember what, exactly, this indicated. Was there something amiss with her heart, perhaps? Or was it the lungs?

The poor fair-haired woman was clearly on the verge of panic and so, rather than appear at a loss, and thereby frighten her, I began to carry out procedures that would have been advisable in any case, trusting that a diagnosis would come to me ere long. Firstly, I unfastened the capote bonnet; this, I passed to the young woman, to give her something to do, other than flap her hands and weep. Next, I unbuttoned the lady’s collar. Then, supporting the back of the skull, I removed the carpetbag ‘pillow’ from beneath her neck. This prompted some rumbling objections from the gentleman who had so recently thrust it there, but I silenced him with a look.

The matron’s head was clammy. I ran my fingers through her pale, thinning hair, to check for injuries, but could detect no sign of blood or swellings. I pressed my ear to her chest and perceived, faint yet unmistakable, a heartbeat. That, at least, was good news. And yet, those blue lips, still darkening!

As a last resort, I held my hand and ear to her mouth and discovered, to my surprise, that the patient was not breathing. She was alive – but not breathing. How could that be? And then it came to me. Almost certainly, there must be some sort of obstruction in her mouth. I had once witnessed a practical demonstration in which my friend Esther Watson, a lady lecturer from St. John, had checked the oral cavity of a supposedly unconscious person (in fact, her husband Henry, who had sportingly volunteered to recline on the carpet). Esther had explained that such a procedure was necessary in case the tongue or vomitus had blocked the throat. Remembering her example, I pressed down on the matron’s chin, thereby causing her jaw to drop and her lips to part. Then I leaned forwards to peer inside her mouth.

Perhaps I should point out that I was not relishing any of these developments. Upon rising that morning, I had hoped to spend the day in quiet contemplation of shop windows, with, perhaps, the addition of a visit to a tearoom. It did not occur to me for a second that I might, by mid-afternoon, be considering at close quarters the orifices of an elderly citizen. However, having embarked upon my physical examination, I found myself compelled to proceed. Annie  (that is to say, the fair-haired young woman, as I was later to find out her name) had fixed me with a tearful gaze. The crowd had already dubbed me “Florence Nightingale”, and were calling out words of encouragement. I felt compelled to live up to my name.

However, peer as I might, I could detect nothing in the lady’s mouth. Why, there was not even a tooth in her head! The recess of her throat was too dark to see, but her tongue lay flat and was not sagging back to block her air passage, and there was no sign of any vomitus. I remembered, then, that during the St. John lecture, Esther had, as a final precaution, inserted a finger and thumb inside her husband’s oral cavity and felt around for obstructions. Could I bring myself to do such a thing? It seemed I could, for my fingertips were already sliding between the woman’s lips, prompting a collective intake of breath from the crowd, and one or two moans of distaste. Admittedly, it was not a pleasant sensation. She was hot inside and sticky. My fingers probed beneath the tongue and behind the gums, edging towards her gullet. Nothing. I was just about to withdraw my hand when one of my fingernails brushed against something right at the very back of her mouth, something slimy, but hard to the touch, and which, unmistakeably, did not belong in a person’s throat.

With the utmost caution, I stretched my finger further, perhaps by a quarter of an inch. There! I could feel it now with my fingertip: a solid object, as unyielding to the touch as ebony. No time to consider what this thing might be. I knew only that it must be removed at once, for undoubtedly this was what prevented her from breathing. Her lips were already darker blue: if I did not act quickly, she would soon be dead. I would have to get enough purchase on the obstruction without pushing it further down her throat, which could prove fatal.

Gently, gently, I extended my arm. The crowd moaned once more as my hand disappeared, beyond the knuckles, into the woman’s face. Hidden from view, deep in her gorge, my fingertips investigated the slippery edge of the mysterious item. It was almost impossible to get a grip on it. Then, abruptly, my middle finger slid behind some sort of ridge, and hooked there. I gave a soft tug. The thing shifted, moved upwards slightly, so that I was able to press my thumb against it. Much encouraged, I pulled again, this time with more urgency and – to my great surprise – my fist came flying out of her mouth with the great sucking whoosh of a Kilner jar as the seal is broken. The crowd gasped and lurched backwards, staring with obvious distaste at my hand. I followed their gaze. And there, clutched between my thumb and fingers, was a full upper set of false teeth, in Vulcanite and porcelain! Presumably, the woman had fainted, and the dentures had slipped back to seal her gullet like a stopper. I gazed down and saw – for the first time – the rise and fall of her bosom as she breathed once more. Her eyelids fluttered, then opened. The crowd forgot their disgust and cheered. Laughing through her tears, the pretty young woman cried out: “Elspeth! Elspeth! Oh! You’re awake!”

The lady gave me a rather distrustful glance, then turned her head towards her companion and whispered hoarsely: “Annie! Where’s my hand-bag?”

(As if I might have stolen it!).

The young woman picked up the bag to show her. Another ragged cheer went up, but now that the crisis had ended and – alas – nobody was dying, people had begun to drift away. I gazed at the teeth in my hand, wondering what to do with them. Elspeth herself was too confused to take them from me, so I held them out to Annie, who gazed at me blankly for a moment and then, emptying her own bag onto the pavement, began to sift through its contents, finally producing a rather grubby handkerchief, in which she wrapped the dentures.

I thanked her, and she nodded. “Aye, you’re welcome.” 

What a delightful local accent she had! I had imagined that, since she was reasonably well-dressed, she might be rather differently spoken. But it was quite charming to hear such a pretty Glaswegian brogue.

From her prone position, Elspeth squinted at me. “Have we been introduced, madam?” she asked, faintly.

“This lady’s a nurse,” Annie explained. “She made you better.”

At this, I felt shamefaced. The time had come to tell the truth. After all, my intervention had been a success. I had saved a life! I stood up, brushing the dust from my skirts, saying: “To be perfectly honest, I’m not exactly a nurse. I simply know a little about how to tend to the injured.”

Annie frowned. “Oh?” she said, examining me afresh, apparently disconcerted. Her reaction caused me to wonder whether she would have been so trusting of me had she known the truth all along.

Elspeth was gazing at me, clearly still very befuddled.

“I’ve seen her before,” she said. 

“No,” sighed Annie. “This is the lady that made you better. Just rest now.”

At that moment, the dustily clad youth returned, accompanied by a gentleman whose leather bag and general air of imperious, bad-tempered conceit revealed him to be a doctor. In fact, I was relieved to yield authority to him. The strain of the past few minutes had begun to catch up with me, and I felt a little light-headed. I gave him a brief account of what had taken place, and he raised an eyebrow when he heard how long Elspeth had been unconscious, without breathing.

“Perhaps two minutes, you say?” He looked me up and down as he tried to get my measure. “You are medically trained, madam?”

“Not exactly. Not medically trained, no, but -”

“I thought not,” he said, distinctly unimpressed. “Nonetheless, I’d wager you’ve saved this lady’s life.”

Then he knelt down to tend to Elspeth, who submitted, like a child, to his examination. Annie – having gathered up her scattered belongings – had stood up, and was skittishly untying and retying the ribbon strings of her hat. I decided to absent myself quietly and politely.

“Well, I must go now. I’m so glad to have been of some use to you today.”

“Och, thanks for your help,” said Annie, and I was about to take my leave when she added: “By the bye, how do you know all those things? Listening for a heartbeat and all the rest?”

I hesitated. 

“Well, you see, I was looking after someone who was ill, and in the interest of being more useful, I attended some lectures by the St. John Ambulance Association. The instructors demonstrated all sorts of procedures and techniques -“

“Oh well, that’s good.” 

“Yes – but sadly, what I learned was not enough to save my poor aunt. She died, just before Christmas.”

“Och, I’m sorry!” said Annie. “I didn’t realise.”

“Please – don’t apologise. Sometimes, I do still dress in mourning – except that I had the misfortune, the other day, to be caught in that dreadful thunderstorm without my umbrella. There was not a cab in sight, and – well – I had to walk all the way back to Queen’s Crescent in the pouring rain. Crepe is such a difficult fabric, I find: it just shrivels and rusts in the slightest shower.”

Elspeth, who had sat up to accept a glass of water from one of the shopkeepers, croaked: “Queen’s Crescent? At George’s Cross?”

I admitted that this was, indeed, where I lodged.

“That’s just around the corner from us,” said Annie.

“Invite her to call,” whispered Elspeth. “Tomorrow.”

“Perhaps the lady’s too busy.“ Annie turned to me. “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name. I’m Annie – Annie Gillespie.”

“Nonsense,” came the matron’s husky voice. “She’s not too busy.”

“And that’s my mother-in-law, Elspeth – Mrs. Gillespie.”

“How do you do?” I said. “My name’s Harriet – Miss Harriet Baxter. But, as for tea – I couldn’t possibly –“

“Annie! Tell her!”

The young woman raised an eyebrow, and gazed at me, without enthusiasm. “I’m afraid we have no choice in the matter,” she said.

And so it was that I was invited for tea, the very next day, at Stanley Street.

Momentous occasion!

Or was it? Upon reflection, I believe that I did feel rather pleased, but only in the way that one does when invited to break bread with a Native.

Suddenly one feels an entirely new connection to the place where one finds oneself. It no longer feels like such foreign soil. And a world of hitherto unknown possibilities seems to open up.

Reviews

The opening of Jane Harris's clever and entertaining second novel gives little indication of how dark it will become. Harriet Baxter . . . approaching her 80th year, sits in her London flat in 1933 writing a memoir of events that happened in Glasgow in 1888." Carol Birch in the Independent was delighted with Gillespie and I, which she described as "multi-layered, dotted with dry black humour and underpinned by a haunting sense of loneliness".

The opening of Jane Harris's clever and entertaining second novel gives little indication of how dark it will become. Harriet Baxter, a cultured and refined woman approaching her 80th year, sits in her London flat in 1933 writing a memoir of events that happened in Glasgow in 1888. We are addressed directly as "Reader", as in a Victorian novel, such words as "sojourn" are used, and the writing is measured and stately. Yet a faint tinge of something wild and overwrought underlies.

It would be wrong to give away too much of the plot of Gillespie and I — suffice to say that this is a compelling, suspenseful and highly enjoyable novel — but what stands out is the way in which this narrative provokes us to think again about what we imagine, and what we hope for, and about the burdens that those hopes and imaginings impose upon those around us.

Full of incidents and conversations whose significance only becomes clear long after you've read them, Gillespie and I is a masterpiece of irony and grotesquerie, told with the straightest of faces. One for the long winter evenings: its 605 pages will fly by. But it lingers in the memory after you've finished it.

Jane Harris follows her first novel, The Observations, a scintillating comic tour de force, with another subversive chunk of Victoriana, stuffed with incident like a horsehair sofa, and a creepy, chortling narrative that rattles along at locomotive speed despite the book's length.

Glasgow in 1888 was a culturally rich city, the scene of an international exhibition of art and technology, and home of the influential Glasgow Boys. To this group of painters Jane Harris adds a fictional figure: the charismatic Ned Gillespie, an ambitious but impecunious artist, an affectionate family man, and the unwitting object of an infatuation on the part of Harris’s narrator, Harriet Baxter.

Gillespie and I hooks the reader in with great, demented, power.

Jane Harris's first novel, The Observations, caused a minor publishing stramash when 100 pages and a synopsis created a bidding war between publishing houses. Published in 2007, it made several award shortlists and won glowing reviews and rave comparisons to Sarah Waters and Michel Faber, so one might call Gillespie And I the difficult second album. And yet, with her singular talent, she makes this triumph of a tale seem like feeding wee buns to a bear.

'Gillespie and I', a fictional memoir by Jane Harris, combines warm late Victorian detail with well-crafted storytelling technique. We first meet Harriet Baxter in 1933 Bloomsbury, as our elderly narrator embarks on her memoir. The focus from the off is on her magical encounter with ‘soulmate’ Ned Gillespie, Baxter soon becoming deeply embroiled in the lives of this talented young artist and his friends and family.

Jane Harris's second novel is Faber's lead fiction title for the spring and is the subject of the sort of major publicity campaign which many other novelists may envy. It isn't surprising, however, that the publishers should have high hopes for the book. It is a meaty middlebrow novel.

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 . . . this enthralling tale will delight those with a taste for the seamy side of Victorian life.

To detail even minor aspects of the plot twists in "Gillespie and I" would necessitate an additional crime: You'd want to kill me. So delectably well has Harris constructed this psychological thriller that even the slightest hint of what's to come would spoil things.

In Glasgow for the 1888 International Festival, lonely, wealthy 35-year-old spinster Harriet Baxter befriends and attaches herself to the family of up-and-coming artist Ned Gillespie.

This is an excellently narrated and chilling drama. 5/5.

A fine evocation of a lost era, and without a false note.

Familiar themes and ideas are given new and enthralling twists. The worlds of art and the “unreliable narrator” come together beautifully in Jane Harris’s second and latest novel, Gillespie And I.

A few years ago, before I started this blog, I read Jane Harris's great debut novel The Observations and loved every minute of it. So you can imagine how pleased I was when I got a copy of her much awaited second book from the publisher ... it is an absolute cracker and I was awake for long hours in the night racing to the end of it. I'm longing to tell you about it, and also to talk to someone else who's read it, as it's going to be very difficult to write about it without revealing all kinds of developments which I'd rather you discovered for yourself. Lovely stuff.

Those many readers who adored Jane Harris’s first novel, The Observations, will be delighted with her latest sparkling offering, Gillespie and I. Once again, Harris delivers a clever histor­ical novel set in Scotland, chock-full of period detail, teeming with lively characters embroiled in mystery and steeped in an earthy wit. It’s Victorian gothic with a tart Scottish burr, and it’s irresistible.

Despite getting off to a deceptively slow start, Jane Harris's follow-up to The Observations soon ups its game. Packed with dark deeds and unreliable narrators, it is a cunningly plotted puzzler full of mysteries and ambiguities that satisfies the contemporary taste for Victoriana and Gothic tales.

I recommend Harris's superbly slippery novel, but the less you know about it in advance, the better.

Far from a regular whodunit, this sharply written intrigue is a triumph of suggestion and possibility that exerts a tenacious hold on the imagination.

Just finished reading Gillespie and I, by Jane Harris, which I bought about a week ago, started reading and could not put down. I read it late into the night, woke up looking forward to resuming it and found myself sneaking a sly chapter in the middle of the day when I was meant to be doing other things. It's a big, beautifully written and cleverly constructed read. The research has clearly been meticulous. Historical research, as I know all too well from personal experience, can be a trap for the unwary. The research itself can become so enchanting that one thing leads to another, and you find it hard to make yourself stop and write the novel. But Jane Harris displays an admirable and vivid facility for transporting her readers back in time.

Let me say straightaway what an impressive book this is. Gillespie and I, the second novel by Jane Harris - whose The Observations was widely acclaimed - is a bravura work, its pace finely controlled, its plot like a rope played out, as taut or slack as dramatic effect requires, its setting so well re-created that the reader could find their way around the Glasgow of the 1880s, should the need arise. But beyond all that, what really makes the book is the central character, Harriet Baxter, and as it's a first person narrative, it's Harriet's voice which literally and metaphorically carries the story.

Wow! In a recent author interview the author was asked to name the best books she'd read in 2011 and [Gillespie and I] was one of them. I hadn't heard of it before but enquired at the library and there it was. I knew nothing about it except it was historical fiction and.... Wow!

In fact I have avoided any chance of fatigue by coming to Gillespie and I in instalments spanning several weeks, and at over 500 pages the book can cope with that and this may well explain why I seem to have been carrying this one up and down stairs for ever, but it's paid off...what a brilliant read.

"I read Jane Harris's debut, The Observations, a couple of years ago. I thought it was very good, but nothing about it really suggested to me that the author would go on to write a minor masterpiece. However, as soon as I started hearing good things about Gillespie and I, I had this feeling I was going to love it; something to do with the plot synopsis combined with all the good things I was hearing about it (the reviews here, so far, are overwhelmingly great) and, of course, that absolutely beautiful cover design (I really hope they don't alter it for the paperback edition).

It is 1888, and Harriet Baxter, a spinster on the wrong side of 30, escapes to Glasgow to recuperate after the death of her only close relative. Jane Harris's Gillespie and I appears to be an account of Harriet's subsequent entanglement with the family of Ned Gillespie, a struggling painter of some talent, who we learn later killed himself and burnt his canvases. Written as a memoir, with the narrator now in her 80s, the novel affects the genteel manners of a Victorian lady, until the Gillespie family is plunged into turmoil by the behaviour of Sibyl, their eldest daughter.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Gillespie and I by Jane Harris. Elderly Harriet Baxter tells the story of her chance meeting and following friendship with the Gillespie family in Glasgow 40 years previously. Ned Gillespie is a struggling artist at the time of the Glasgow International Exhibition and gentle, unassuming Harriet takes a liking to his works. The descriptive writing of Glasgow in the year 1888 allows you to clearly imagine the characters and the period. Jane Harris has a wonderful way of keeping the reader entertained throughout the whole book with the twists and turns of the story and keeps you guessing what will happen next. It’s a dramatic book written in a mild mannered style which is a breath of fresh air compared to the many horror crime writers out there. I couldn’t put the book down. I’d definitely recommend this book to others and I am now going to read Jane Harris’s previous novel The Observations which I can only hope will be just as good.

Gillespie and I is a 500-pager but at no stage did I flag while reading it as the story, which starts slowly and deliberately, soon tightens its grip with great cleverness. It is historical fiction again, this time late Victorian Glasgow, and the disappearance of a child is told through the viewpoint of an outwardly respectable spinster from the 1930s. I just loved the way the author cunningly sets up the ambiguous atmosphere of what really happened to the child. This really is a treat.

"... if there are 2 better novels published during 2011 than Jane Harris’ GILLESPIE AND I and Patrick Ness’ A MONSTER CALLS, then they will have to be very, very good books indeed ...

Jane Harris is a magnificent writer, and she grabs the Gothic tradition with fierceness.

A beautifully crafted piece of historical fiction which wrongfoots you throughout.

We already have proof that Jane Harris can write fresh and authoritative historical fiction. Check. She can invent original, historically appropriate characters whose self assurance she manipulates to great effect. Check. What I learned in Gillespie and I is that Harris has a wonderful gift for slowly parceling out the suspenseful details in a novel while never making the book feel like it is just a mystery story. I was positive I knew where things were headed in Gillespie and I but I was completely and happily wrong. Yea!

This is a rich, fascinating, involving and fast-moving story, which races to its conclusion with the inexorable power of one of those old Victorian steam trains. There is also plenty to discuss with others and turn over in your mind when you reach the last page. Terrific stuff.

I came across Jane Harris’s first novel, The Observations, when it was dramatised for the radio. Any book that can triumph over the unnecessary sighing and crunching gravel of the Woman’s Hour serial is the literary equivalent of a spirit level, the quality of the central voice staying true whatever the angle. So I was looking forward to her next work and, for once, the second novel is even better than the first.

In Gillespie and I, Harris returns to Victorian Scotland, this time to the Glasgow of 1888, a city in the middle of the International Exhibition, complete with national pavilions and gondolas on the river Kelvin. The narrator is Harriet Baxter, a spinster of independent means, who is recalling the events of the novel from her flat in Bloomsbury 50 years later.

The story starts when Harriet saves a woman from choking on her false teeth. She turns out to be the mother of Ned Gillespie, an artist not dissimilar to one of the Glasgow Boys. Harriet becomes friendly with Gillespie, his wife, Annie, and their two daughters, and rapidly becomes indispensable to them. “Knowing how much Annie yearned to improve her painting, I tried to help out around the house whenever I could so that she could devote more time to her Art. Personally, I have never had much talent for any of life’s accomplishments.”

She commissions Annie to paint her portrait, and saves Gillespie from humiliation in the press. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that the family is plagued by trouble; the elder daughter, Sybil, is plainly disturbed — she is blamed for pornographic graffiti that appear on the apartment walls and there is evidence that she may have tried to poison the whole family at Hogmanay.

It is not until about two thirds through the story that the reader begins to suspect that Harriet is not a dutiful spinster but something much more powerful. It turns out that she has met Gillespie before, in London, and as the story unfolds the reader is gradually led to understand that Harriet Baxter is no Nick Carraway narrator-as-bystander, as in The Great Gatsby, but the ultimate solipsist.

The clue is in the title. Harriet lies at the heart of this brilliantly plotted, blackly comic book like a black widow spider at the centre of her web. Not since The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has a writer come up with such a gloriously unreliable narrator, with the added bonus that Harris, unlike Agatha Christie, can actually create characters with real depth and subtlety. She is also adept at evoking the atmosphere of Victorian Glasgow without ever letting her clearly exhaustive research slow down the story. Like a Hitchcock film, every detail is there for a reason. You wonder why she almost throws away the detail that real gondoliers were imported from Venice to ply their trade on the river Kelvin during the exhibition, only to find that it plays a crucial part in the second half of the story.

It is rare to read a literary novel where the storytelling is as skilful as the writing is fine, but in Gillespie and I, Harris has pulled off the only too rare double whammy — a Booker-worthy novel that I want to read again.

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