Gillespie and I by Jane Harris


Reading Matters was very enthusiastic about this book and I found that I wholeheartedly agree. The narrator is an elderly woman writing in 1933 about events that occurred in 1888-90, beginning with the International Exhibition in Glasgow.

In the preface of this novel Harriet Baxter tells us that she wants to write a book about Ned Gilllespie, described as her dear friend and soul mate. He was a great artist, she says, though he destroyed all but a few of his works and died at 36. The reason that so many years passed before she undertook this task was that she needed to gain 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 a reconciliation, I never suspected that we were moving towards such a rapid unravelling, not only of our relationship (what with 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.

So you can see from the outset that Harriet Baxter is writing to present herself in a certain light and to dismiss all those whose view of her is different from her own. The picture we get of Harriet is that she is a very proper woman, extremely helpful to everyone she encounters, and has the best intentions in trying to promote the artistic career of Ned Gillespie. By the end of the book, a very different picture has emerged, and her denials are harder to believe. It becomes apparent that many of the events that Harriet recounts actually were engineered by her.

On a much smaller scale, she tells in interspersed chapters about her life in 1933 as she is writing her book. She has an assistant who lives in her house; her connection with the assistant deteriorates dramatically as we learn more about Harriet as others see her. 

Jane Harris, Gillespie and I, HarperCollins, 2012, 504 pages. Available in the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.

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