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Donostia Book Club

My name is Slawka Grabowska. I organize Donostia Book Club. We meet every month to discuss previously chosen books or short stories. Check out our FB page! https://www.facebook.com/pages/Donostia-Book-Club/105225566276875?ref=hl


Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Gillespie and I - Jane  Harris

Our last eating was a bit different: we focused on the contemporary author, Jane Harris and her historical novel, ´Gillespie and I´.

Jane Harris was born on January 01, 1961 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and had spent her early childhood there, before her parents moved to Glasgow, Scotland, in 1965. Her short stories have appeared in a wide variety of anthologies and magazines, and she has written several award-winning short films. In 2000, she received a Writer's Award from the Arts Council of England.

rained as an actress at the East 15 Acting School in London, had to abandon her dreams of acting because of stage fear. After years of trying different careers, Jane worked abroad, variously as a dishwasher, a waitress, a chambermaid and an English language teacher. She began writing short stories by accident, while confined to bed in Portugal with a bout of flu in the early nineties. She said: "I had no TV, hardly any books, no money. And so, just to amuse myself, I started writing a short story. It was about an ex-boyfriend who happened to be a transvestite. I had such a great time writing that story that I immediately wrote another one, about another ex-boyfriend; all my early stories were about ex-boyfriends. I kept writing these stories and they were getting published in anthologies and magazines. By this time, I had moved back to Scotland, having decided that I wanted to be a writer."

On her return to Glasgow, her short stories began to be published in anthologies of new Scottish literature. In the early 1990s she was a regular panellist on STV's Scottish Books programme. She went on to undertake an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, and then completed a PhD at the same university. During the same period, Jane wrote a number of short film scripts. Several of these scripts won awards, including two BAFTA nominations, for "Bait" (1999) and "Going Down" (2000). In 1999 and 2000, Jane was shortlisted for the BBC's Dennis Potter Award.

After UEA came a two-year stint as the Arts Council Writer-in-Residence at HM Durham Prison (1992-4). As she said about that job: ¨My remit was to help prisoners to write poems, fiction and memoirs, two and a half days per week. Otherwise, I was free to do my own work.¨ It was there that she began her first novel, structured as a set of short stories. One of these short pieces was about a farmer-poet and a girl he acquires songs from. However, Harris says that as soon as she invented the voice of the girl, Bessy started taking over and she ended up ditching the farmer and focusing on Bessy and "Missus" - the woman who employs her as a maid.

The project ground to a halt at about 10,000 words when Harris started to write short scripts for her husband, film director Tom Shankland; two films, Going Down (2000) and Bait (1999), were nominated for Bafta awards. Jane worked as a script and novel reader for film companies and for The Literary Consultancy, and as a script editor.


When she rediscovered her novel in a box in the attic in 2003 she says that she couldn't believe she had abandoned Bessy. She sent the first 100 pages to publishers, and a bidding war took place between Faber, Fourth Estate and Hodder for UK rights. The Observations was published by Faber & Faber (UK) and Viking (USA) in hardcover in 2006.


Recognized as a talented author, she taught Creative Writing for many years, principally at the University of East Anglia. Jane currently lives in East London and is married to the film and TV director Tom Shankland.

Her latest novel, Gillespie and I, was published to critical acclaim in the UK in May 2011 by Faber and Faber. Her first novel The Observations was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2007 and has been published in over 20 territories worldwide. In France, The Observations was shortlisted for the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger (2009), and in the USA it won the Book of the Month Club’s First Fiction Prize (2007). Waterstone’s, the UK bookstore chain, chose Jane as one of its 25 Authors for the Future. In 2007 she was also nominated for the British Book Awards Newcomer of the Year and for the Southbank Show/Times Breakthrough Award. In 2011, Richard and Judy chose The Observations as one of their 100 Books of the Decade.

Although we don´t know a lot about her, on her website we can read the list of her favourite books. Among them are classics like Jane Austen; Charlotte Bronte; Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Ford Maddox Ford or Leo Tolstoy:, but she also reads Daphne du Maurier, F Scott Fitzgerald, Vladimir Nabokov, JD Salinger, Kazuo Ishiguro, Patrick Süskind, John Irving, Raymond Chandler, Thomas Harris and John Updike. She also mentions some of her favourite films (The Big Lebowski, Hannah and her Sisters, Husbands and Wives, All About Eve, The Ladykillers, It's a Wonderful Life, Festen, Singing in the Rain, Some Like it Hot, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).

Her novels

The Observations (2006)

The Observations is published in the UK by Faber and Faber, in the US by Penguin, and in Australia/New Zealand by Allen & Unwin. Since its release in the UK and US it has been published in the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, Greece, Spain, Germany, Norway, Poland, France, Portugal, Sweden and Brazil. It is due to be published in Israel, Serbia and Montenegro, Romania, Croatia, Russia, Turkey.. An audiobook version is available, narrated by the author. There is also a Danish audiobook version.

Synopsis: set in Scotland in 1863, is narrated by the lively, sharp Bessy Buckley, who leaves Glasgow and happens into a job as a maid at Castle Haivers. Arabella, her mistress, encourages Bessy to write her thoughts and experiences in a journal. She also subjects Bessy to odd experiments, but Bessy goes along with them because she is flattered by the attention and quickly grows attached to her mistress. Things change when Bessy snoops in Arabella's locked desk and discovers the book Arabella has been writing, The Observations, a study of the "habits and nature of the Domestic Class." Bessy is incensed to read criticisms of herself in the account, and also learns of Arabella's affection for one of her predecessors, a girl who died under mysterious circumstances. Bessy concocts a revenge that ends up having consequences far more lasting than she ever envisioned …

Gillespie and I (2011)

On her website we can read: ¨Two key sequences in Gillespie and I 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 old lady whom I found collapsed, unconscious on the ground. And, for a short while, I lived in the home of another Portuguese 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) is based closely on the two birds with whom I shared a home in Portugal.¨

We also learned that you can still visit many of the locations mentioned in Gillespie and I:

  • The park where the Great Exhibition takes place is now Kelvingrove Park in 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.

  • Merlinsfield: Merlinsfield, Harriet’s father’s property, as featured in Gillespie and I, is based on a real place near the hamlet of Bardowie, called Robinsfield. 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.

Gillespie and I, was published to critical acclaim in the UK in January 2011. It is a chilling tale, largely set in the late 19th century, and involving anonymous letters, sleazy journalism and a notorious court case. It would appear that I am to be the first to write a book on Gillespie. Who, if not me, was dealt that hand? 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. (Text taken from the hardback edition of Gillespie and I)


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.



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.

This, we are told, will be a testament to her "dear friend and soul mate", the artist Ned Gillespie, who burned all his paintings and committed suicide. Now, for posterity, she will be the first to record the true story of this "forgotten genius".

The back-story forms the main body of the book, but we never lose touch with its present-day narrator, whose situation will be revealed eventually as the last act of a chlling drama. Its origins begin when the 35-year-old Harriet, freed from the bondage of caring for an elderly aunt, decamps to Scotland to savour her freedom and take in the first Glasgow International Exhibition. A thoroughly modern woman of independent means, she briskly saves the life of Ned's mother who has fallen down in the street and is choking on her false teeth. A close friendship with the entire family ensues.

Knowing as we do that Ned will destroy his work and himself, it is intriguing to be introduced not to a tortured genius but to a pleasant and stable sort of man with a loving wife and children, and a career which, while not stellar, is moderately successful. Soon, Harriet is practically part of the somewhat chaotic Gillespie household. Ned's wife Annie, also an artist, appreciates her help with the two unruly little girls, Sibyl and Rose. Harriet, having money, is able to support Ned's work.

"On the surface," she tells us in her even way, "the Gillespies did seem like a fairly stable family. However, ere long, I began to see beneath the façade." Sibyl, Ned's beloved and troublesome elder daughter, has begun to show signs of violent neurosis, drawing obscene pictures, smearing excrement on walls, planting sharp objects in her little sister's bed.

There is deep disturbing psychology in what follows, but things are not always what they seem. Harris plays with the reader's expectations and perspectives brilliantly, and to reveal too much more of the plot would be criminal. Suffice to say that our growing unease will be more than justified.

It is with the most subtle sleight-of-hand that Harris brings us to the gradual realisation that we are being manipulated, and that the whole story is one of manipulation. But of whom and by whom? Multi-layered, dotted with dry black humour and underpinned by a haunting sense of loneliness, this skilfully plotted psychological mystery leaves a few threads dangling, all of them leading back to an old woman living in London in 1933 with two greenfinches in a cage and a mysterious servant/companion called Sarah Whittle, of whom she is afraid. Equally filled with shifting perspectives, this parallel drama draws the book to its quietly nightmarish end.



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