7th May 2011
In 1654 the painter Carel Fabritius was killed, and most of his work destroyed, in the great explosion of the military arsenal at Delft. It was a tragic loss — many contemporaries thought of Fabritius as a brilliant artist, even a possible successor to Rembrandt — but it was also the beginning of a legend that sprang up around the lost works. Like the unheard melodies of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, these paintings grew in the estimation of those who came later, becoming imaginary masterpieces charged with infinite possibility, and unburdened by the limits of the actual.
Of course, as we all know, the imagination can play a similar role in affairs of the heart where, for many, an imagined partner is immensely preferable to an actual woman or man. Indeed, from Dante’s Beatrice to the pop songs of today, the perfect romance has more often than not been conducted in the lover’s own mind, where the foibles and disappointments of the real world can safely be ignored. The objects of such romantic fictions may initially be flesh and blood, but they work best by being glimpsed only in passing, or known for a week or two in early youth, therefore providing a template for the lover’s ideal and highly improbable beloved. As Robert Lowell wistfully remarks, happiness was (once upon a time) “something with a girl, in summer”, but it never belongs to the here and now and it cannot be sustained for long.
Imagined art, imagined love — to the true romantic, the only sure joy is in the stasis of the Grecian urn, where nothing falters or decays and the beautiful truth is always within sight, but also just out of reach — and, by a lucky happenstance, Harriet Baxter, the narrator of Jane Harris’s Gillespie and I, is permitted to enjoy both at once. Her inaccessible lover is the painter, Ned Gillespie, a married man some years her junior, described at the very outset as an “artist, innovator and forgotten genius” who had burnt almost all of his work before his premature death, at the age of 36, just as “he was about to reach the zenith of his creative powers”. Thus, he makes an ideal subject for a romantic narrative: lost in the past and as inaccessible as those figures on the Grecian urn, he is a blank slate upon which anything may be inscribed. All of the above information is provided on the first page of Harriet’s “memoir” of her friendship with this man she describes as her “soul mate” — and, naturally, we are obliged to place her, from the outset, into the category of unreliable narrator, a romantic being who, like all romantics, must not be trusted. Harriet is a lonely woman with a fine veneer of self- sufficiency, a bundle of coping strategies, who was neglected and abused as a child and, despite her seeming competence and good sense, inhabits a world of makebelieve or exaggerated affections now. From the first, we cannot help mistrusting the fantastical narrative she sets before us — a tale of deviant children, kidnap, a sensational court case, madness, grief and the eventual ruin of the man she alone understands and silently adores — if only because the portrait of Gillespie she provides is as suspect as it is intriguing. The artist, we are to understand, was improbably gentle and brilliant, deeply modest and also hopelessly loyal and generous to his faintly dismal and leechlike relations. Of course, as Cyril Connolly once observed, it does not take an explosion to maim a budding artistic talent, the baby carriage in the hallway will do just as nicely — and though Harriet, to her credit, does all she can for her beloved protégé, nothing is enough to ward off the ruinous support of his crass, ambitious mother, or the seemingly vicious wilfulness of his elder daughter, a beautifully sinister little creation named Sybil with a penchant for rat poison and obscene graffiti. Inevitably, as the tale unfolds — told with the benefit of almost 50 years of hindsight — it quickly becomes apparent that Ned Gillespie, for all his sterling qualities, is doomed.
Meanwhile, in a series of present-day events that parallel those that her memoir explores, Harriet builds an elaborate conspiracy around the live-in maid whom she has recently hired through an agency; a simple woman who, while she may not be all that she pretends, is essentially just as lonely and vulnerable as Harriet is herself. 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. No doubt the idea of a soul mate has a certain appeal for many, but more often than we admit, it obscures the dignity and true character of ordinary mortals, just as the idea of the perfect work of art diverts us from a full appreciation of the real, in which the right flaw is, mysteriously, an essential component of the beautiful, a necessary reminder of the human and the mortal in what might otherwise be taken for the divine.