Not long before WWII, Harriet Baxter begins working on a memoir about her association with one Ned Gillespie, "my dear friend and soul mate" (xiii), a Scottish painter whose "tragic and premature death" (xiii) has prevented him from receiving his critical due. At the same time, she maintains a diary about her increasingly precarious health and her just-as-precarious relationship with her live-in companion, whom she slowly begins to believe may have entered her employ under false pretenses. Like Wesley Stace's Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, Jane Harris' Gillespie and I is indebted to Nabokov's Pale Fire, but it also descends directly from a much-less vaunted branch of the narrative tree: Fatal Attraction (albeit without any affair or, indeed, reciprocal attraction). Much like Fatal Attraction and more recent iterations of the same general plotline, like Notes on a Scandal (and Zoe Heller's original novel), Jenn Ashworth's A Kind of Intimacy, and, to a certain degree, A. N. Wilson's Turn of the Screw-rewrite A Jealous Ghost, Gillespie and I tracks a single woman's misguided obsession with an unobtainable beloved, with traumatic results for everyone around her. In this neo-Victorian reworking of the Fatal Attraction plot, the well-meaning Harriet slowly manages to insinuate herself into the borderline middle-class lives of the Gillespie family after she rescues the vaguely Mrs. Jellyby-ish Elspeth Gillespie from death by dentures. The real plan, as Harriet fails to acknowledge to herself, is to get as close as possible to Ned.
As is so often the case in fictional diaries and memoirs, Harriet uses her account in order to construct and defend her subjectivity against the onslaught of competing narratives--specifically, the narratives surrounding her trial for the kidnapping and murder of Rose Gillespie, the Gillespies' youngest daughter. Despite her repeated protestations of innocence, as one might expect, Harriet is also obsessed with the possibility that her companion Sarah is actually Rose's older sister Sibyl, a supposedly neurotic and violent girl who was permanently confined to an asylum after the trial. Harriet's increasingly-complex machinations for identifying Sarah's "real" identity, ranging from performing roles on the telephone to various stratagems for glimpsing Sarah's body (Sibyl severely burned herself), parody the mystery/trial plot that occupies most of the book. But it also raises questions about Harriet's ability to manipulate other people, both male and female, into plots that forward her own desires. "You could make anyone do anything, just by talking to them," cries an angry Sarah near the end (467). Sarah's claim grants Harriet a near-supernatural power over language that, at first glance, appears to have little to do with either Harriet's unsuccessful attempts to unmask Sarah or her life as a mostly solitary, unloved spinster. However, it echoes an apparently throwaway line from Harriet's doctor, who jokingly observes that her "accessory nipples" would once have been seen as "[t]he sign of a witch" (139). Even in jest, Harriet's status as single woman slips into something much more troubling and socially inimical--the threatening female Other whose body is both too female (the extra nipples) and not female at all (unattractive, apparently asexual).
Harriet's attempts to exculpate herself in the memoirs both mark her as an obviously unreliable narrator who is frequently unable (or unwilling) to read social cues, and as a frustrated single woman who seeks power by turning herself into a patron. Much of the unreliable narration is of the "outright omission" type as opposed to the more subtle "read between the lines" type; she never confesses to meeting with the kidnappers to arrange for Rose's abduction, for example, but does set up Sibyl as the possible agent in her sister's disappearance. By contrast, the careful reader will wonder just why Harriet provides so much detail about how Sibyl might have cleverly broken Rose's fern pot, down to the "faint thud with--perhaps--a dim, ringing crack as the vessel came apart and fell into pieces" (71). If Harriet gaslights Sibyl, as the reader soon comes to suspect, then the signs of Sibyl's supposed insanity, which manifest themselves in wildly destructive behaviors, sexual caricatures, attempts to harm others, and general vandalism, do double duty as equally troubling manifestations of Harriet's own repressed potential for murderous violence. Her decision to give Sibyl Struwwelpeter as a gift does not bode well. (Significantly, there are almost no instances when anyone sees Sibyl performing one of her evil deeds--her family simply finds clues and arrives at their own conclusions--which reminds the reader of Harriet's interest in highly complicated plotting.) Sibyl is as much Harriet's competitor for Ned as is Ned's wife, Annie; given what we learn about Harriet's non-existent relationship with either her father or her cruel stepfather (Harriet happily reminisces about the time her stepfather Ramsay assaulted her for slightly damaging one of his kaleidoscopes), her pursuit of Ned may be as much a desire for a father's approval as for a lover's, with all the incestuous subtext that entails.
Even as Harriet covertly--we begin to suspect--deconstructs Ned's family around him, she overtly positions herself not as his would-be romantic interest, but, as I said, his patron, despite her early confession after seeing one of Ned's paintings that "knowing little about art, I did not, at the time, single it out as exceptional" (28). Nevertheless, she consistently speaks of Ned's art in the tone of the amateur connoisseur, praising the lost "precious masterpieces" that "marked a new departure for him" (xiv), critically observing of another painting that "the subject matter was too slight to merit its imposing scale" (33), and so forth. Contemplating Ned's position, she "was prompted to wonder how many others there were, like him: gifted young men, whose talents were left to rot for want of money and opportunity" (49). Casting Ned as a mute inglorious Milton (or maybe Raphael) of sorts, Harriet finds an outlet for her unspoken desire (immediately spotted by her stepfather) by playing the part of would-be disinterested Lady Bountiful, handing out cash to starving artists in an otherwise unjust world. By seeking to "network" for Ned with her stepfather, acquiring one of Ned's paintings for herself, and so on, Harriet tries to establish herself as a woman of aesthetic taste, who can look at an apparently unassuming painting and declare it "honest, original and modern" (67). In part, she casts this project as an outgrowth of her nascent feminism, which also appears in her patronage of Annie, who "longed to be an artist of merit" (87). But more to the point, by casting herself as Ned's patron and the family's protector--among other things, she successfully prevents a caricature of Ned's gay brother from appearing in the paper--she successfully inserts into the household as combination surrogate housewife and bookkeeper (147).
In effect, the unmarried Harriet seeks to achieve her own pleasures by playing multiple roles, from servile to superior, that frustrate the conventional Victorian spinster roles of "auntie" or "companion." As artistic patron, she becomes a woman behind the man; as imitation housewife, she becomes a parodic Esther Summerson, transforming the household on her own terms. "How did we ever manage without you?" Ned asks gratefully (172). Harriet proves so dangerous because she performs so many stereotypical female characters: she is the Angel (of Death) in the House, the disinterested (because apparently sexless) pure woman who can advise a man on his career as easily as a woman on her mothering. And when Harriet's favors are resisted, as when Annie refuses to stay at her stepfather's estate (215) and rejects her gift of a new "dinner service" (217), then the extent to which the part of spinster can entrap as well as empower becomes horribly clear. Kidnapping Rose Gillespie--if, after all, that's what happens--proves one more way of ensuring Harriet's increasingly shaky position within the Gillespie household, as nurturing friend instead of would-be sexual competitor. But it also subverts the role advocated for single women by Charlotte Yonge, for example, whose unmarried lives were to be spent not in self-fulfillment, but in sacrifice for others. Everything Harriet does qualifies her to be the heroine of a didactic novel, were it not that she is attempting to destroy Ned's entire life. Ultimately, the over-the-top fates of the Gillespies after Rose's death, including Ned's attempt to erase both his art and himself from the planet, take the Victorian fantasy of women's "influence" and warps it into something far more horrifying.