Canongate, 1983, 450 p.
This novel was first published in 1914 – not a good time to make a debut – and was all but forgotten for the next fifty or so years. When it was reprinted in 1979 it was hailed in some quarters as if it was some sort of lost classic, compared to The House with the Green Shutters, with which it has some thematic similarities. Alasdair Gray describes Gillespie as having “the worst first chapter that ever introduced a novel worth reading.” The chapter is indeed overwrought, and overwritten, but lasts less than two pages.
The book’s subject, Gillespie Strang, is born under a bad sign. Literally. In an inn whose emblem is a dagger striking down. His mother fears all the male Strangs are doomed. This premonition haunts the book but not Gillespie himself. He is the type of man who might be described as a bad lot. On the make, sly and avaricious, tight with his money, he starts off trapping rabbits on others’ land, swiftly moves on and up, proposes to a local girl to cement a business deal with her father – a deal which condemns a neighbour to penurious widowhood – grows to be a power in the town, the fishing village Brieston, based on Hay’s boyhood home, Tarbert, on Loch Fyne. Structured over four books the novel describes Gillespie’s rise and rise through his and his family’s eyes and those of some of his neighbours. Herring fishing, its ups and downs, is a large presence in the early books; weather, storms and drought, a counterpoint to the tale. All are grist to Gillespie’s acquisitive mill.
Gillespie is a very Scottish novel and has that Calvinist intertwining of the religious with the everyday that pervades Scottish literature and even now, despite the decline in religious observance and belief, affects the Scottish character. Predestination hangs over Gillespie Strang like the striking dagger above the inn. Hay was a Church of Scotland minister, so this flavouring is unsurprising. A key phrase is the Biblical quote, “God is not mocked,” that the widowed Mrs Galbraith pins to her door after her eviction due to Gillespie’s dealings with his future father-in-law. It isn’t perhaps a book you would recommend as an introduction to Scottish writing, it is of its time – or perhaps earlier – and its casual references to “the Jew” who pawns items for the locals jar nowadays. And the overwriting too present in chapter one also plagues the book. There is a glossary at the back but not all the Scots expressions used in the novel can be found there. Yet let it wash over you; in most cases the sense will come through.
The viewpoint characters are complex and individual. One of them claims Scottish exceptionalism, “We are the land that barred out the Romans; the land that has pride without insolence; courage without audacity; blood with condescension.” While Mrs Galbraith reflects on the state of women, “They compromised themselves, not out of vice, but simply to please men, who take advantage,” “A woman will sacrifice everything, even life itself, which often is a slow martyrdom, to satisfy the claims of her family,” she herself plans to degrade Gillespie’s wife as a means to repay him the wrongs he has done her.
In an introduction (which, like most such, should not be read till after the book itself) Bob Tait and Isobel Murray say, “The English novel characteristically limits itself to issues more domestic than the Scots.” The strength of the English novel, “lies in analysis of individual, family or group relationships, of individual psychology, or in forms of novels of manners. Gillespie like other Scots novels, has a wider scope. To find similar scope and ambition we have to go to the Russian or American novel where matters political, social, philosophical and metaphysical are more commonly treated.” They explicitly compare it to Moby Dick in its “relentless questioning of the universe and the source and nature of evil.”
To modern tastes Gillespie as a novel might appear overcooked. Its roots lie in Victorian literature; there are reminders of Thomas Hardy in its grimmer scenes, of Dickens in its length and list of characters. It describes a rural/remote Scotland on the cusp of the modern age – a Scotland that has long gone – but reminds us that human nature is unchanging.
Alasdair Gray’s summation of Gillespie is that it is “good, but not throughout.” I’d go along with that.