I’ve just finished reading a novel that, until very recently, I didn't dream I’d ever read – that one written by Harper Lee which isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird. And despite all the controversy surrounding this publication and despite the fact that Lee filed it away and allowed it to gather dust for more than fifty years, Go Set a Watchman is in no way a shabby offering. Far from it. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s a bit of a gem. Here’s why:
First, forget if you can that it’s written by Harper Lee and it still stands up as a very readable and interesting novel. It provides a perspective on race that must surely have as much resonance with today’s readers as any intended earlier audience. The long uncomfortable conversations between the ‘colour-blind’ Scout and her much more colour-conscious relatives seem horribly relevant. It’s hard not to leave Lee’s fictional world for a moment and to think instead of what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri. Or in Europe where words like immigrant and Eastern European are increasingly used when the word person would actually do just as well.
Second, it provides us with a fascinating insight into the creative processes that eventually gave us To Kill a Mockingbird. Many of the characters from that novel are already here in this one and are recognisably the same people. Scout the adult is as strong-minded and individual as Scout the child. Jem and Dill exist but only as unexplored memories. Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose has a small mention and her one line of dialogue – remembered from childhood by the older Scout – brought a smile to my face:
Don’t you say hey to me, Jean Louise Finch, you say good afternoon!
Mrs Dubose is already horrible. But she’s not yet as horrible and rude as she becomes. Somewhere between manuscripts, Harper Lee decided to ratchet the nastiness up a level.
And Atticus is there too, of course. But, yes, the beautiful man we all think we know and love, says awful things. In his educated and calm manner, he rationalises racial segregation and inequality, and just as Scout is disappointed and appalled, so are we. But this is still recognisably the same man we love from TKAM – and that’s what makes this Atticus so fascinating. He is still the widower who loves his children and raises them to be free-thinking and independent. He is still the brilliant lawyer, still the short-sighted expert marksman who hates violence and still capable of saying some breathtakingly wise things. But he is also real. Scout’s uncle Jack tells her, ‘...you confused your father with a God.’ And in TKAM, this God is the Atticus we see - his young daughter’s air-brushed, idealised hero. The uncomfortable truth is that the perfect Atticus we all want to identify with was never a very likely character.
It also shows us how much better the first person voice worked for Harper Lee than the third person. And how viewing the world from a child’s perspective provided a much warmer and more engaging tone than the angry, jaded one which underpins Go Set a Watchman. God, what a shrewd and patient operator Harper Lee was to wait! And how shrewd and patient of her editor too!
Third, just as Harper Lee’s remarkable insight into human nature shone so brightly throughout TKAM that almost every sentence became a classroom quotation, her same insight was already apparent in this earlier effort. OK, it’s not quite so packed with showstoppers but there are still some beauties. Here are a few of my favourites:
“Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate...[the next word here is Negro but it works just as well with any label you like]... children?’
“... They’re entitled to the same opportunities anyone else has, they’re entitled to the same chance-”
“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”
“What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions? He doesn’t give. He stays rigid. Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out.”
So is Go Set a Watchman as good as To Kill a Mockingbird? Of course not. Harper Lee is well aware of that and that’s why she put it in a box for yonks.
Did I expect it to be as good? No.
Did I expect it to be as good as it actually is? No.
Am I glad I had the chance to read it? Damn right I am. Thank you, Harper J