When the hoo-hah about Go Set A Watchman erupted a few weeks ago, I was diffident, since I haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird in about thirty years (and I don’t think I’ve seen the film), and though my memory of Mockingbird was very positive, I had no particular desire to read it again. Instead, I was interested in an apparently lost manuscript, a rejected novel that got forgotten but survived as a piece of literary archaeology. When the Guardian (and the Wall Street Journal) printed the first chapter, I read it out of curiosity, and was very surprised by how impressed I was, and how much I wanted to read the whole thing. I received the novel for my birthday last week, and read it in two gobbled sittings, last thing at night and first thing in the morning. My head is still resonating with its impact.
I thought I should check out some reviews in newspapers and literary magazines to see how my impressions measured against theirs. An awful lot of the professional reviewers seem to be setting up their personal critical flagpoles in the sea of shifting sands that is now the landscape for Harper Lee criticism. Many are using selective evidence from the book to advance a preset argument: the first review in The New Statesman was very annoying on this count. Overall, a range of judgements on the novel’s quality are on offer: this is not a great book, it is not a good book, it needs some serious editing, it’s a draft that should never have been published, it’s a money-making gambit, it shouldn’t be bought or read. There is also the racism debate, on which I am not qualified to comment except to say that, as a work written in the 1950s, Go Set A Watchman ought to be judged by the standards of that time, not our own. Many people seem to be angry and upset that Atticus Finch is given dialogue and opinions that do not make him admirable by the standards of today. Well, I’m sorry they’re upset, but, to paraphrase Hadley Freeman, please remember that he’s a character in a novel, he’s not Gregory Peck, and he’s not a real person.
I am fascinated by what I think are the real reasons why this novel was not accepted by the first publisher to read it: anti-feminism, and fear of female things. The protagonist Jean Louise Finch (Scout of To Kill A Mockingbird) spends the novel weighing up whether to get married and her preference is not to get married at all. She recalls the ghastly shock of menstruation; her months of terror at the age of twelve thinking she was pregnant after being inadvertently French-kissed, brought on by her bewilderment at a schoolmate having to leave school because the girl’s father had made both his daughters pregnant; the wardrobe malfunction of the falsies she bought to make her first evening dress look right; and she describes necking at 2am in public. These particularly female experiences could not have appeared in print in the 1950s in such an open manner. Think of how Eudora Welty got away with publishing similar material: in Go Set A Watchman Lee punches hard and honestly at how young women were normally written in the 1950s, and does not use the right euphemisms and evasive language to get her subject matter past the censors. Thus, I suggest, the book failed at its first hurdle by breaking the rules of patriarchal ‘decency’. She was a revolutionary feminist marvel for daring to try to get this sort of thing printed.
The racism which brings about Jean Louise’s awakening should be considered after reading the whole novel. Lee makes the meeting of the Maycomb Citizens’ Council the point at which Jean Louise opens her eyes, has to vomit, and starts to learn some new facts of life. Her de facto mother Calpurnia had to tell her the real facts of life, back when she was twelve, and sniffy Aunt Alexandra has no doubt that Jean Louise knows them all pretty well now (which supports the hints that Jean Louise has an active and contented sex life in New York: another startling admission for a 1950s novel). But Jean Louise’s innate colour-blindness, her assumption that the black Americans she grew up with need kindness, hope, opportunity and courtesy just as she does, is rocked by the unpleasant reality of racism in Maycomb. Through this, she finally opens her eyes to the vast changes now happening in the South, and to what her father, the sainted Atticus, is doing.
Go Set A Watchman is an astounding relic from a historical period that did not and never would have accepted it. I don’t agree at all that as a novel it needs serious editing and is merely a first draft. I was enchanted by Jean Louise as a character, at the evocative descriptions of arriving by stages in the South by train, and by the details of clothes, standards of femininity and the easy, familiar relationships. I was gripped by the meandering stream of consciousness describing her arrival home, and her absent-minded appreciation of family in the familiar setting, telling us all we needed to know by simple showing. This was all deeply satisfying to read, and beautifully written. The monologues of Aunt Zandra and the ladies of the horrific Monday morning Coffee that Jean Louise has to attend, after her Sunday afternoon encounter with Maycomb’s segregationists, are a powerful chorus of feminine agreement with what the Maycomb men have to say, increasing Jean Louise’s isolation. How could she ever have thought these were her people? The fierce anger of her awakening to the horror of open racist ideology is agonising stuff; maybe a bit wordy, but profoundly moving. And there is hope, even at the end. Dr Finch gives his niece a challenge to take up the position that he, and possibly Atticus too, has adopted, by increasing the numbers in the South of those who don’t agree with racism, because at this point in history, they need all the help they can get.
I still feel no particular desire to reread Mockingbird, because Watchman is a separate novel. Its text probably produced Mockingbird, in the sense that characters and settings are shared, but the efforts to trace connections, and to ‘show’ that Watchman is only a precursor are misplaced. The reviews assume that it can only be considered as a shadow of the later novel, or as a substandard first draft. I don’t agree. I think Go Set A Watchman is a fine novel in its own right, and should be read without fussing over what the later Mockingbird‘s Atticus may or may not have said and done. It’s a story: enjoy it, and learn from it.