Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (William Heinemann – July 2015)
A bit of controversy is always good for business and in this case even wild rumours of a frail, confused Harper Lee at the mercy of avaricious lawyers has not done book sales any harm. I did hear of one US bookseller offering his customers refunds based on their complaints that they had been misled into buying Go Set a Watchman, thinking it was a newly written sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, as opposed to a recently scavenged, rejected first draft. If the book had been unearthed after the author’s death it would have been hailed as a great literary discovery—no one would have questioned the motives of the agents or publishers. Whatever her state of mind, Harper Lee did give permission for the book to be published, so let’s leave it at that. Personally, however it happened, I am glad that this book was published and that I had the opportunity to read it.
Jean-Louise Finch, now aged twenty-six, returns home to Maycomb from New York City, to visit her father. The highlight of this book for me, and any Mockingbird fan I imagine, was meeting a grown-up Jean-Louise—she’s exactly the person I hoped she would be. She’s just as stubborn, funny and independent as Scout. She still has the same tempestuous relationship with her Aunt Alexandra:
“Aunty,” she said, cordially, “why don’t you go pee in your hat?”
She still refuses to behave like ‘a lady’, thank goodness. Sadly Jem and Dill don’t appear in this book and you find out why early on, so I won’t say anything else about that. Instead we are introduced to a new character, Henry ‘Hank’ Clinton, who is Atticus’ protégé and Jean-Louise’s suitor.
Atticus, at first, appears to be the same old Atticus, until the shocking revelation that he once attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting, and is mired in some of the prejudices of his generation. What a surprise. There has been much gnashing of teeth over the revelation that Atticus is a racist, particularly from those who named their children after the lawyerly paragon. Personally, I don’t believe that the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman is incompatible with the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird—it is realistic that a grown-up Scout would become disillusioned with the heroic father of her childhood, that perhaps the issues were not as clear-cut as her childish perceptions led her to believe.
Many reviewers have mentioned the editorial decision to focus on Scout’s childhood, in the book that became To Kill a Mockingbird, but surely this was a commercial decision as well as a literary one. It was an easier story to sell: cute kids getting into trouble with a clear-cut moral. In contrast, Go Set a Watchman is a preachy, ranting kind of story about disillusionment and the sad realisation that ingrained prejudice and social inequality do not have quick-fix solutions. ‘Go set a watchman’, a biblical reference, is interpreted as an appeal to the individual’s conscience, which is hardly a hugely inspiring rallying cry for social change. It is a book about complicated issues.
It is also important to take into consideration the context in which the book was written. A book that is published out of its time will have an otherworldly sense—it may strike a discordant note. The issue of Southern pride and independence is slightly distasteful—particularly in the wake of the Charleston Church Shooting and the resulting controversy over the confederate flag.
It is by no means a perfect book; its intentions are not particularly subtle, but it does have a naïve honesty and raw passion that are perhaps more authentic than the nicely packaged story of To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman also reveals something about the preoccupations of the reclusive author who penned it. But primarily the book is worth reading for the sake of meeting Jean-Louise Finch as an adult—a wonderfully vivid and charasmatic character who finally steps out of her father's shadow.
The only false note for me is right at the end when, after fighting with Atticus, Jean-Louise goes back to him to apologise, and he congratulates her on disagreeing with him:
“You may be sorry, but I’m proud of you.” (…)
“Well, I certainly hoped a daughter of mine’d hold her ground for what she thinks is right—stand up to me first of all.”
Annoyingly, even in his wrongheadedness, Atticus wins.