- Written by: Harper Lee
- Published by: William Heinemann
- Review by: Charlie Britten
When Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s long-forgotten sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, first appeared in July this year, it was panned in almost every review, but, now the dust has settled and after some long reflection, this reviewer is awarding it four quills (out of five).
To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, set the world alight, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and rapidly muscling itself on to almost every school literature syllabus in the world. Although set in the 1930s, its tone and content resonated with public opinion at the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, but, unusually for a book set upon such a pedestal, Mockingbird is worth its every accolade. Visitors to London may like to take in the staged version, currently running at the Barbican Theatre – warmly recommended by this reviewer.
Go Set a Watchman was in fact written before Mockingbird, even though its action takes place some twenty years later. As has been widely reported, editor Tay Hohoff (now deceased) saw potential in the back story of a submission from a novice author, and supported Harper Lee in writing a different story about racial discrimination from a child’s perspective. Watchman, which was not looked at again until the beginning of this year, features many of the main characters: Scout, twenty-six years old and known by her real name, Jean Louise; her father, Atticus, crippled with arthritis; their servant, Cal, now retired. Although Jean Louise’s brother, Jem, has died in a tragic accident, he appears in the many flashbacks, along with their friend, Dill. Several other significant characters are added, including stiff and starchy Aunt Alexander and eccentric Uncle Jack, together with Jean Louise’s unsatisfactory lover, Henry Clinton.
Like Mockingbird, the narrative rambles off on frequent diversions, but the main thrust of the story is that Jean Louise Finch, who now lives and works in New York, returns south to Maycomb County, Alabama, to find the community, with whom she grew up, gripped by racism, including her family and Henry Clinton, and, most shocking of all, her beloved and revered father, Atticus. The title of the novel is taken from Isaiah 21:6, ‘For thus the Lord said to me: “Go, set a watchman; let him announce what he sees”’ (English Standard Version). Although these words are only quoted directly once, in a Methodist sermon during one of the many flashbacks to childhood, its relevance is obvious, Jean Louise being the watchman who sees the South with fresh eyes and announces in disgust. Confused, and with the superiority of an adopted northerner, Jean Louise burns with indignation, wondering if attitudes have changed or whether people have always thought like this and she hasn’t noticed. “I thought I was a Christian but I’m not… Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me….”
Whereas Mockingbird presents the reader with a straightforward scenario, the noble black man, Tom Robinson, defended by valiant Atticus, against the lying white Ewell family bringing a false charge of rape against him, Watchman digs deep into the inner racist in all of us, and all the muddle and contradictions. Atticus may attend citizens’ council meetings, with the boring and unimaginative Henry Clinton, to hear racist speakers, but he still waits behind black customers in the grocery store queue. Probably, this is the novel Harper Lee, a Southerner and a liberal, wanted to write, about life in Alabama in the 1950s as it really was, whereas her editor – as was her job – directed her into writing something more palatable to the readership of the time. Those who have screamed ‘Atticus is a racist’ all over Facebook have failed to scratch beneath the surface of Watchman or to appreciate that, although Lee has described the mindset of Maycomb in the 1950s, and explained its rationale, she has neither condoned it nor apologised for it.
Charlie Britten has contributed to Every Day Fiction, Mslexia, Linnet’s Wings, CafeLit, and Radgepacket. She has also written a couple of book reviews for Copperfield Review. She writes because she loves doing it.
All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element. Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War. Charlie lives in southern England with her husband and cat. In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education. Charlie’s blog, ‘Write On’, is at http://charliebritten.wordpress.com/.