Most of us can’t read Go Set a Watchman without being influenced by our earlier experiences of To Kill a Mockingbird – and the gulf between the two has left many readers disappointed. Yesterday it was reported in the Guardian that a US bookshop was refunding customers who were disappointed that it was not “nice summer novel” but more of “an academic insight into Lee’s development as a novelist.”
There’s something faintly disturbing about that to me. I recognise that the situation with Harper Lee is unique – not just because of the status of To Kill a Mockingbird, but because of the doubts surrounding the way the book was published. But surely one of the joys of reading is having our expectations overturned, and being made to look at the world in a new way.
And really – would anyone have ever recommened To Kill a Mockingbird as “a nice summer novel” – something to read on the airplane or the beach?
Alhough I love To Kill a Mockingbird – I cannot regret reading Go Set a Watchman. It does give an insight into the development of a novelist, but it is also interesting in its own right.
Watchman is a growing up novel. Scout has become Jean Louise – all grown up and coming back to her home town after working in New York. Reading the novel, I shared Scout’s journey as she discovers her father hold views she finds abhorrent, and when I finished I felt a bit battered and bruised. Some of my earliest moral lessons came to me from Atticus, imprinted on me at an early age, as for so many other readers. I don’t think that’s diminished by finding him a more complex character – as Jean Louise’s uncle says – he’s no longer godlike and perfect. He’s so far from godlike and perfect that a man who we saw as a heroic fighter for justice for black people now supports segregation and says they are not in any way ready for equality.
It’s clear that many readers weren’t happy being confronted by this new vision of Atticus. It’s not been any easier for us than it was for Scout to let go of that child-like idealisation.
In fact her uncle confronts her with this – and says she has a Daddy complex. It’s one of the least satisfying parts of the novel – this wordy and at times abstract confrontation. I would guess that the psychoanlytic approach was very fashionable when the novel was written, and seemed edgy and modern too – but now it just seems clumsy. And yet that’s also one of the strengths of the novel. The personal is political – as feminist thinkers were to say later, in the 1960s and 70s.
Ursula Le Guin’s blog post about the novel is well worth reading in its entirety. Le Guin’s personal experience adds so much to my own fumblings towards understanding the context. Here’s her conclusion
So I’m glad, now, that Watchman was published. It hasn’t done any harm to the old woman, and I hope it’s given her pleasure. And it redeems the young woman who wrote this book, who wanted to tell some truths about the Southern society that lies to itself so much. She went up North to tell the story, probably thinking she’d be free to tell it there. But she was coaxed or tempted into telling the simplistic, exculpatory lies about it that the North cherishes so much. The white North, that is. And a good part of the white South too, I guess.
Little white lies . . . North or South, they’re White lies. But not little ones.
Harper Lee was a good writer. She wrote a lovable, greatly beloved book. But this earlier one, for all its faults and omissions, asks some of the hard questions To Kill a Mockingbird evades.
Having re-read it, I still think Mockingbird is a much more accomplished novel – but perhaps Watchman was more ambitious. Watchman reads like an early draft, but there are glimpses of the skilled writer who wrote Mockingbird. Not just in the childhood scenes that Lee was persuaded to transform into Mockingbird, but in the character of Jean Louise, and the way she challenges her Aunt, her father and Henry – the man she was considering marrying. I can’t help but wonder what Watchman might have been, if it had been worked on and polished to the same standard as Mockingbird. I doubt it would have been as popular as To Kill a Mockingbird. But it might have been a better novel.