Go Set A Watchman

Harper Lee

Published by William Heinemann UK, Harper US

Reviewed by Charlotte Moore

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Go Set A Watchman is not a stand-alone work of fiction. It is a sketchbook of scenes and conversations, connected only because they all involve Jean Louise Finch, ‘Scout’ of To Kill A MockingbirdWatchman is preparatory work for one of the most famous and influential novels of the twentieth century; for that reason, it is of great interest.

Though there are flashbacks and references to the 1930s, the Mockingbird era, Watchman is set twenty years later, at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. Jean Louise, an independent, modern woman working in New York, returns to Maycomb, Alabama for her annual visit to her father Atticus, now seventy-two and crippled, but still a lawyer and the town’s most respected citizen. The childhood home has gone- an icecream parlour stands in its place – but Jean Louise assumes that this is still the Maycomb of her youth. She is wrong.

Asked why she never (until now) published another book, Harper Lee said, ‘I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.‘ Judging by Watchman, this isn’t the whole truth. It feels as if Lee wanted to say a great deal about gender, about what it’s like to be female in a world that does not accept or acknowledge your version of femaleness. This was memorably and successfully boiled down, in Mockingbird, to the often comic experiences of the endearing tomboy Scout, but there’s a great deal of awkward, angry experience in Watchman that was excised. On only the second page, Jean Louise uses the unladylike word ‘john’ for the lavatory. She wears androgynous slacks and loafers as a deliberate challenge – ‘she could hear her aunt’s sniff of disapproval.’ She ‘still moved like a thirteen-year-old-boy, and abjured most feminine adornment.’ She has hardly been home five minutes when she deliberately offends her ladylike aunt: ‘Good Lord, Aunty, Maycomb knows I didn’t wear anything but overalls till I started having the Curse.’

‘The Curse’ features a lot – I can’t think of a novel where it features more. For Scout, puberty really was Eve’s curse, driving her out of her childhood Eden where ‘it had never fully occurred to [her] that she was a girl’ into a condition she sees only as disempowering: ‘She must now go into a world of femininity ,a world she despised, could not comprehend or defend herself against, a world that did not want her’; ’”I can’t do anything any more,” she said, and she sat on the steps and watched the boys tumble in the dust. “I can’t even walk.”’

Scout encounters girls at school giggling over the incestuous pregnancy of one of their number: ‘Her daddy’s the daddy.’ In Mockingbird, this is transmuted into the hint that white-trash Bob Ewell rapes his daughter Mayella. In Watchman, disturbingly, it is the way motherless and therefore ill-informed Scout learns the facts of life. As Scout becomes Jean Louise, sex is a stumbling block, something she’s bad at. At fourteen she wears falsies to the high school dance but they come adrift; they end up draped above the school motto in a scene that one expects to be funnier than it is. It’s not the clueless Jean Louise who notices the falsies straying, it’s her date, the upstanding but dull Hank, who becomes Atticus’s junior partner. Twelve years later he still wants to marry her, but all physical contact ends in her pulling away. There’s no vestige of Hank in Mockingbird, where, by concentrating wholly on the pre-pubescent Scout, Lee neatly sidesteps all this sexual difficulty.

When Jean Louise arrives from New York, she’s disappointed that it’s Hank, not her father, who comes to meet her. Her relationship with Atticus is what Watchman is all about. Inasmuch as it has a story – which it barely does, in contrast to the deftly-plotted Mockingbird– it’s the tale of a girl who worships her father, stumbles over his feet of clay, and has to find a way of righting both herself and him after this shocking fall. There’s an interesting scene where she tells Hank that every woman wants ‘a strong man who knows her like a book, who’s not only her lover but he who keepeth Israel.’ ‘She wants a father instead of a husband, then,’ says Hank, with more than his usual perspicuity.

Atticus has always ‘kept Israel,’ not just for his daughter but for the whole of Maycomb. When Jean Louise finds a racist pamphlet on her father’s book pile, polluting his books, always a sacred part of their relationship, and then slips into the public gallery of the courthouse to observe him attending – though not actively contributing to – a segregationist meeting, her response is visceral.  She holds the pamphlet ‘like she would hold a dead rat by the tail’ and throws it into the garbage. After the courtroom scene, so cruelly different from the equivalent scene in Mockingbird where she rises to her feet with the black spectators to honour Atticus’s valiant attempt to defend the innocent Tom Robinson, she is physically sick.

It seems that her severance from her father must be total. In a heartbreaking (and unuttered) phrase, ‘You who called me Scout are dead and in your grave.’ She seeks out Calpurnia, the black maid, but finds that this surrogate parent is also all but dead to her. She holds Cal’s hands to her mouth, ‘fingers so gentle when Jean Louise was ill and hard as ebony when she was bad,’ but it is soon obvious that she has lost the right to such intimacy: ‘”Cal, Cal, Cal…why are you shutting me out?”’ But ‘in Calpurnia’s eyes was no hint of compassion.’

I don’t intend to add much to the acres of print already devoted to Atticus the racist, but I don’t find the two versions of the man inconsistent. The strong, handsome Atticus of Mockingbird  is the source of all wisdom, morality, security and love for the unfledged child Scout; the crippled, greying Atticus of Watchman is a fallible human being whom Jean Louise must cut down to size in her own mind if she is ever to become truly adult. Atticus is Maycomb; what he fears most about the end of segregation is the social upheaval, the violence and the lawlessness that will inevitably accompany it. Jean Louise, with her instinctive ‘colour blindness’, is a disruptive element. There’s a scene where she cuts the grass with the noisy mower at dawn, emblematic of her approach; she’s doing the right thing, but, arguably, at the wrong moment, in the wrong way.

Both Watchman and Mockingbird are as much about class and family as about race. Jean Louise has a hereditary sense of entitlement; how can she be trespassing on Finch’s Landing, she argues – even if it doesn’t belong to her, she’s still a Finch. But when the lower orders, white or black, develop such an attitude, things get ugly. Even liberal Jean Louise is startled to see a ‘carload of Negroes’ driving gaily by. In the skilfully edited Mockingbird inconsistencies are ironed out or woven into the fabric. In Watchman they’re just there, raw and hard to swallow. It’s fascinating – not least in that Boo Radley, the greatest creation in Mockingbird, is entirely absent.

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