There has been so much hype, controversy and discussion about Go Set a Watchman that I was almost nervous to read it. It came out last month, and is the “sequel” to Harper Lee’s famous 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet calling it a “sequel” is misleading. It is in fact a first draft manuscript of a novel that Lee wrote before writing To Kill a Mockingbird; it theoretically takes place after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, and deals with many of the same characters. It follows Scout – now known as Jean Louise – when she is in her mid-twenties, returning to her home town after years in New York, to find her neighbourhood and her family not quite as she remembered them. The history of this manuscript is roughly this: on reading the original draft of Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s editor suggested that the strongest sections were flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood and teenage years, and so Lee went away about wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. The manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was lost or hidden or at least unread – until now.
I think it’s very important to remember that Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. It is a rough first draft of the characters and world that became To Kill a Mockingbird. If you read it as a sequel, I think you might be disappointed – but if you read it as an interesting insight into how To Kill a Mockingbird as a novel came to be, then I hope you will not be.
In many ways Go Set a Watchman does read like a draft. There are moments of brilliant writing, yes, especially in the sections which delve into Jean Louise’s internal thoughts. I agree with Lee’s editor – the strongest sections of the book are those which take us back to her childhood. For me, the parts dealing with her experience of puberty and growing up, and the scene of her school dance, are simply wonderful. Even in the majority of the book, where Jean Louise is an adult, there are some wonderful scenes; I enjoyed her and Henry’s relationship; and her conversations with her uncle, if a little nonsensical at times, are very interesting.
Yet the novel does feel – for want of a better word – choppy. It moves between third and first person in a confusing way that doesn’t quite manage to be fluid, and several characters feel underdeveloped. The whole novel feels as though it ought to be longer, as though Jean Louise’s feelings and reactions need far more development than they receive. There are several brilliant scenes in this book, but there are gaps in the story and the characters that mean the novel as a whole doesn’t quite or make sense. It lacks the true craft and fluidity of To Kill a Mockingbird – but of course that’s to be expected. It’s a first draft.
It is curious to note that, although Lee wrote this before To Kill a Mockingbird, there are many aspects of it which I feel I wouldn’t have understood, nor appreciated, nor enjoyed, had I not read and loved To Kill a Mockingbird. For various reasons, neither Jem nor Dill are present in Go Set a Watchman, and yet both are mentioned several times. Calpurnia features but not highly. For me, the mentions of these characters we know so well held such poignancy and significance, but without To Kill a Mockingbird they would have felt entirely underdeveloped. The same can be said of the town and its inhabitants; Go Set a Watchman reads, as I say, as a little rough at times, and without having read To Kill a Mockingbird I think I would have found it even less powerful. It is almost as though Harper Lee had all the events and world of To Kill a Mockingbird in the back of her head while writing the original draft of Go Set a Watchman.
What is strongest for me about Go Set a Watchman is the characters. Even in draft form, Lee captures Jean Louise very well. Her motivations are at times a little underdeveloped, but we get a real sense of her personality and voice. Go Set a Watchman is strongest when it slips into first person or very close third, which is perhaps why Scout’s voice in To Kill a Mockingbird is so distinct.
But turning to the other characters in Go Set a Watchman: they both are and aren’t the characters we know and love from To Kill a Mockingbird. I know a lot of people have struggled with the presentation of Atticus in Go Set a Watchman, but we have to remember that while it is set after To Kill a Mockingbird, it was written before. The characters are drafts too, and they’re not precisely the same characters as those that appear in the final novel of To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, in Go Set a Watchman Lee does make reference to the court case at the centre of To Kill a Mockingbird, and it appears to be a slightly different situation. This not therefore not exactly a sequel, and I think it shouldn’t be read as such.
However, if we read it simply as an interesting insight into how To Kill a Mockingbird came to be, then reading it is a rewarding and rich experience. For example, for me the moral message of To Kill a Mockingbird is much more clear-cut, less ambiguous, than Go Set a Watchman – and isn’t it interesting that that is the tone Harper Lee finally decided to go for? And knowing how Lee imaged Scout to be as a twenty-something-year-old surely enriches the vision of her as a child in To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee imagined her as a child from knowing what sort of person her character would grow up to be, and that’s surely of interest to anyone who likes To Kill a Mockingbird. And it has to be interesting to know that Lee didn’t originally envisage Atticus as the pinnacle of morality that he is in To Kill a Mockingbird, but as someone rather more complicated.
So I do recommend reading Go Set a Watchman, providing you know, like, and are interested in To Kill a Mockingbird. It is not a sequel, and it is not a perfect or even polished novel, but it is a fascinating insight into how one of the greatest books of the twentieth century came into being.
Greatest strength: It’s a very interesting piece to read alongside To Kill a Mockingbird, and a great insight into Harper Lee’s creative process.
Greatest weakness: As a novel in its own right, I’m just not sure it works. Which is sort of okay, as it’s a first draft that she didn’t intend to be published. I just feel it should be read for academic interest more than pure enjoyment.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right.’
Next week: Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
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