Cathy Kelly: Harper's lovely writing shines through - but that's no excuse for publishing this novel now
Published 15/07/2015 | 02:30
Best-selling author Cathy Kelly casts a writer’s eye over ‘Go Set a Watchman’
He was the hero of our school years - the charismatic Atticus Finch from Harper Lee's 1960 novel, 'To Kill a Mockingbird', linked inexorably with Gregory Peck's heroic lawyer and champion for men and women of colour in the film adaptation two years later.
For years, Lee's sole novel of Deep South racial prejudices moved students and non- students alike, and the only controversy was over rumours that her childhood friend, Truman Capote, had bitchily hinted that he had helped with the writing of it.
Fast forward fifty-something years to the discovery - in a safety deposit box - of the now elderly Nelle Harper Lee's original first novel, the precursor to Mockingbird and a novel of a very different hue.
Released yesterday to great trumpeting within the publishing world and already ranked number two on Amazon, 'Go Set A Watchman', has created its own controversy.
It turns out that the wonderful Atticus, who alienated an entire town by defending a man of colour accused of rape, is now a racist who is terrified that black people will get the vote. It's like watching a great statue brought to its knees.
So far, I've read half the book and the Atticus in this one is nothing like the man - though flawed - that I loved in 'Mockingbird', but it proves three things: that Lee was a great writer, worthy of her Pulitzer Prize; that Truman Capote had nothing to do with her writing; and just how much a brilliant editor can bring to a book.
When Nelle Harper Lee brought her book to editor Tay Hohoff in the 1950s, it was this modern version she held. A first draft, a hopeful novel.
It would take over two years for this novel to emerge from its chrysalis into the full beauty of 'To Kill A Mockingbird'.
The just-released 'Watchman' is that first draft - entirely unedited.
And no matter how beautifully written it is, it's still an early draft - the publication of which would have most authors reaching for the beta blockers with anxiety.
'Watchman' is the tale of an adult Scout - going by her grown-up name, Jean-Louise. Still tomboyish, she returns home from New York to Alabama to discover that her beloved father has joined the Ku Klux Klan.
A horrified Scout likens her father's views to those of Hitler and Goebbels.
A quote from Isiaiah explains the novel's curious title: 'For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.'
With the help of Hohoff (with whom she became so close, that Lee gave him an abandoned kitten she found) Harper Lee spent at least two years working and reworking this novel.
You can see how she and Tay must have discussed the themes, and one can only imagine the conversations: 'How about if Scout's father was not a racist of his time?', or 'How about if he was that good man, the man who risked all to save someone else's life'?
As a writer, that relationship between author and editor can be such a joy - the third eye sees what you cannot, the editor finds a strand of story you had abandoned and brings it to the fore.
Maybe Harper - brilliant, talented Harper - had always toyed with the idea of an anti-racist Atticus Finch but needed the confidence of her editor to run with it.
Or in the beginning, when she turned up at the offices of BCE Lippincott with her draft in her hands, maybe she thought the power of her heroine's story would be stronger if she came back to the Deep South, where the trees bore Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit (lynched black bodies), and told people about another way of life where people of all colour could live together in equality.
Either way, this novel was found in a safety deposit box, the novel of an elderly lady who has had a stroke and lives with macular degeneration, a lady who undoubtedly has no energy or desire left to edit a book from another era of her life - and somehow, the carnival has come to town.
'Go Set A Watchman' is slower than 'Mockingbird', yet lyrical and sharp in its portrayal of that world of 1950s Alabama where black maids raise children until those children lose their colour blindness.
It's a story of eyes opening, the great coming home and ultimately seeing life as it really is without the rose-tinted glasses of youth. It is worth reading just to see Harper Lee's lovely writing on the page.
But despite some hints of another novel in that safety deposit box, there should be no more novels from a woman who is no longer able to rework her own writings.
At this stage they are her creations and belong to her alone.