Friday 21 July 2017

Lee, the novelist who lost her voice

The first chapter of Harper Lee's 'lost' novel written more than 50 years ago, 'Go Set a Watchman' , has been published to much dismay by fans. Reviewer Mick Brown gives his verdict

Harper Lee
Harper Lee
To kill a mockingbird

Mick Brown

Amid all the speculation, and high anticipation, attending the publication of Harper Lee's "lost" novel, Go Set a Watchman, there is one thing worth bearing in mind: there is a reason it was not published in the first place.

Lee described the book not as "a sequel", but as "the parent" to To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960.

That book is set in the 1930s, in the "tired old town" of Maycomb, Alabama, a surrogate for Lee's home town of Monroeville, and tells the story of Scout, a six-year-old girl, and her lawyer father Atticus, who takes on the case of a black man, Tom, accused of raping a white woman. Despite the overwhelming evidence of his innocence, Tom is convicted.

The book's primary themes are racial injustice, the loss of innocence and the elevation of Atticus Finch into a potent and timeless literary symbol of quiet, principled decency and justice.

Go Set a Watchman is the book that Lee first presented to her publishers in 1957. It was accepted, and then began two years of editing and rewriting that resulted in Mockingbird. We will never know the fine detail of that process, but clearly some extraordinary metamorphosis occurred.

The first thing you notice about Go Set a Watchman - and it is crucial - is the voice in which it is written. To Kill a Mockingbird is written in the first person: it is the voice of Scout, looking back on the defining event of her childhood. The language is that of an adult, but what makes the book so arresting, and so involving, is Lee's ability to allow us to see the world through the eyes of a child. We become Scout.

Watchman is written in the third person. "Scout" - a childhood nickname - has gone. In her place is Jean Louise Finch, in her mid-20s, returning by train from New York, where she has lived for the past five years.

The change in tone is striking, and begs a question: was it Lee who in developing her early draft into To Kill a Mockingbird decided on the critical shift from third to first person, or her editor, Tay Hohoff?

In any event, the decision was critical. What strikes you reading this first chapter is its utterly conventional voice, its lack of spark and intimacy.

There are glimpses of the sharp, knowing phrases that characterise Mockingbird, but much of the prose of Watchman, not to put too fine a point on it, is pedestrian to the point of clunking. The chapter begins with Jean Louise's train journey. She reflects on her family history, and of Maycomb County. As exposition goes, it feels distinctly laboured. Atticus, 50 at the time of Mockingbird, is now 70 and afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis. Jean Louise's brother, Jem, her constant companion in Mockingbird, has apparently "dropped dead in his tracks" some years earlier.

Arriving at Maycomb, she is met by a character who is new to us, Henry Clinton, her lifelong friend and, it seems, putative husband. The younger Jean Louise is described as "an overalled, fractious, gun-slinging creature", who has turned into "a reasonable facsimile of a human being".

In the car they bicker playfully, the stolid Henry and the independent-minded Jean Louise, establishing what will clearly be a central thread of the novel.

At the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird was race. There have been tantalising hints that the reason Watchman was put to one side was because it was considered too contentious to publish at the time. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee was describing a period in history when the old racial order seemed fixed and immutable.

By the mid-1950s, the cause of civil rights was gathering momentum.

Lee, as we know, was a supporter. But there is no hint here of the part that racial tensions will play in Watchman, no suggestion of anything politically explosive, unless you count gender politics, and the jarring - to modern sensibilities - instruction by Henry that the way to his heart is for Jean Louise to "hold your tongue. Don't argue with a man, especially when you know you can't beat him. Smile a lot. Make him feel big. Tell him how wonderful he is, and wait on him."

We assume Lee, who never married, is being ironic. But the relationship between Jean Louise and Henry, who sounds a stupendous bore, rings false.

Of course, it is dangerous on the basis of just one chapter to make sweeping judgments. But one fears that those in search of Scout are in for a disappointment. Go Set a Watchman has interest as a work in progress, the first step to a literary masterpiece, and as an insight into the role, possibly, of an editor in helping to shape it. But perhaps it would have been a greater kindness to Lee's reputation, and to the millions who cherish To Kill a Mockingbird, not to have published it at all.

Go Set a Watchman is published on Tuesday, July 14.

© Daily Telegraph

Promoted articles

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment