To Kill a Mockingbird – what was, until recent developments Harper Lee’s only novel – has been a staple of school reading lists for generations, thanks to its essay-friendly themes of racism, justice and family values.
Set in mid-1930s Alabama, the novel focuses on the Finch family: father (and lawyer) Atticus, his 10-year-old son Jem and six-year-old Scout, the book’s protagonist.
When Atticus defends a black man he believes has been wrongly
accused of raping a white woman, we see the dramatic events unfold – partly through the innocent eyes of a child.
The novel probably won’t be fresh in your mind, so here are 10 things you didn’t know – or might have forgotten – about Harper Lee’s classic:
1 The character of Atticus Finch was inspired by Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a newspaper editor and attorney. In 1919, he defended two black men who had been charged with murder. He lost the case. After the men were convicted, hanged and mutilated, he abandoned criminal law.
2 Lee based Scout’s friend Dill on her own childhood friend, Truman Capote, or Truman Persons as he was known then. Bookish and slightly odd children, they bonded over their love of reading and used to make up stories on Lee’s father’s old typewriter. Lee helped Capote research the Kansas murder behind his true crime classic, In Cold Blood.
3 Depression-era Maycomb, where the novel is set, bears a strong resemblance to Lee’s home town of Monroeville, Alabama. In the book, Maycomb is described as “an island in a patchwork sea of cotton fields and timber land”. In 2013, Lee brought a lawsuit against Monroeville’s museum, which she accused of exploiting her fame.
4 Boo Radley’s real name is Arthur: the children call him Boo because seeing him frightens them in the same way a ghost would. The Radleys are likely to have been inspired by a family who lived in a boarded-up house where Lee grew up.
5 Scout’s real name is actually Jean Louise Finch. It’s never explained how she got her nickname
6 Scout and her brother Jem always refer to their father as Atticus. This practice was common in the southern states at that time. After the verdict, Reverend Sykes memorably says to Scout: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up: your father’s passing.”
7 Various suggestions have been mooted for the real-life model for Tom Robinson:
l In 1931, nine black teenagers from Alabama were accused of raping two white women on a train. All but one of the “Scottsboro Boys” were convicted and sentenced to death. After several appeals and retrials – during which one of the alleged victims admitted fabricating her story – charges were dropped for four of the nine defendants. Sentences for the rest ranged from 75 years to death.
l When Lee was 10, a white woman near Monroeville accused a black man of rape. He was convicted and sentenced to death. After Lee’s father’s newspaper printed letters that claimed the man had been falsely accused, his sentence was commuted to life in prison.
l In 1955, around the time Lee began to write her novel, a black teenager named Emmett Till was murdered for flirting with a white woman in Mississippi.
8 At the end of the book, a sleepy Scout tells her father about The Gray Ghost, a book in which an innocent character is wrongly accused of a crime. The Gray Ghost was a real children’s book – part of a series of adventure titles from the 1920s and 1930s that Harper Lee read when she was a child.
9 Although it went on to be a phenomenal success, some of the early reviews of To Kill a Mockingbird were far from enthusiastic. The Atlantic Monthly critic Phoebe Adams described the novel as “sugar-water served with humour”.
10 Gregory Peck’s grandson, Harper Peck Voll, is named after Harper Lee. The pair became close friends after Peck starred as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film of To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Beckham is also named after the author as the novel is mum Victoria’s favourite book.