Philip Hensher

A bad novel on the way to a good one

Harper Lee’s publishers are much to blame for resurrecting this piece of confused juvenilia. It should have remained where it belongs — in the bottom drawer

A bad novel on the way to a good one
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Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee

Heinemann, pp. 288, £

This is an interesting document, and a pretty bad novel. I don’t know why anyone thought it would be otherwise. In 1960, Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird. It was an important statement, as well as a very good novel. Just as it took the southerner Lyndon B. Johnson to make the most significant civil rights concessions, so literary culture needed a novel written by a woman from the south saying all the right things about race in the firmest way possible. The book was compelling, and immediately made its way into classrooms worldwide, where it has stayed.

Subsequently, Harper Lee made it very clear that she would not be publishing another novel — neither writing one, nor producing one written earlier. She has not been a recluse, but she has not wanted to venture into print again. I think the experience of fame must have destroyed the sort of writer Lee really is — the quietly observing novelist of small-town life. You can’t remain an anonymous, alert observer of unselfconscious existences if everyone knows what you’re up to with your little notebook.

Her representatives have told us the way in which this novel — a first attempt at the world of To Kill a Mockingbird — has come to be published. In 2011, experts from Sotheby’s identified a complete novel, written in the 1950s, in Lee’s papers. Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, had unfortunately just left the room to run some errands when this announcement was made. No one subsequently thought to tell her of this discovery. Three years later, Carter herself was going through the papers when she found the same typescript. When she announced it, nobody observed that it had already been discovered. Lee herself had apparently not been told in 2011, and expressed herself delighted with the discovery, and happy to go ahead with publication. This delight was voiced in a statement issued by Carter and attributed to Lee, in which she described Carter as her ‘dear friend and lawyer’.

When the outside world seemed somewhat sceptical that Lee had changed her mind about publication of this first draft after decades of resistance, another statement was issued by Carter and, again, attributed to Lee. Although, on the announcement of publication, nobody at Lee’s publisher had met her or discussed the question with her, in subsequent weeks representatives in New York made their way down to Monroeville and an inquiry into the possibility of ‘elder abuse’ — ultimately dismissed — was launched by the local social services.

Lee’s publishers have declared that any questioning of this narrative is ‘unacceptable’, so I merely report it neutrally. After having read the novel, it is absolutely clear to me that no novelist in full possession of his or her faculties would agree to its publication as a sequel, or as a new work comparable in significance and expertise to To Kill a Mockingbird. The only circumstances of publication imaginable are as a curiosity, with a preface by the author describing its place in her development. It might, too, have been publishable in an accurate, scholarly edition, like the publication of The Waste Land drafts in 1971 after T.S. Eliot’s death, with a proper and reliable description of the manuscript and the circumstances of its finding, and an attempt to elucidate its place in Lee’s journey towards To Kill a Mockingbird. The publishers have not done that. They want us to think of this piece of confused juvenilia as a ‘landmark new novel’ — as though it had just arrived from a writer in energetic mid-career.

Lee’s publishers have thrown away a good deal of trust in my view. If they present this novel as a sequel — or half of Lee’s published work — then it won’t be seen for what it is by readers. It is demented to complain that Atticus Finch has now been revealed as a racist, or that one of the major characters in Mockingbird was to die young. One should simply observe that this book hasn’t reached the standard of To Kill a Mockingbird by a very long way. It’s an early attempt, and the concept of each character is completely different. They just happen to share the same names.

In Go Set a Watchman Jean Louise Finch (Mockingbird’s Scout) travels to her home county of Maycomb after a stretch in New York. She is returning to her father, Atticus, her aunt Alexandra and a devoted beau, Henry (or Hank). Her homecoming makes her think about her childhood, and about the connections that her family and friends have to the racial question. Revelations about the past of her closest friends follow, and she has to decide whether or not to go on encouraging Hank in his devotion.

To Kill a Mockingbird has its fair share of first-novel blunders, and Go Set a Watchman would, in most circumstances, be regarded as near unpublishable.

Mockingbird’s flaws are forgivable. Scout relates the story, and has to eavesdrop on detailed adult conversations telling the plot so far. I’m quite partial to the scene in which the lisping small girl averts a lynching with her innocent prattle, but it’s not among the novelist’s most sophisticated inventions. Any novelist would have been delighted to have written the line, ‘Your father’s passing’, at the end of the trial scene; but a more experienced one would have known not to write it as the last line of a chapter. (The writers of the screenplay for the classic movie knew what they were about, on the other hand.)

Harper Lee on a visit to Monroeville, her home town in Alabama
Mockingbird is not just a literary invention, however, but a political intervention, the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the civil rights struggle. It, and its characters, should have no truck with ambiguity to make its forceful point, even if we feel afterwards that the odds are being stacked too much one way, with the business of the withered arm and the powerful left hand of the real culprit in court. Atticus has to be unswervingly saintly, like Little Eva, as flat as a face on a playing card. It doesn’t matter for this particular purpose.

Go Set a Watchman improves a little as it goes along. But the writing is disastrously leaden, and the tone shifts about, from painfully self-conscious fine writing (‘She was completely unaware that with one twist of the tongue she could plunge Jean Louise into a moral turmoil by making her niece doubt her own motives and best intentions…’) to the elaborately facetious mock-heroic:

With the same suddenness that [sic] a barbarous boy yanks the larva of an ant lion from its hole to leave it struggling in the sun, Jean Louise was snatched from her quiet realm and left alone to protect her sensitive epidermis as best she could, on a humid Sunday afternoon at precisely 2.28 p.m.

The awestruck publishers have restrained themselves from making corrections to the occasionally faulty grammar — another reason to think that the author was not very closely involved in the process: ‘Had she insight… she may [sic] have discovered that all her life she had been [sic] with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed.’

Painful clichés are everywhere. ‘The truth,’ of course, ‘was ugly’. A child has ‘the face of an angel’. ‘As the years passed, she recognised the full value of Atticus’s wisdom.’ I suggest that you carry out an internet search for the phrase on p. 91, where Jean Louise marches into the church ‘with as much dignity as she could muster’. Google opens a door into a tawdry landscape of Mills & Boon and unambitious romances. Clichés of language cede to clichés of observation. Jean Louise, being wooed, stands with ‘her hands on her hips’ like Calamity Jane. A page later, being driven home, ‘with her head on his shoulder, Jean Louise was content’, and we are in the territory of someone who once saw a Doris Day movie. Clichés of observation give way to clichés of thought, and dark secrets in Atticus’s past are dutifully unveiled.

None of this ought to matter in the slightest. Go Set a Watchman is rather a bad novel that its author wrote on the way to writing a very good novel. The editor who originally saw some potential in this manuscript was sensitive but not extraordinary. The novel’s texture is routinely inept in the adult scenes, where Jean Louise sees something, reflects on it, thinks her way to a conclusion, raises her head and looks at something else to reflect on. It is, painfully, like someone trying to write like John Cheever.

Strikingly, however, the book leaps into something like life when it gets to the childhood scenes with Jem and Dill. Here the writing is swift and funny. It cuts to the chase. It is warm and sympathetic, and neither sentimental nor full of internal ramblings. Lee was pushed in exactly the right direction. And with excellent judgment she set this first attempt to one side for nearly 60 years; having written To Kill a Mockingbird, she must have seen that the novel in the bottom drawer was just no good. It is hard to understand how Lee could have changed her mind in this regard. I expect the full story will come out in time.

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