Written by Sadie Hasler

Arts

Review: Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee publishing another book put Sadie Hasler, a devoted long-time lover of To Kill A Mockingbird, in a proper tizz and she had to dig deep to find anything to love.

Harper LeeGo Set a Watchman is not To Kill a Mockingbird. I think that’s worth stating plainly at the top because some people seem to have forgotten. Go Set a Watchman was written a good five years before and was lightly rejected by an editor who thought Harper Lee’s efforts were best propelled elsewhere into the development of the more compelling childhood scenes of Scout and Jem Finch and their father Atticus.

The characters, plots, and thoughts within it came out of a younger Lee’s head, and between writings she saw change within her country, changes within herself, and had the help of readers and editors. We can only imagine the toil that went into the phase between the two novels, into the complete costume change of a narrative, and I wonder if there was something in that process that led to Lee nipping her writing career in the (albeit Pulitzer Prize-winning) bud.

I went through a cacophony of emotions when I heard that Watchman existed, as quick-changing and by turns sulky and squealy as a teen rifling through dresses for a prom. One minute I was happy, one minute I was sad, the next I was circumspect, hopeful, stern, the next I was spinning round with petticoats flashing my pants before falling onto the floor in tears. So Harper Lee had another book stashed away. The sly old dog.

“Scout’s journey in Watchman is that of a girl who worships her father, who comes to see he is only human, and then who comes to stand alone. To be her own watchman, her own conscience, her own mockingbird, her own person.”

I thought my love for Mockingbird was an untouchable thing. In some ways it still is – in that way that certain embers of childhood cannot be retinted, so encased in that fortified resin of time are they. I can never unfeel what I felt when I first read it; it cannot be diminished by rereading or re-evaluation, just like the love I had for playing with my Barbie doll when I was seven cannot now be decimated by my grown-up rejection of what Barbie stands for in the nascent and all-important development of girls.

Go Set a Watchman coverWatchman starts with Jean-Louise, our now-grown Scout, coming home, on a train from New York to Maycomb on her once-yearly visit. Here, we have a few recognisable flashes of the girl Scout and her adult-self narrator we know from Mockingbird: her ramshackle free spirit, her proclivity for clear-cut justice, her indisposition to anything ‘feminine’. There are also small glimpses into the Atticus we love, such as the mysterious way he can predict exactly where on the tracks the train conductor will stop the carriage. These are writer’s flourishes of fun, giving us delicious flashes of unlikely magic that we want to believe.

Atticus the First, as I shall call him, starts as a man with powers that most men do not have. He knows things. He feels things. There is a quiet magic about him. This, coupled with the crippling arthritis that Lee burdens him with jolted my throat: what has she done to the Atticus I loved? Why has she given him pain? I have to remind myself, not for the first nor last time, that this novel came first. This is a different Atticus, a second Atticus. I had to forget everything I knew about him. I tried. I really, really tried.

Then the novel lost me for a significant chunk. I was impatient with the set-up, which seemed at times over-wordy or clumsily brief and with none of the authorial gravitas that I had revered for years. I wondered if I was doing a disservice to myself (or even Lee) by not having reread Mockingbird first, or a favour.

I lit up a little over the playful exchanges between Jean-Louise and her childhood friend and occasional snogging partner Hank, which is rare; romance is seldom the most compelling factor for me as reader. Then I realised I was not swooning at the prospect of a coupling; I was responding with delight to Jean-Louise’s refusal to be pinned down by a heavy-handed (if kind and good) man who believed she was ultimately his property, about ready for the final conquest.

There was an early reference to the fate of Jem which took me a while to forgive, and one brief mention of a case of a nameless black man Atticus successfully defended on a rape charge. There is little further sign of the tendrils that grew into the sturdy boughs of Mockingbird five years later after Lee had conducted a thorough demolition of what I thought (while reading) was the much more trivial and literature-lite Watchman.

“What has she done to the Atticus I loved? Why has she given him pain? I have to remind myself, not for the first nor last time, that this novel came first. This is a different Atticus, a second Atticus.”

I could feel my face screwing up at certain points as I crashed into bits which comprised unsubtle inner monologue, clunky dialogue and authorially self-serving argument scenes. At times these seemed to be Lee’s only way to make her point about race relations in the South versus the slow but brusque ‘enlightenment’ of the North and questions of constitutional justice, but they just seemed clumsy and – but for their undoubted eloquence – rushed and convenient. (Hark at me – who the fuck am I?)

And I stopped breathing for a few minutes when Lee seemed to suggest that Jean-Louise’s discontent with the status quo in Maycomb could be remedied by a smack round the mouth from ‘eccentric’ Uncle Jack, after which she snaps out of her ‘unreasonable’ pursuit of fairness and forgives Atticus the weaknesses that have just been rammed in her (and our) face.

It was not, and was never going to be, the novel that I wanted to read.

But what I have chosen to take from it is the free-spiritedness of a young woman who will not be bludgeoned into a decorous life nor into a passionless relationship. Let’s not forget what a rarity that still was, to write with such ferocity in the mid-50s. Jean-Louise loves her childhood ‘sweetheart’ Hank, whom she has always loved but has never been in love with, and throughout Watchman she regularly repeats that she will not marry him, her reasons altering according to scenario: she is not cut out to be a wife; he deserves someone less complicated; she deserves someone less simple; she loves New York too much and cares little for backwards Maycomb; later admitting that she will not marry a man simply for security; later still admitting that he just needs to grow a set of big hairy balls.

To Kill a Mockingbird coverPerhaps one of the most heartbreaking things about Watchman emerging out of the shadows and into our lives is that I have to reread Mockingbird as an adult. I can’t just love it as the thing it was; I have to examine it from a different angle. It has been said that Mockingbird is not even the anti-racist book we all assume it to be. If Atticus the Second, Watchman‘s Atticus, is certainly not perfect, then, actually, neither is Atticus the First. Though both books largely defend the right of all humans to be treated equally, they also serve to sustain some of the divisions of class and race that we are so desperate to believe they decry.

I read Mockingbird as a naive girl who, incidentally, craved her own father figure. Atticus was a sort of literary replacement for a perfect man who never existed in my own life, there in the pages whenever I needed him. Scout’s journey in Watchman is that of a girl who worships her father, who comes to see he is only human, and then who comes to stand alone. To be her own watchman, her own conscience, her own mockingbird, her own person.

So I am choosing to see Watchman like this: It is a few years hence. Harper Lee is dead. I am in a museum in Monroeville. One of those types that is set out as a reproduction of her house. Hairbrushes and family photos and burnt saucepans hanging at an anachronistically antebellum stove. And up the creaking hall beyond the kitchen is a set of stairs. And up the stairs and round to the right is a room, her bedroom. At the window, looking out at a big gnarled tree with a hollow big enough to stash, say, the trinkets of children, is a desk.

At the desk is an array of notebooks and carefully bound stacks of typewritten sheets. Scrawlings and bashings of a writer at work, of a woman in development, with her eyes turned on a country in flux, who learned to write in it despite it, because of it, and then who learned how to get better at writing, with trial and error and resolve and a little help along the way. Who won important prizes and sparked the early indignation of children who knew in their hearts how humans should be treated. It is the scrubbings-out of a woman who found her feet and got better and won the hearts of the world. It is a piece of the archive. It is intimacy. It is good that it is here and that we have it.

@sadiehasler

Pramkicker, Sadie’s new play for Old Trunk Theatre Company, is at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (6 to 31 August).

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Written by Sadie Hasler

Sadie is a playwright, actor, columnist, artistic director of Old Trunk theatre company, and frequently discombobulated multi-tasker.