Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is finally here

Jean Louise Finch – beloved heroine of one of the most beloved novels of the modern age – has, in just the first few pages of Harper Lee’s wildly anticipated second novel Go Set A Watchman, been kissed hard, batted away a marriage proposal and revealed that one of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s major characters has “dropped dead” in their tracks.

Last seen as the tomboy nicknamed Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise is now an adult. “She had turned from an overalled, fractious, gun-slinging creature into a reasonable facsimile of a human being … She still moved like a 13-year-old boy and abjured most feminine adornment … She was easy to look at and easy to be with most of the time, but she was in no sense of the word an easy person,” writes Lee as Go Set a Watchman opens. 

She is on her way back to her hometown of Maycomb from New York to see her father Atticus, the hero of Lee’s 1960 novel, now an ailing 72-year-old. The contents of the novel, which was written in the 1950s and then laid aside when Lee was asked by her editor to focus instead on its flashbacks to childhood, have been both a fiercely guarded secret and a hotly contested mystery since its existence was first revealed in February: was it an early version of Mockingbird? 

Was it deemed unpublishable when it was written in the 1950s? How was it found and why did Lee decide to publish now, at the age of 89, after decades of shunning any form of attention or publicity? The first chapter, published on July 10 by the Guardian in advance of the novel’s release, which was at midnight on 14 July in bookshops around the world, reveals a witty, dry voice immediately recognisable as that of the To Kill a Mockingbird author. 

Jean Louise is shown to be grappling with two things as she comes home. Atticus, an almost godlike figure to the Scout of Mockingbird, is now in constant pain. “She was too old to rail against the inequity of it, but too young to accept her father’s crippling disease without putting up some kind of fight … She wondered how she would behave when her time came to hurt day in and day out.” She is also pondering whether or not she should marry a childhood friend of her brother’s, who muses ruefully that “most women, before they’ve got ’em, present to their men smiling, agreeing faces. They hide their thoughts. You now, when you’re feeling hateful, honey, you are hateful.”

A book from the heart
Lee’s literary agent Andrew Nurnberg, who was contacted last autumn about the manuscript’s existence, said that when he first read it after flying to Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, “my heart almost leapt out of my throat”. It had been discovered by her lawyer Tonja Carter in what Lee’s publisher described as “a secure location where it had been affixed to an original typescript” of Mockingbird. “You just pick it up, and you say, ‘oh my goodness, this is Nelle, here she is’. And of course it is so hilarious,” said Nurnberg. According to Lee’s publisher she was clear she wanted the novel published exactly as it was written, so it has only had a light copy edit. 

“What is so fine about this book is that it isn’t polished by any editor, but it absolutely comes from the heart,” said Nurnberg. As to how its depiction of racial issues would appear half a century after it was written, Nurmberg said: “It is dealing with a much more complicated issue, namely adult views of segregation in those days. It’s too easy for a child to see something either as good or as bad, but they don’t have those conflicts we grownups have, where we can see the grey areas.” 

There have been persistent questions around the discovery of the novel: the New York Times suggested last weekend that the manuscript could have been discovered in 2011, with Carter aware of its existence at the time; there has been an investigation by the state of Alabama into allegations ( since declared unfounded ) that 89-year-old Lee was a victim of “elder abuse” over the novel’s publication. Nurnberg addressed these questions, saying: “The wonderful thing is that once this book is published, I very much hope all these naysayers are just going to disappear into the woodwork.” 

Employees unbox “Go Set A Watchman” at Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe in Monroeville, Alabama. (Reuters)

Watchman, he reiterated, was always intended to be published. He has seen correspondence, he said, which shows “the plan was, from early on, having submitted Watchman … to produce three books” &dnash; Mockingbird, then a short connecting novel, then Watchman. He quoted a letter from Lee’s agent at the time, in which the latter writes of Watchman, “Well, honey, you done got yoself a publisher”, the New York agent turning to typical Alabamese to inform his client of the deal.

Hearing Harper’s voice 
Nurnberg also defended Carter, who, he said, had been pilloried over her role. “She is a woman who is valiantly protecting her charge, whom she has been with for 25, 30 years,” he said. “She’s completely devoted, she goes [to Lee’s assisted-living home in Monroeville] twice a day and has been for years to see her … She’s not a sneaky schemer of any kind … When I got that call, she really was shocked that she’d found [the manuscript] … She had never seen it.” Nurnberg saw Lee last week, spending time with her before she was presented with the first copies of Watchman by her publishers. 

“She’s very deaf and you have to repeat things sometimes thrice or four times. She was in a good mood. She knew she was going to see these copies and was getting keen to see this book out there, finally,” he said. “When I told her how many copies they were printing [2m for the first US print run] she was completely shocked, because this is a book she had been advised to put on the back burner … I think she remembers so well the editor saying, ‘hang on, let’s do something else’, and that will have had, I think, a major impression on her life and her view of this specific book.” Filmmaker and author Mary McDonagh Murphy also saw Lee last week, filming her as she received copies of the book, as part of her updated documentary  Hey Boo, released in the US on July 10. 

“By her friends’ reckoning [including her old friend and benefactor Joy Brown, who has seen Lee “many times” since she decided to publish] she’s absolutely delighted [about publication]. And this is what her lawyer says, and this is what her agent says, and this is what her statements say,” said Murphy. “Last week she was grateful. They gave her the books, and she said thank you. It seems she’s ready for it to be published.” Murphy added that “certainly questions have been raised [about Lee’s decision to publish], but without asking Harper Lee directly and without Lee answering directly, it’s not easy to get to the bottom of things. But the people around her, and her friends, and her written statements, all attest to her intention to publish and her happiness about it.”

Having read the novel, Murphy said “it’s amazing to be able to see Scout at 26, and Atticus at 72, and as a journalist who’s been chronicling this for a while, it’s also an incredible experience to see what came first, to read exactly what was in Harper Lee’s mind when she began to write To Kill a Mockingbird … It’s delightful to hear her voice again.” Lee herself has described the novel in a statement as “a pretty decent effort”.   – (c) Guardian News & Media

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Alison Flood
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