Watching the Watchman: Harper Lee's belated return

Fans have had to wait over 50 years but now Harper Lee is finally publishing a new book – a follow-up to her classic debut To Kill A Mockingbird. Jane Hardy investigates the arrival of Go Set A Watchman

Gregory Peck played Atticus Finch in the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.  Below,  Sinead McCorry  Picture: Cliff Donaldson
Gregory Peck played Atticus Finch in the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Below, Sinead McCorry Picture: Cliff Donaldson

TO KILL A Mockingbird by Harper Lee may have been published in 1960 but its treatment of the pervasive racism of the American south remains topical.

With the Confederate flag flying briefly in east Belfast recently, but removed in South Carolina a few days ago, its themes are as important as ever.

The plot of this classic debut novel concerns six-year-old narrator Scout Finch and her family, living in the south at a pivotal moment in history.

Her father Atticus is a respected lawyer. When he defends a black man, Tom Robinson, against fabricated rape charges, the trial and related events expose Scout to the evils of racism and stereotyping.

While To Kill A Mockingbird was written with the sort of compassion and wry humour that not all contemporary critics got – Atlantic magazine called it "sugar water served with humour" – the story of the principled lawyer managed to challenge.

As Atticus, based on Harper Lee's own attorney father and beautifully portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie, puts it: "You never manage to understand anyone, Scout, unless you look at his point of view."

Now, Harper Lee's first book, Go Set A Watchman – the never before published forerunner to Mockingbird – is finally hitting bookshelves after a mere 55 years.

Waterstones bookshops will be celebrating the publication of Lee's newly re-discovered novel this week with a kind of 'read-in', the Go Set a Watchman Reading Group, on July 29.

Last weekend, their Belfast store hosted a preliminary event where 25 or so readers gathered to discuss To Kill A Mockingbird.

Sinead McCorry, Waterstones' regional Ireland and Europe manager, is a Harper Lee fan who remembers reading Mockingbird in her teens.

"I must have been about fifteen," she tells me. "It wasn't a set text at our school in Armagh but everyone was reading it.

"I remember I couldn't put the novel down and it introduced me to the whole racial question. I wasn't aware of that at the time living in Lurgan and suppose I thought the whole world was like Northern Ireland.

"America was seen as the land where dreams come true but this showed that wasn't true for everyone."

Sinead adds that all her friends read Mockingbird and they discussed the way the young narrator, Scout, was a powerful figure and female.

An air of mystery still surrounds Harper Lee's long-time silence after the publication of her first book.

According to her friend Joy Brown, Lee (88) originally had plans for a novel "tearing Monroeville (her smalltown home) apart" and other projects.

Yet Truman Capote's best friend, who only returned home in old age after a stroke, remained silent – possibly, the impact of sudden fame prompted the author to put her next book on hold.

Now, with the belated arrival of Lee's second account of the terrible events going on in the pre-'60s south, the plot thickens.

There are differences between the two novels: To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by six-year-old Scout, a distancing effect which at times means you're getting the harrowing story through a half-closed door.

Go Set a Watchman abandons this device, suggested to Harper Lee by her publisher, and so is a more direct, raw account of the events that led to the birth of the civil rights movement in the US.

Crucially, the character of Atticus Finch has changed too. Rather than the liberal hero of Mockingbird, the old man, now in his 70s and suffering from crippling arthritis, is no longer his children's hero.

He's rather racist, which is a shock, but possibly more realistic than the saintly Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Reading the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman, published in The Guardian on Saturday, it's clear this first draft shares the sharp social comment and humour of its successor.

The grown-up Scout muses on her father's faith in "the innate superiority of all Finches" and observes that a great uncle had gone mad after falling out with someone at university: he was sent to a home, where he remained rational until he heard this man's name and then assumed the position of a whooping crane for several hours.

Harper Lee is also very good on the love thing: when Jean is picked up at the station by her on-off boyfriend Henry Clinton, she writes: "She was almost in love with him. No, that's impossible, she thought: either you are or you aren't.

"Love's the only thing in this world that's unequival. There are different kinds of love, certainly, but it's a you-do or you-don't proposition with them all."

There will be all kinds of things to discuss on July 29 at Waterstones in Belfast, including 'Miss Lee's' take on relationships and her portrayal of the divided south.

:: Go Set A Watchman is published by Harper Collins, £18.99.