Monday, January 11, 2016


"For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth" (Isaiah, 21:6).

That's the first and the last time you'll hear me quote 'the Lord' - I promise.

Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman was a gift from my daughter for Christmas. Discovering it beneath the wrapper I was grateful, if slightly wary, knowing the unsettling controversy surrounding its publication, including the suggestion that it was not published with its' 89-year-old author's consent, and that it will ruin To Kill a Mockingbird for all its fans, of which I am one of the keenest. I have long envied Lee her loving and understanding father, while over-identifying with Scout, having been a wild girl child much like her. The fact that she grew up to be an author (assuming Scout is Lee, which she clearly is) sealed the deal for me. I am Scout. Our names even start with the same letter.

Last night I finished reading Watchman with a hardened heart. I have long been enraged about the state of the world and, in younger years, about my father for his part in it - for different reasons than Scout, but with a similar degree of daughterly resentment as Scout displays in this book, but not in Mockingbird. So I almost welcomed this turn towards the real and have no objection, as others do, to Scout venting her political rage at her father, having discovered that he is but an ordinary man with prejudices and power issues just like the rest of them, with very few exceptions.

But what I found too hard to bear was the final breaking of Scout's feisty spirit by a sharp slap across the mouth from her elderly uncle, Atticus's brother, at the end of the book, that brought blood to her mouth and made her dizzy almost to the point of fainting. From here, her defiant plans to leave and never return, so disgusted with her racist father and uncle is she, fall apart almost instantly and after a forced pint of hard booze and some patronising lecturing from the uncle - 'I have never hit a woman before' says he, almost victoriously; 'I think I need a drink' - she is filled with humiliation and shame about her rage against her father and after apologising with bowed head, acquiesces to him and his brother, the two wise men, by deciding to stay in Hicksville with them, to look after them, rather than go back to New York and her independence.

It's The Taming of the Shrew, only written by a woman. My Scout-envy is totally dead.

None of the deeply scathing reviews I have read of the book even mention the violence against Scout as among its problems. This is another problem. The main appeal of Mockingbird for me was always the wilful, 'unfeminine', whip-smart young Scout, not good and noble Atticus. In my opinion the book is as much a feminist story as a civil rights story. Indeed Calpurnia, the family's all-seeing black cook and substitute mother, was for me another well-crafted and strong female, if not feminist, character in Mockingbird. These characters are still in Watchman, if not nearly as alive. But when Scout capitulates after she has some sense smacked into her, Scout dies entirely. Lee seems to say: Men (self-important, racist men) do know best after all. Violence, especially against women, pays. No wonder Lee's female editor took a sharp red pen to it when the book, apparently a first draft of Mockingbird (something I can well believe, though others don't) appeared in draft form on her desk back in 1957. I wish I could do the same to the ending.

My author envy is gone and so is most (if not quite all) of my admiration and inspiration, leaving me kind of back where I started, but somehow still so much worse for the journey. How the mighty do fall.    


  1. Thanks for this review. I've been holding off on reading the book, as I was afraid it would affect my affection for To Kill a Mockingbird. What you say confirms me in deciding to leave it alone (for now, at any rate).

  2. The thing is, Jack, I'm still kind of glad I read it - perhaps with a little more time now to cool off. I like the glimpse it gives into the struggle of the creative writer to bend her/his unromantic political views to fit the rose-tinted world of fiction. It's a struggle I relate to. In Watchman, Lee lets her raw political views all hang out (except for the inconsistent ending, which is contrived and sentimental), whereas in Mockingbird she writes from the pre-political perspective of the happy, well-loved child, neatly side-stepping this struggle. It's a far better work of fiction for this, of course, as well as clearly benefiting from many re-drafts and much editorial input, but Watchman is a useful look behind the scenes of the creative process.