Go Set a Watchman on sale at Books and Books in Florida. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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Harper Lee's fraught return to Maycomb County casts a stark light on both the past and present

How do we talk about Go Set a Watchman? Does its existence diminish To Kill a Mockingbird? How does it stand in relation to that text?

We always knew that Scout would speak her mind. We just never expected she would say these words. “You’re a coward as well as a snob and a tyrant, Atticus,” she rails at him. “You’re a nice, sweet, old gentleman, and I’ll never believe a word you say to me again. I despise you and everything you stand for.”

Even if you have read every word printed about the contentious publication of Go Set a Watchman, it is still stunning to come across these exchanges in a novel that is either a long-lost novel by Harper Lee or a very early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, depending on whom you listen to. But no wonder Atticus Finch’s daughter is angry: she is just as shocked as we are. Scout – that scrappy tomboy in overalls who stands with her fellow youngsters Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield as an icon of American literature – is now Jean Louise, a sophisticated 26-year-old woman.

As Go Set a Watchman begins (its title is taken from the Book of Isaiah) Jean Louise is coming back to Maycomb County from her somewhat mysterious life in New York. At the station to meet her off the train is not Atticus, who is 72 and suffering badly from arthritis, but Hank Clinton, her father’s junior partner. Hank and Jean Louise have known each other since childhood, but now Hank is very much in love with her and wants to marry her. He calls her “honey” and a “child”, but she resists his unappealing blend of declared love and financial ­prudence (“I have now reached an economic status that can provide for the support of two”). And so begins Jean Louise’s challenging, unhappy return to Maycomb, the place that she, and so many readers, once happily called home.

I can’t recall when a book was so eagerly awaited as Go Set a Watchman. There were the Harry Potter Years, certainly, those midnight bookshop openings and eager kids dressed as wizards staying up all night. But we watched Harry Potter rise to classic status before our eyes (whether that status is deserved is another story altogether): Mockingbird has been firmly in the pantheon since it was first published in the summer of 1960. It is a book that is not only a staple of classroom teaching but also genuinely beloved. Oprah Winfrey, writing at the time of its 50th anniversary in 2010, called Mockingbird America’s “national novel”. The 1962 film adaptation won three Academy Awards; and an upright, stalwart Gregory Peck became enshrined in the collective imagination as the embodiment of Atticus Finch.

Yet part of the wider fascination with Mockingbird always lay in it being Lee’s only novel. Nelle Harper Lee, who will be 90 next year, is often lazily described as a “recluse”. What this seems to mean, in 21st-century parlance is “someone who doesn’t give interviews”. Like Neil Armstrong, another figure whose staggering fame was an early harbinger of the growth of celebrity culture, she wisely decided early on that she had little to gain by talking to the press. That didn’t stop the folks in Monroe­ville, Alabama – her native town, on which Maycomb is based – from capitalising on her success; head to Radley’s Fountain Grille on South Alabama Avenue and order up a plate of buffalo wings and “loaded cheese fries” in homage to Lee, why don’t you? To Kill a Mockingbird was a fascinating singularity; the novel was all the more adored because it stood alone.

But then, late in 2014, Go Set a ­Watchman was discovered among Lee’s papers. Or so we were told. The story of Watchman’s publication is a gripping tale in its own right. Tonja Carter, Harper Lee’s lawyer – who took over after Lee’s sister and gatekeeper Alice died, aged 103, in November 2014 – attests with certainty that she came across the manuscript in a safe-deposit box that year. But a rare books expert from Sotheby’s, Justin Caldwell, has said that he encountered the manuscript as early as 2011 when he went to Alabama with Lee’s literary agent in order to appraise her papers. And then, for a while, there was the mystery surrounding the decision to publish the manuscript, whenever it had been found. Why hadn’t it been published before? When publication was announced, in February this year, Lee – who had a stroke in 2007 and now resides at an assisted-living facility in her home town – was reported to have said, “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman.” But others were not so sure; so much so, that following “an unspecified complaint”, Alabama State’s human resources department was concerned that Lee might be the victim of elder abuse. The case was closed after officials spoke to Lee.

Harper Lee on the porch in Monroeville, Alabama. Photo: Donald Urhbock/The Life images collection / Getty

Publication was slated for the very same day that the New Horizons spacecraft would swing close to Pluto, that most distant object in our solar system, its journey of nine years and three billion miles a parallel wonder to the release of Watchman. But then came more mystery, more fuss, as embargoes on publication were broken and news leaked that Atticus was not the man we thought he was. Twenty years on from the time of Mockingbird, the lawyer who defended a black man, Tom Robinson, when he was unjustly accused of rape by a white woman, saying that the case was “something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience – Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man” has changed his tune. With the grown-up Jean Louise standing before him, he speaks plainly in the language of Jim Crow: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

So how do we talk about Go Set a Watchman? Does its existence diminish To Kill a Mockingbird? How does it stand in relation to that text?

In the first place it seems to me wiser to read Watchman as a very early draft of Mockingbird, rather than an independent work. It seems clear that Watchman was the text submitted by Lee to the publisher Lippincott in the 1950s; Tay Hohoff, a forceful editor there, worked closely with Lee on draft after draft, through argument after argument, to coax out To Kill a Mockingbird.

Watchman is written in the third person, Mockingbird in the first. Watchman is best described as picaresque, a loosely linked series of events with no clear narrative through-line; Mockingbird is driven forward by the trial of Tom Robinson. One of the pleasures of reading Watchman is to admire the genius of an editor who saw what was hiding inside this strange, discursive book. Robinson’s trial is mentioned in a paragraph or two here: the character is never named, and furthermore Atticus gets him acquitted. It’s a worthwhile exercise to compare the opening two paragraphs of Mockingbird with Watchman’s: the former make you want – need – to read on; the latter, quite simply, do not. Watchman comes alive when Jean Louise’s recollections of her childhood with Dill and Jem and Cal, those characters we know and love so well, intrude into the present-day plot. (Jem’s ­appearance in flashback in this book is positively ghostly because we learn, brusquely, in the opening pages, that he dropped dead of a heart attack two years before this tale begins.)

The story of Watchman, when it finally gets going towards the second half of the book, is of Jean Louise’s horrifying discovery that not only is Atticus reading pamphlets with titles such as The Black Plague, he is also on the board of directors of the local citizens’ council. Citizens’ councils were white supremacist groups in the Southern states largely organised after Brown v Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court case that decreed segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Now, when Atticus decides he will take on the case of a black man, it is simply to fend off the “buzzards”: the NAACP lawyers “who demand Negroes on the juries in such cases”.

How is it possible that the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird has turned into (or had his origins in) this terrible man – a man against whom Scout stands firm, at great cost to herself, and her sense of what home is? For all the flaws in this novel, however, Atticus’s transformation is wholly believable; and I wonder if Harper Lee thought, once again, to teach us a lesson. For the lawyer’s attitude in Mockingbird surely can be seen as conservative and paternalistic; and Maycomb society, in both books, is strictly hierarchical, even within its white community. For all that this novel was written before – was transformed into – Mockingbird, it is possible to see how Lee would go back in time to imagine her character’s ideals before those ideals had been taken too far by “Negroes” who disagreed with Atticus’s statement of what he sees as simple fact: “white is white and black’s black”.

Shocking? Perhaps not when, 150 years after the end of the American civil war, it is just this month that the Confederate battle flag has been removed from its place above South Carolina State House; it took the murders of nine men and women in a church to force its removal. Though the motivation for publishing this novel can be debated (it will certainly earn a windfall for all concerned), it is hard to regret its appearance. It casts a stark light not only on the past, but on the present, too. “Leave the slaves out of it for a while,” says Atticus’s brother, Jack, debating with Jean Louise. Harper Lee, in Go Set a Watchman, reminds us that we can’t.

The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night; if ye will inquire, inquire ye; return, come. 

Erica Wagner is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. She is working on a biography of Washington Roebling, the man who built the Brooklyn Bridge

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Now listen to Erica discussing Go Set a Watchman on SRSLY, the New Statesman's pop culture podcast:

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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