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posted 28 Jul 2015, 15:17 by Fran Brady

Harper Lee’s ‘new’ novel, Go Set a Watchman, has certainly caused what we Scots call ‘a stushie’. Critics seem to be divided in their cause for complaint.

Some bemoan the imperfection of GSAW against the near-perfection of To Kill a Mockingbird, pointing out that TKAM was subjected to three years of rewriting and editing whereas GSAW seems to have been discovered in a safety vault one day and hit the bookshops the next. Some even speculate that GSAW was a just a first drafty-draft or that Lee’s editor suggested that GSAW needed more backstory and TKAM was the result. The tail wagged the dog and the back story emerged as much more interesting and better written, long enough and strong enough to stand up for itself. More than stand up – it sold forty million copies, won the Pulitzer Prize and even went on to become a school textbook (surely every self-respecting author’s ultimate goal?)

Others are horrified by the elderly Atticus Finch - in TKAM, everyone’s idea of a paragon of egalitarian virtue – turning into at best a cynical old compromiser and at worst a racist reactionary.

Still others reject the very idea of giving GSAW the same literary stature and popularity as TKAM just because it is by the same author. Perhaps if Harper Lee had gone on to write a string of books and become known as a prolific author there would not be these howls of disappointment. But TKAM was her only published novel until the recent discovery and publication of GSAW. Comparisons and expectations were inevitable and all the more so because GSAW is about exactly the same people in exactly the same place, just twenty years later.

And the lack of a good editor shows: the flashbacks are too long; the dialogue is often clunky and used in a heavy-handed way to impart information, ideas and even (yawn) political dogma; the plot is lopsided, building up slowly to the climax, teasing the reader with promise of a something spectacular but then petering out like a cheap firework. The device of the wise old doctor talking Jean-Louise down from her righteous wrath to an unconvincing state of self-revelation and flat acceptance is reminiscent of those Victorian melodramas where all the problems had to be solved in the last scene. There had to be a tidy happy-ending, however ghastly and complex the preceding events. In GSAW, the deus ex machina tactic (actually accompanied by physical assault on the protagonist) is only slightly less corny than putting it all down to  J-L having simply had a bad dream (like Bobby Ewing in the old TV soap ‘Dallas’!)

And yet, and yet, having said all that, I was left with a sense that GSAW has a voice of its own and does say something important about what it must be like to live and work in a place like 1960s Maycomb, to walk the tightrope between high-minded principles and workable pragmatics. When Atticus makes the case for slowing down the pace of civil rights because the black population was then largely uneducated and totally inexperienced in governing itself, it jars horribly with our 21st century sensibilities. But consider the result of overnight overthrow of separatist, repressive regimes. Before the first jubilant shouts of ‘Freedom!’ have died away, civil war is brewing and anarchy has the wind in her sails. ‘A bas les aristos!’ soon became ‘A la guillotine!’ and not just for the hated aristocrats but eventually for anyone who dared to disagree with those in the new power structure. One dictatorship was exchanged for another. The Russian revolution against the repressive Tsar regime led not to a country of wonderfully free values and great opportunities for its people but to the very opposite. And when that totalitarian regime finally crumbled with the Berlin Wall, it was followed by raging conflicts and civil unrest through eastern Europe.

I find myself NOT disappointed in my old hero, Atticus, after all. He has feet of clay but don’t we all? He has had his youthful idealism worn down into workable compromise – haven’t we all?  His nature is to be a quiet gradualist, not a furious revolutionary. It takes all kinds.

What I love about him is that he is quite simply delighted that his fiery daughter is fiery. He wants her not just to hold her strong views and express them forcibly but to come back and live in Maycomb and be the grain of sand in the oyster, the voice of the future. He can no longer do it, he is old and tired, but he knows that it needs to be done and he is delighted that it will be his own daughter doing it. A lawyer to his fingertips, he want both sides of the argument to be equally well articulated.

For that reason alone, Atticus Finch, a little tarnished and battle-scarred but still lovable and credible, sits yet on my shelf of much-loved characters from great literature.