Go Set A Watchman: Oh Harper Lee, how could you do this to Atticus?

When literary heroes become villains, readers need help

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The Independent Online

When television tackles distressing issues, there is often information at the end of the programme on who to contact if you feel upset and need to talk further. The Samaritans are often cited.

Literature has no such solace. Yet I suspect that this week there were many hundreds of thousands of people feeling if not distraught and devastated then certainly bewildered and upset, and in need of a shoulder to cry on. This was the week that we had to re-evaluate the character of Atticus Finch. The lawyer hero of To Kill a Mockingbird has for over half a century epitomised the liberal idealist, the anti-racist in the prejudiced deep south of the United States in the pre-War years. Readers chose to go into the legal profession because of him, parents named their children after him, teenagers read the book and hero-worshipped him.

But now Harper Lee’s newly published sequel, Go Set A Watchman, reveals that 20 years later the liberal idealist has turned into something of a racist, and shocks the daughter who had once adored him.

It’s not easy to take. Perhaps there should be an Atticus Finch helpline, with the number at the end of every copy of the new book, where a soothing voice, perhaps with a deep south accent, will console us with reassuring words that people can change in life and it should never negate their former personality, nor the admiration that that former personality provoked. But literature has no helplines. And bookworms tend not to suffer so publicly and vociferously as soap-opera watchers. But suffering there is. It may remain unarticulated until the next book club meeting, but it is there.

And, as one of the admirers of the original Atticus, who feel bewildered and betrayed (and yes just a little bit devastated) by his immaturing with age, I wonder how I am meant to readjust my sensibilities. Do I just accept that making him my literary hero for decades was an error? Do all those unfortunates named after him start using their middle names?

A literary hero is a big part of one’s life. What next? Will hitherto unpublished works reveal that Holden Caulfield became a golf-playing member of the Republican Party, or that Oliver Twist ended up running a chain of lucrative private workhouses?

I need that literary helpline.



Another fine mess English National Opera has got into

Generally, people don’t resign if they don’t have a job to go to. John Berry, though, has done exactly that, leaving his post as artistic director of the English National Opera. Perhaps Mr Berry feels he has had enough of Arts Council meddling. The funder has effectively forced him out by putting the company under special measures, threatening to take it off the national portfolio of funded organisations permanently, and letting it be known that it was not happy about the way the place was being run. Certainly, finances have been a problem, inevitably perhaps with the London Coliseum being such a large house to fill. My own solution would be to rebrand the ENO the people’s opera and cut ticket prices to increase sales and accessibility. Artistically, Mr Berry has had a string of productions getting five star rave reviews, he has been publicly praised by opera directors the world over, he has rather brilliantly decided to open up the building to the public during the day, and has persuaded Mike Leigh to direct his first opera. His is a resignation no sensible funder would have agreed to, let alone sought.




When theatregoers get angry, box office staff should take cover

I was fortunate enough to see one of the last performances of The Oresteia at London’s Almeida theatre a few days ago. It was a riveting and very modern adaptation of Aeschelus, complete with screens, TV cameras, a Beach Boys song (!) and other contemporary(ish) features. Fascinating as it was, it has alarmed some classicist, and indeed some non-classicist, theatregoers, expecting to see a faithful rendition of the original. During the interval I witnessed an angry lady snap at the box office staff: “You have no right to call this The Oresteia.” She then left the building. While I enjoyed the experience considerably more than she did, I do wonder if she had a point. Should radical adaptations have a different title? (A few years back, an adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie was called After Miss Julie). Would that angry lady have been entitled to demand her money back if she had claimed she was lured to see The Oresteia under false pretences? A test case looms, I suspect.