Go Set A Watchman: Five things we learned from Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird sequel

Scout has turned from hapless six-year-old into loveable, if gawky young woman. But where is Atticus? And what happened to Jem?

To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee

The first chapter of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, possibly the most eagerly anticipated sequel in the history of literature (we have been waiting more than 50 years for it), has been published.

The first 3,600 words of the follow up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill A Mockingbird revisits Maycomb, Alabama two decades later through the eyes of our child protagonist Scout.

The original has graced school reading lists since it was published in 1960 for its fiercely moral portrait of inequality and racism in the American South all told through the viewpoint of six-year-old Jean and her brother Jem Finch.

Go Set A Watchman is due to hit bookshelves on Tuesday 14 July and the reviews are embargoed until then but the first chapter reveals a considerable amount about what we can expect:

Gregory Peck (left) and Brock Peters (right) in a scene from the 1962 film adaptation of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

Scout is all grown up (and call her Jean)

Taking place 20 years after Jean Louise “Scout” Finch came a cropper while dressed as a ham, Go Set A Watchman is set in the 1950s and our protagonist is presented as a liberal, sexually liberated woman of 26 who is travelling from New York to Alabama by train.

But the gawky, hapless and loveable Scout is still recognisable from the portrait. She describes getting stuck in a pullout bed on the sleeper train. The boyish “overalled, fractious, gun-slinging” creature of Lee’s first novel might have been replaced by an attractive young woman but the author makes it clear the character's “restlessness of spirit”, and intense moral compass, is still her driving force.

She is described as "by no means an easy person" and still moves like a thirteen-year-old despite her new-found adult confidence. In short the child who couldn't understand why injustice would be done to anybody appears undimmed, unbroken and unbent - a heartening start indeed.

Harper Lee's new sequel to her iconic novel To Kill a Mockingbird

Brother Jem is dead

Having hardly caught our breath from the delight at Scout’s unchanged character and the realisation that Atticus is still alive and doing what he does best (lawyering) at the ripe old age of 72, Lee delivers some rather tragic news. Brother Jem is dead! The “nightmare” of his sudden demise, which seems to have happened some years ago (Second World War perhaps?) is hinted at but not explained. What will Scout do without her likeable, if sometimes “maddeningly superior”, elder sibling?

The passage telling of his death blithely reads: "Just about that time, Jean Louise’s brother dropped dead in his tracks one day, and after the nightmare of that was over, Atticus, who had always thought of leaving his practice to his son, looked around for another young man. It was natural for him to engage Henry, and in due course Henry became Atticus’s legman, his eyes, and his hands."

Atticus is not well

This is only the fifth of Scout’s annual visits home to Alabama since moving to New York and it is clear she hasn’t seen her father for a long time. Her decision to take the train so he won’t have to drive miles to collect her reveals some sense that Atticus is not his old, unstoppable self. But her surprise and shock that he isn’t there waiting at Maycomb station for her is palpable.

Instead she is greeted by her old flame Henry “Hank” Clinton, a sort of brother replacement who has taken up Jem’s position at Atticus’ firm, who explains that her father can no-longer close his hands and has to be helped to tie his shoes and button his shirts. The rheumatoid arthritis or “crippling disease” leads Atticus to take seventy grains of aspirin a day and to get Miss Alexandra to hold his razor. That the upstanding, poker straight backbone of Lee’s first novel should appear so reduced at the start of her second throws up a series of intriguing scenarios.

Gregory Peck and Mary Badham as Atticus and Scout in the 1962 film of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird

Love and romance

Scout is barely off the train and into Henry Clinton’s arms before she’s receiving a proposal of marriage. The fact that she “adores” the 30-year-old war veteran with a mouthful of fake teeth and a scar running like a giant comma across his face is clear. But marriage? Returning to live in Maycomb? No, thank you. Clear that, as always, Scout is adopting the path of most resistance in life (it would have been easier to say yes, marry him and leave when the right man turned up later) she protests that she’s holding out for the “stony path of spinsterhood”. But Henry’s hurt, hateful language at her rejection is soon ameliorated by Scout’s charm and, perhaps unrealistically, at the end of the first chapter they are friends again.

Henry is a new character who we haven't met before in Mockingbird. Lee's publisher has said Watchman is "full of new characters" but will feature some familiar faces.

Lee’s voice is as distinctive as ever

Who else could litter their achingly concise prose with words like “overweening” and “perspicacious” without coming off like a pretentious unmentionable? Scout’s conscious naivety, her humour, the dialogue and the unlaboured but brilliantly drawn description of the red earth and verbena of Maycomb take one right back to the halcyon days of To Kill A Mockingbird. It is like an old friend turning up unannounced after decades without contact only for the conversation to flow as it always did. Some have commented that the written voice is almost ghostly – which it is, being so firmly rooted in a time and space that is hardly recognisable. Scout’s priorities, and her position as one of literature’s loudest and most important advocates for civil rights, are still made clear, however subtly, as she smiles joyously within the first paragraph at signs that inequality is beginning to change in her home town: “She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.”

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee is published on 14 July by William Heinemann at £18.99

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