Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman is not a book that should be read in a vacuum. It becomes fairly transparent, fairly early on, that this can only be taken as a first draft of what would become To Kill a Mockingbird. This perspective allows it to be an unprecedented insight onto a seminal novel, and renders complaints about it being inferior to To Kill a Mockingbird unhelpful if not irrelevant.
In the muddy waters surrounding the discovery of the manuscript, one of the queries has been how Lee could have forgotten about an entire book. But in reading Go Set A Watchman directly after re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird it is nearly impossible to see them as separate books. Some lines are word for word the same, although alongside these are contradictions such as a briefly mentioned trial where Atticus managed to get a black man acquitted for the rape of a 14-year-old white girl. Of course in To Kill A Mockingbird the accused, Tom Robinson, is not acquitted (and the accuser is 19). Such repetitions and inconsistencies between the texts seem to demonstrate an author who was not averse to having a first draft published as a window onto how To Kill a Mockingbird came to be.
The version of Atticus Finch that we see in Go Set a Watchman has occupied much of the early reaction to the book and much of what he says is deeply uncomfortable to read for fans of the Atticus immortalised in To Kill a Mockingbird. But that seems to be rather the point. Lee toyed with this version of Atticus and Scout’s relationship, in fact creating a nuanced and profoundly moving picture of a child coming to terms with her father’s inadequacies: “Our gods are remote from us, Jean Louise. They must never descend to human level", one character advises. But between Lee and her editor, who can be seen as anything from prudent to inspired, Atticus developed and took on much of his own advice. Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel, but where the character began.
While the newly published book is certainly less upbeat, and also somewhat messier in format, this does not detract from Lee's way with words. Her humour, humanity and lovely turns of phrase are rippled through this book and there is so much to love for fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, especially Scout who is the least altered of the main characters.
Uncle Jack, who features much more prominently in Go Set A Watchman, reminds Scout: “It’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, 10 years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.” Clearly Lee, with the help of an insightful editor, did master that trick in 1957 and guided the book from Go Set A Watchman to the book that has rightly become a classic.