To some extent, the stories of the most compelling fictional characters never really end—we are free, in our imaginations, to conceive all kinds of additional things happening to them. What’s fan fiction if not the purest expression of an impulse to keep the stories going? It’s a desire J.K. Rowling has tapped into more efficiently than any other creator, continually refining and extending the Harry Potter universe via tweets, interview tidbits, and now a play that will offer a fully-formed addition to the canon.
Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is indisputably the most eagerly awaited work of fiction since Rowling wrapped up her Potter series in 2007, in no small part because it offers answers to the question of what happened to Scout, Lee’s sagacious and scrappy creation. Jean Louise Finch, six years old at the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird, is an irresistible two-pronged character: She’s both a good-natured tomboy with the naive idealism of a small child, and the novel’s older and wiser narrator who deftly guides the reader through the minefield of childhood. The adult Jean Louise can be sensed throughout the novel as an interpreter of events and an arbiter of right and wrong, so the thrill of Go Set a Watchman is that it has some promise of resolution for the reader in finding out what happened to her.
The first chapter of the novel is all that’s currently available (the full book will be released next week), but it offers a surprising breadth of detail about Jean Louise, who’s shown returning home to Maycomb, Alabama, from her home in New York at around the age of 26. “She had turned,” Lee writes, “from an overalled, fractious, gun-slinging creature into a reasonable facsimile of a human being.” She’s still awkward and tomboyish and accident-prone—her outfit of the day is “gray slacks and a black sleeveless blouse, white socks and loafers,” and she imagines “her aunt’s sniff of disapproval” at the combination. She accidentally gets stuck in the fold-up bed in her train compartment and is mortified when the porter has to come and let her out.
But she’s also sharp, and brave, and keenly self-aware. “She was a person who, when confronted with an easy way out, always took the hard way,” Lee writes. The easy way is Henry Clinton, a lifelong friend and surrogate son for her father, Atticus, who picks her up at the train station, kisses her “hard on the mouth,” and repeatedly declares his desire to marry her. “Not yet,” is Jean Louise’s reply. “I want to be like Dr Schweitzer and play until I’m thirty.”
The origins of Go Set a Watchman are somewhat cloudy, but it was reportedly written in the mid-1950s when Lee was in her 20s, and it seems to be set around 1955. (Atticus, Jean Louise reports, is now 72 years old, and suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.) Given the era, it’s notable therefore how independent Jean Louise is, and how determined to be true to her instincts. “I’ll have an affair with you but I won’t marry you,” she tells Henry, which prompts anger from him and introspection from her. “She was almost in love with him,” Lee writes. “No, that’s impossible, she thought: either you are or you aren’t. Love’s the only thing in this world that is unequivocal. There are different kinds of love, certainly, but it’s a you-do or you-don’t proposition with them all.”
In a fleeting instant in the car ride, she sees her future laid out: She marries Henry, bears his children, and then, a few years later, “the man would come along whom she should have married in the first place. There would be searchings of hearts, fevers and frets, long looks at each other on the post-office steps, and misery for everybody ... all that would be left would be another shabby little affair à la the Birmingham country club set and a self-constructed private Gehenna with the latest Westinghouse appliances. Hank didn’t deserve that.”
Go Set a Watchman’s first chapter is a treat in many ways—who else but Harper Lee could write of “the inevitable verbena,” or “the overweening willfulness” of Maycomb’s founder—and meandering in others, but its main promise is in how fully realized Jean Louise is as a character in just a few thousand words. “She was easy to look at and easy to be with most of the time, but she was in no sense an easy person,” Lee writes. Following the altercation with Henry in the car, he soothes his wounded feelings with what the modern reader might interpret as mansplaining, and Jean Louise’s response is keenly diplomatic. “Hank,” she says, “I agree with everything you’ve said. You are the most perspicacious individual I’ve met in years, you are six feet five, and may I light your cigarette? How’s that?”
“Just like that,” Lee concludes, “they were friends again.” It’s true of Hank and Jean Louise, but also of those readers who’ve long dreamed of finding out what happened when Scout grew up.
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