“Go Set a Watchman” (and what a great title by the way) was an early, rejected draft of the story that was to eventually become “To Kill a Mockingbird” (or “that Mockingjay book” as overheard in Waterstones recently. In Watchman, 26 year-old Scout returns from New York to spend time with her family in Maycomb, Alabama. The contrast between urban, progressive New York, and the backward, sister marrying deep South, is the source of much of the dramatic tension of the novel. Scout discovers by chance that her father and family are involved in a racist movement to ensure the black community remains in its place. This movement has sinister, violent undertones. The N word is used freely by its supporters. Scout passinately confronts her father, who refuses to apologise, but tells her she is wrong. Her uncle, a doctor, repeats this message, and when she gets upset violently hits her. This calms her down in the book’s most upsetting scenes. The novel ends with the suggestion that Scout has come to terms with her family’s racism, and may even stay in Maycomb.

Much of the reaction to the novel, and speculation as to its long delayed appearance, centres on the alleged transformation of the character of Atticus Finch, from noble defender of the oppressed black peoples of Maycomb, to a racist Klan supporter. Watchman’s hero is far more human than the paragon of TKAM. This confused response is wrong on two counts. Firstly, as Watchman makes very clear, the Atticus Finch of the second novel is the same man as in the first. There has been no major transformation, no becoming racist due to a traumatic incident or gradual embitterment. Yes, the times have changed, and the circumstances with them, but Atticus was and is a decent racist. How can the brave defender of a wrongly accused black man be a racist? Simply this – he believes in the rule of law, believes black people have a right to a fair trial, but he doesn’t believe they have the right to much more than that. Certainly not equal rights, equal education, the right to have proper democractic representation. Worst still, while Scout is appalled by Atticus’s association with disgusting racists preaching race war, she still has racist views herself. She agrees with Atticus for example when he explains that co-education threatens the Southern way of life. She challenges effectively the idea that mixed relationships will lead to mongrelization of the white race – are black men so irresistible to white women that they have to be legally restrained from marrying them? – but believes the consitution should not compel people to share their schools if they don’t want to.

Realistically, this is probably as progressive you would get for white people in the 1950’s, and even then Scout’s liberalism can be traced not just to her father’s decency, but her “corruption” by New York progressivism.

Why is the Finches’s racism so apparent in Watchman, but not Mockingbird? I believe the main difference is the context. In 1930’s Southern USA, the civil rights movement didn’t really exist. (This is not my specialist subject to say the least, but I think that’s right). In the 1950’s the NAACP was on the march, organising, and challenging the institutional barriers which left most black people as simply released slaves, with few if any political rights. Watchman prefigures the battles to come over civil rights, and shows us how threatened and scared some white communities were. Not everyone in the South who opposed civil rights were monsters, even if their behaviour and language was monstrous.

This book provides us with a different way of looking at Mockingbird, and is worth reading for that reason alone. Lee shows some skill in her handling of the portraits of the Maycomb community, capturing a sense of time and place. The characters emerge strongly, recognisable and consistent with their later (but also earlier) incarnations in Mockingbird. Whether Lee’s editor, who encouraged her to shelve this book and re-create the novel based on the flashback, was right or wrong is a meaningless question – we now have both books, and if Mockingbird is slightly diminished in the eyes of some readers, there’s little that can be done about this now. I suspect Mockingbird is resilient enough to emerge form this unscathed, with Watchman becoming a footnote in future GCSE and A Level reference books. Which would be a pity, because I also suspect Watchman is the more accurate, less romantic portrayal of the two.