Performing Femininity

Performing Femininity

To Kill a Mockingbird, My Brilliant Career and long-lost ‘sequels’

Harper Lee, pictured circa 1962, has announced a return to the literary world. Wikimedia Commons

By now there can be few people who don’t know Harper Lee’s supposedly long-lost manuscript, Go Set a Watchman, will be published in July. It will be the first book published by Lee since To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960 and, with both novels essentially hewn from the same manuscript, the works are intimately connected.

When a beloved story ends, whatever the medium, there is a sense of loss and disappointment. We can re-read or re-watch a book or TV series, or turn to fan fiction and different formats such as comics, in an attempt to continue our immersion in a favourite world and extend the adventures of its characters.

The temptation to give official life to popular books after the death of the author is often too strong to resist.

L Frank Baum’s Oz series was taken up by a new “Royal Historian of Oz”, Ruth Plumly Thompson, who published 19 books in the 1920s and 1930s. Geraldine McCaughrean wrote the “official sequel” to J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1911) almost a century after the original in 2006.

And after rights to a Winnie the Pooh sequel reverted from Disney – who had turned the character into a lucrative merchandising phenomenon – the estate of A.A. Milne authorised David Benedictus to write Return to the Hundred Acre Wood in 2009.

The Gothic family sagas of V.C. Andrews continued to corner the market for tales of incest even after her death in 1986, with more than 50 additional novels authored by a ghostwriter. Recently it was announced that Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series, for which he wrote three of ten projected novels before he died in 2004, will be continued by a new author.

Readers’ desire for more once an original author has passed away rarely leads to satisfaction. But what if the original author happened to write a prequel or a sequel around the same period as their most famous book?

Such is the case with Go Set a Watchman, the forthcoming book by the reclusive Harper Lee. Many who hold To Kill a Mockingbird dear have been celebrating the news of a second work of fiction.

The novel is set 20 years after the events depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird, but was written prior to the high-school English mainstay. Lee has said she was advised by her editor to write another manuscript, from the perspective of Scout Finch as a child, and Go Set a Watchman was left aside.

As strange as the situation seems, there is a similar case in Australian literary history, albeit by an author who did publish other works of fiction and non-fiction.

Miles Franklin. Wikimedia Commons

Like Lee, Miles Franklin’s first novel became one of the most successful books ever written in her home country. My Brilliant Career (1901) was – as with Mockingbird – narrated in first-person by a girl, Sybylla Melvyn, who is a teenager coming into womanhood.

Franklin felt her novel had been misread, a process that began with the alteration of her original title: My Brilliant(?) Career, and was heightened by the perception that is was an autobiography. (She even withdrew the book from publication, and it was not reprinted until after her death in 1954.)

Franklin immediately wrote a satirical sequel, The End of My Career, to right the situation, but publishers rejected it. According to Penelope Hanley, the manuscript was “too audacious, with characters too recognisable”.

It was not until 1946 that the work was published as My Career Goes Bung. Like Lee’s long-thought-vanished first manuscript, what was to become My Career Goes Bung was also thought lost for a substantial period. Franklin believed it had been thrown into a furnace in Chicago when a man had wanted to use the trunk that contained a number of Franklin’s manuscripts.

Franklin was also something of a recluse in that she lived overseas for more than 30 years and published a number of novels in the latter part of her career under the pseudonym “Brent of Bin Bin”.

Both Lee and Franklin were inhibited by the weight of the success of their first published novels.

Though published almost half a century afterwards, the sequel to Franklin’s most successful novel was obscured by the original, the reception of which it directly responded to. While Lee was never satisfied with any of her subsequent attempts to write both fiction and non-fiction manuscripts.

In both cases, editors declined early manuscripts that were subsequently thought to have been destroyed. When it was finally published, readers did not find My Brilliant Career: Part Two in My Career Goes Bung, which deliberately rewrote the original to achieve different ends.

Go Set the Watchmen, which will be published in its original unedited format and focalised through an adult Scout, is also unlikely to give readers all of the pleasures to be found in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Yet the millions of readers of one of the highest selling books of all-time will be curious to see the world once again through the eyes of Scout Finch.


See also:
Harper Lee’s gamble could undermine her Mockingbird

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