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Monday, August 3, 2015

Harper Lee's Invisible Mother In To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman

Look how much Harper looks like her mother, Frances Cunningham Finch Lee. 
One character who is missing from both To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman is Scout's mother. This is likely because Harper Lee's mother suffered from mental illness that today sounds like bi-polarity. Though Truman Capote's statement is probably not true (he claimed that Mrs. Lee tried to drown her youngest in the bathtub--twice), most accounts state that never showed much interest in her youngest daughter, and actively disliked the ferocious tomboy that was Nelle Lee as a child.

At age ten, Truman Capote wrote a piece about Frances Finch Lee and a visit from a large family from "Slumtown." The story is called,"Mrs. Busybody." I finally tracked down the short story in a book from 1999,

Radical Shadows: Previously Untranslated and Unpublished Works by Nineteenth and Twentieth Century masters. 

 edited by Bradford Morrow, Peter Constantine.

Though not the character study I expected from the hype, we can learn from it a bit more about Frances Finch Lee from this story, written when Mrs. Lee was thirty-seven. Capote presents an officious creature, "a fat old widow whose only amusement was crocheting and sewing. She was also fond of knitting. She didn’t like the movies and took an immediate dislike to anyone who did enjoy them. She also took great delight in reporting children to their mothers over the slightest thing that annoyed her. In other words, no one liked her and she was considered a public nuisance and a regular old Busybody.” 

Mrs. Busybody wanders to the train station complaining about newfangled this and that. Unfortuately for young Truman's purpose, his young heroes in the story seem a heck of a lot worse. From the opening sentences when Mrs. Busybody objects to a group of boys and girls coolly smoking cigarettes outside her window, we meet jerky kids; one boy offers Mrs. Busybody a drag, while a "little girl" blows smoke in the older woman's face

Then, a second group of boys not only splashes mud on Mrs. Busybody's dress. Yes, she finds a police officer, and yes, the splashing becomes a complaint that they almost drowned her in the mud and ruined her dress. On the other hand, the officer learns that these boys subsequently "bought ice cream without paying for it, and broke several store windows, and sneaked up behind a lady and put a lighted firecracker down her dress." 

I, too, would complain. 

The rest of the story shifts to the sudden, unexpected visit from horrendous relatives, who remain the stories focus. These, Frankly, Mrs. Busybody seems the most pleasant of the bunch, with the possible exception of the police officer, who doesn't do much except arrest and deliver exposition.

Charles Shields, in his unauthorized but well-researched biography, Mockingbird, details Francis Finch Lee's life and reaction to her youngest child, Harper. Clearly, she suffered from something that left her irritable and sleepy, and perhaps later "hardening of the arteries" that had family members setting guard on her to keep her from wandering out of the house.

It's also clear that Harper Lee's father possessed a near-preternatural sense of humor towards his youngest daughter's unusual rough-and-tumble ways, her mother not only did not, but was nearly nonexistent in her life.

This profound lack of connection with her mother along with a vivid intelligence, powerful imagination and love of story-telling, was part of the powerful bond between Ms. Lee and Mr. Capote, her deeply troubled childhood companion, who was abandoned by both mother and father, basically from birth, and always disappointed his mother, who hated his "sissy" ways. It's also is the kind of deep, deep loss that resonates within one for ever.

In both To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee solved the problem of her mother--ambivalence? Anger? Shame?-- by killing her off early, too early for Scout to remember her.

She does, however, in both novels, have an Aunt Alexandra, who, says Charles Shields, is based on Lee's mother. In To Kill A Mockingbird, we meet Aunt Alexandra as being "analogous to Mount Everestt: throughout my early life, she was cold and there."

But, says Jean Louise, "her cooking made up for everything: three kinds of meat, summer vegetables from her pantry shelves, peach pickles, two kinds of cake and ambrosia," for a "modest Christmas dinner."

"Aunt Alexandra," says Jean Louise, "was fanatical on the subject of my attire. I could not possibly hope to be a lady if I wore breeches; when I said I could do nothing in a dress, she said I wasn't supposed to be doing things that required pants."

Aunt Alexandra also says that Jean Louise "should be a ray of sunshine in my father's lonely life," and that, "I was born good but had grown progressively worse every year."

We meet her her corsets, her narrow-minded bigotry against negroes, and white trash and anybody who is not "our kind," in more detail in Go Set A Watchman.

Given what little we know about Mrs. Lee, I think her daughter showed great restraint in simply killing off early a woman who was already dead by the time she wrote both novels.

More to come.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting, thanks for sharing. I love the author's writing and mourn there isn't more.