Julia Williams grew up in North London, one of eight children, including an identical twin sister. She studied English at Liverpool University, where she met her husband, Dave, a dentist. She spent 10 years working in publishing, mainly in children's books, which remain a great love. After the birth of her second child, Julia decided to devote herself to freelance editing and writing. Her first novel, Pastures New, came out last December, and her second, Strictly Love, is published this month. She is proud to be a member of the Romantic Novelist's Association, which has always supported her. In this post Julia writes about Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
Julia Williams on To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Although like most writers, no doubt, I have a list of favourite books which changes with the passing of the seasons, there is one book that I always put at the top of my list. I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was fourteen. It was a set text for O-level, which might have been the kiss of death, but for a particularly gifted English teacher. Thanks to his enthusiasm, though, I soon fell in love.
I wasn't long out of childhood myself when I read the book for the first time, and I immediately identified with the summers Scout spends with Dill playing make believe stories, running away from the local bogeyman, Boo Radley, and the autumns walking to school and finding presents in the tree from an unknown benefactor. Lee immediately draws you into Scout's world and the confinements and rules she frequently chafes against. This is a brilliantly realized view of childhood, making you remember the injustice, the passion, the joy of being young.
I loved Scout for her feistiness, her loyalty and her inability to take anything lying down. But I was also drawn to Jem, whose quiet stoicism and burning sense of justice make him an appealing character.
And besides all that, I fell in love with the 'tired old town of Maycomb', where women took tea in the afternoons and wilted in the heat of a Southern summer, which seemed so very alien to my own world.
If you read the first half of the novel on its own, you could be forgiven for thinking this is simply a wonderful depiction of childhood, and a world long since lost to us. But To Kill a Mockingbird is far, far more than that.
As the book progresses, a gradual sense of unease builds up as we realize that all is not quite right in Maycomb and that the children's lawyer father, Atticus, is setting himself against his community by taking on a case he cannot win. But courage, as he tells Jem, is 'when you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what'.
Atticus is the character at the centre of the book: the lawyer with integrity and a conscience. Atticus stands up for what is right, whatever the personal cost, by defending black Tom Robinson, who is alleged to have raped Mayella Ewell, the white-trash daughter of the town drunk, Bob Ewell. Tom is innocent, but this is the southern states of America, way before the Civil Rights Movement, and he doesn't stand a chance. To the townsfolk of Maycomb, a black man's word counts for nothing, even against that of a man everyone knows to be a liar.
The trial is the dark heart of this novel, and the first time I read it I shared Jem's utter disbelief at the way it progressed. As his innocence is stripped away - 'I always thought Maycomb folks were the best folks in the world, least that's what they seemed like,' he says to Miss Maudie after Tom Robinson is jailed - so was mine. I was shocked to the core. Such things couldn't really happen, could they? Of course, I now know that prejudice and bigotry can lead even the most decent people into questionably moral decisions, but it was an eye-opening moment for me, and I don't think I've ever looked at the world in the same way again.
By modern standards, though this is a book with a strong anti-racist message, it can be read as being itself racist. The black characters often seem stereotyped - Calpurnia the cook is a bit of a Mammy-type figure - and our glimpses into their world are short and often superficial. But on the other hand, context is all, and Harper Lee is recording the world as she knew it, growing up. The attitudes of many of the white characters may be abhorrent to us now, but they were prevalent at the time the book is set. And despite any stereotyping, I always felt Calpurnia was one of the most morally superior characters in the book, frequently 'shaming' Scout and making her see the consequences of her actions.
To Kill a Mockingbird, though, isn't just a book with a strong anti-racist message. It is also about standing up for what is right, about having the courage of your convictions, about staring people in the eye and holding your head up high even when the world despises you. And, above all, it is immensely compassionate, making us care equally about the unlikeable Mrs Dubose's struggles to free herself from morphine addiction, and no-nonsense Miss Maudie's hearbreakingly stoical response to the fire which destroys her home. We even end up feeling sorry for Mayella Ewell, though her lies have condemned Tom Robinson.
But the character treated with the most compassion is that of Boo Radley. He is the bogyman the children fear at the start of the book, but we gradually come to realize that it is Boo Radley who is leaving things for them in the tree (before his brother Nathan blocks up the hole), it is Boo Radley who has looked out for them their whole lives, and it is Boo Radley who ultimately saves them.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a humane and wise book about the best and worst of human nature. It was and remains a seminal influence.
'You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,' Atticus tells Scout at one point. Until I re-read that line I didn't realize how much I try to live by that code in my own life. Atticus and Scout taught me that at fourteen. It's not a lesson I'll ever forget.