Image: Bruna Ferrara / Flickr
My introduction to Harper Lee came in Year 10 English. I was one of the few in the class who was actually interested enough to pay attention. Many of my peers had already checked out – swinging back precariously on their chairs, flinging pens and paper planes, and hooting at each other from across the room. All of this happened under the exasperated gaze of our teacher. She was new to the school – young and pretty, with a soft American accent that was just beginning to harden into an Australian one. None of that made her exactly popular in an all-boys Catholic school… at least, not in the way she should've been.
While she busied herself wrangling my classmates, I did my own thing, which suited me just fine. I’d been meaning to make a start on To Kill a Mockingbird – it was at the top of the book list – but I’d avoided it all summer, intimidated by the slabs of exposition-laden text hogging the first few pages. I’d seen the film once, but it was so long ago that I could hardly remember anything, other than that it was shot in black and white and starred that guy who was in Roman Holiday.
At any rate, with the rest of the class in disarray, I flipped to chapter one and got stuck into it. I stumbled over the beginning and found myself rereading sentences, so I decided to skip ahead to the interesting bits. I could flick back later to scan what I’d missed, but for now I just wanted to make some progress.
And I did. Soon, I was hooked. What had taken me months to start reading only took a couple of days to finish. To date, To Kill a Mockingbird is easily my favourite American classic. That’s something that can – at least for me – be chalked up to Lee’s deliciously witty first-person narration, which back in the day The New Yorker appropriately labelled “ingenious.”
Any fan worth their salt knows Scout was essentially an author avatar, a fictionalised stand-in. Not only that, but whole scores of characters, settings and events were lifted straight out of Lee’s own childhood, making To Kill a Mockingbird more of a thinly disguised memoir than an out-and-out work of fiction. When I discovered that, my interest was piqued. I decided to do some digging.
A bit of background: the Harper Lee the world knows was born Nelle Harper Lee, named in honour of her grandmother. Lee dropped her first name prior to the publication of her debut novel, an act that was apparently born not out of rebellion but because she was worried people would mispronounce it. (It’s Nelle like “Elle”, not “Nellie.”)
Over the course of her long life, she chopped her hair, dressed in baggy clothes, and went on a road trip with her best friend Truman Capote, helping him collate research for his magnum opus, In Cold Blood. Even after relocating to the Big Apple to strike out on her own – no chaperones in sight, a relatively rare occurrence in 1950 – she never married, and remained childfree her whole life.
From this, it’s clear Lee opposed any sort of conformity, something that can perhaps be traced back to her schoolyard escapades, where she routinely got into fist fights, talked back to her teachers and played stereotypically ‘boyish’ games. Later in her academic career, she tried joining a sorority, but quickly realised the Greek system wasn’t for her. All in all, she was more comfortable among books and breeches than dinners and dresses.
Let’s be clear: Harper Lee wasn’t a feminist because she acted like a tomboy. No, she was a feminist because she completely disregarded gender norms altogether. Right up until she drew her last rattly breath on Friday morning as a wizened 89-year-old, she delighted in defying people’s expectations.
And for that, along with her words, she’ll never be forgotten.Support Villainesse