Fifty five years after Atticus, Jem and Scout Finch first stole the heart of a generation of book lovers, To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee is to publish a sequel to her seminal tale of racism in the Deep South.
Lee, 88, won a Pulitzer Prize for her debut novel, which told the story of a black man charged with raping a white woman in small town Depression-era Alabama. Narrated through the eyes of tomboy youngster Scout, it dealt with the loss of childhood innocence, and human fairness and dignity in the face of inherent prejudice.
It became an instant bestseller upon publication in 1960, capturing the imagination of thousands of readers with its heartwarming, matter-of-fact and quietly devastating narrative.
For years, fans had hoped for a sequel to the book and it now turns out that Lee had actually written such manuscript back in the mid-50s, before she penned To Kill A Mockingbird. Titled Go Set a Watchman, it featured an adult Scout returning to Maycomb from New York to visit her father.
However, she set aside her writing to concentrate on To Kill A Mockingbird and never returned to it.
"In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set a Watchman. It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout's childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout," she explained. "I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told."
In a statement released by her publishers Penguin Random House, the novelist said she had believed the manuscript for her original book to be long lost, "so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it".
"After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years," she said.
The outline for the book was discovered "in a secure location where it had been affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird".
Go Set a Watchman is set 20 years on from To Kill A Mockingbird and features several main characters from the book, including Atticus and Scout.
"She [Scout] is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand both her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood," say the publishers at Penguin Random House.
Lee's compelling coming-of-age classic was a huge success, even in the racially charged atmosphere of the early 1960s in which it was first published. It has sold over 40 million copies worldwide, with an Oscar-winning film version of the book starring Gregory Peck produced in 1962.
The author since retreated from the public eye; she rarely grants interviews, declined to write the screenplay for the movie adaptation, and published only a few short pieces after 1961.
"I didn't expect the book to sell in the first place," she said, in a rare interview in 2010. "I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected."
The new book comes out on 14 July this year. We're counting down the days already.
Words: Anna Brech, Photos: Rex Features