I’ve found it very difficult to describe exactly what I thought about Gone With The Wind. I started it on New Year’s Day and finished it in just over a fortnight, its storyline is incredibly compelling, the description is vivid – the nine hundred and odd pages simply slipped by. When I reached the end, I wanted to howl in horror but unfortunately I was on a train and could not. To say that the love story between Scarlett and Rhett is ‘absorbing’ does not really begin to describe it. Their passion is spell-binding and even though the story has been celebrated for so long, reading it was utterly enthralling.
Yet despite all this, the book does bear the scars of the time in which it was written – Scarlett and Rhett are no Romeo and Juliet. I do not mean simply that it was written about the American Civil War but rather the attitudes of the 1930s. Margaret Mitchell grew up on the stories of the Glorious South, only realising when she was about ten that the South had been defeated. To be fair, this is not something that the South has ever seemed to dwell upon. To Margaret Mitchell, the KKK were the gallant heroes defending old-fashioned values and the n-word is mentioned on more than one occasion. Her attitude towards African American is at best patronising and at worst downright racist. Still, between this and a heroine who is thoroughly selfish and manipulative, you would imagine that this was a book to be despised and forgotten but still, Gone With The Wind remains loved and treasured, its flaws brushed aside as simply part of its charm.
The opening line sets up the heroine, ‘Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realised it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were‘. It’s easy to forget because she was played in the film by the breath-taking Vivien Leigh, but Scarlett O’Hara is a woman who exists by the sheer force of her personality. It’s funny, in some ways I felt as though I met Scarlett a little late, I think GWTW is a staple read during female adolescence, when Scarlett might appear simply feisty and star-cross’d. Still, as an adult reading her, I felt sympathy and frustration and also … a little bit of recognition. When the book ends she is still only in her twenties, she has years and years ahead of her to regret her follies. But who amongst us really knew their own heart at sixteen?
Scarlett is ruthless in her machinations, seeking the heart of every man unfortunate enough to cross her path. Yet still, writing from the 1930s, Mitchell does expose just how artificial expectations of women were. Women seemed to have to trick their way into marriage, only to reveal their true selves after their bewildered husbands had signed on the dotted lines. Scarlett shrieks in indignation at having to eat before parties so that she can nibble ‘like a little bird’ in company, laces herself as tight as she can and is determined to enjoy her life as much as possible. She visits that famous ‘passion for living’ on the unfortunate Ashley Wilkes. Since the book was published women must have wondered what on earth Scarlett saw in the insipid Ashley. To me, it seemed more like a very bad habit than anything else. The empty suit of clothes that she wrote her affection on, nothing to do with the man within.
I could go through the main points of the plot but that would not explain what it is that makes the story so captivating. I certainly learnt a lot about the American Civil War which catapults Scarlett from her dreamy life in Tara to war-torn Atlanta and then back again to Tara to eke out an existence fighting back against the carpet-baggers and looters. Gone With The Wind is a hymn to the South, mourning its collapse while having a surprisingly keen eye for its flaws.
Right from the barbecue at Twelve Oaks, Rhett warns the men that they have no hope of winning against a superior foe and that the North is the one with all the weapons. Still, Rhett’s cynicism is only ever a mask for his true compassion, something his wife alas realises far too late. Rhett is the seer of the story, he sees into the truth of everything. And everyone.
The South has airs and beliefs about its station, about its nobility, but just as Scarlett is ‘not truly beautiful’, neither was the South. Its charm was built on a very ugly lie, that slavery was anything other than exploitation of humans by other humans. Ashley whines while chopping wood in Tara that he mourns the lost ‘slow beauty’ of his pre-war life but it’s hard to sympathise with a world that relied on suffering. Ashley claims that he would have released his slaves upon the death of his father and he blanches at the idea of beating the convicts who work for the timber mill but he is unable to function effectively in a post-abolition society, relying on Scarlett’s charity. Even when Ashley says that he wants to be independent, he obviously has no idea about how to go about it.
It’s strange, for a book that has often been accused of glorifying the plantation way of life, Mitchell is surprisingly astute at critiquing the people who practised it. There are the people like Scarlett who will beg, borrow and steal (their sister’s boyfriend) to survive, and then there are the people who were only ever ‘money and darkies’ who slide down and down into social oblivion, with no notion of how to help themselves. Cathleen Calvert goes from one-time belle of the county to white trash in very little time, her old family home is taken over by freed slaves. Their folly was in thinking that their position set them as something better – they have been like children, coddled by a life without true industry. I was reminded of the Socialist Ten Commandments, which on my better days I try to live by. Anyway, number seven on the list is “Remember that all Good Things of the earth are produced by labour. Whoever enjoys them without earning them is stealing the bread of the workers“. Ashley may think that his old life was beautiful, but in enjoying the good things of the earth without labour of his own, he in debt to the land.
|Saintly. But then she is played by Olivia De Havilland|
Scarlett is far better equipped to take care of herself. Despite her many, many flaws and failings, the reader keeps sympathy with her. When she digs the carrot out of the ground, when she throws it up, when she breaks her heart (and Scarlett breaks her own heart). In many ways, Melanie Wilkes is a more appropriate heroine. If Ashley is the intellect of the South and Rhett is the muscle, then Melanie is surely its heart. Rhett describes her as the only ‘truly kind’ person that he has ever known. Both she and Ashley are implied to be weak because of generations of inter-breeding between their families but while Ashley’s weakness is of the spirit, Melanie is strong everywhere but her body. Scarlett realises all too late that even immediately after having suffered a nightmarish childbirth, Melanie still had the courage to pick up her father’s sword and face down a Yankee soldier. Melanie and Scarlett were soul sisters, Scarlett was just too foolish to see it.
|Don’t mess with Mellie. Seriously.|
Female friendship is a slightly unlikely theme of Gone With The Wind, Scarlett does not like women. Melanie was her best friend in spite of Scarlett, yet while Rhett comments that Melanie would approve of everything Scarlett did short of murder, Scarlett inwardly cringes that Melanie had even approved of the murder. Melanie defends Scarlett’s reputation up and down the town, she is a foulweather friend and I admired her for it. I will not say that nobody in their right mind should aspire to be Scarlett because if I were fleeing from the burning Atlanta, her courage and determination would be more than useful. However. I think that Melanie is unfairly abused as a ninny – Scarlett is wrong on so many things and never more so than in her assessment of Melanie. There is no occasion under which her courage does not at least match that of Scarlett and usually it surpasses.
So really, a less talented writer would have just paired Melanie with Rhett, minor characters would have humphed about his reputation, Melanie would have told them not to be so silly and the two of them would have had a straightforward sort of marriage and the story would have been forgettable. Mellie knows what Scarlett has never seen, that Rhett loves Scarlett desperately. And she also knows that he is a true gentleman. Rhett is the anti-hero, often desperately rude and rarely living up to society’s expectations but somehow at his core, he is a good man. He loves his daughter desperately and the pain of her loss is awful even as the reader. The worst of it was his admission that he had loved Bonnie because Scarlett would not let him love her, that he had longed to pet and spoil his wife as he had done Bonnie. He might be rough around the edges, but he is a better man and more of a gentleman than Ashley Wilkes.
I was struck when I finally watched the film that it had rather … missed the point. Or so I felt. The film is a spectacle, one of the old Hollywood epics with a cast of thousands but it is as in love with the glamour of the Old South as Ashley Wilkes was. They do not tell the story of Cathleen Calvert or the other Southern belles and their beaux who had to turn to the lives of field-hands to scratch a living, there is no beauty to that. Scarlett’s love for Tara is redemptive, the land of her father but the way that people fawn over the world of afternoon tea, corsets and plantations where the slaves were treated so well that they preferred enslavement … it’s ugly. Mitchell grew up as the child and grandchild of the people whose lives were turned upside down by abolition, she grew up on the stories. But there are other stories. Last night, Twelve Years A Slave won the Best Picture Oscar.
Gone With The Wind is an antique piece, interesting even just as a product of its time but at its core it is a potboiling drama, a feast for the senses and a painful, even harrowing love story. Looking past all of the external drama, it is a tragedy. Rhett Butler loved his wife, loved her, loved her, loved her … and she loved him. Loved him, loved him, loved him. When Scarlett realises it and goes running through the street to find him, the reader knows that is nearly too late but we have such hopes, a mark of what Mitchell has achieved – a magnificent novel that shines. Oh dear. I want to go somewhere and howl again now.
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Published by Pan Books on September 25th 1991
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