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75 years of Gone With The Wind

There are some books that are timeless, that transcend time and space and transport the reader to an alternate universe from the very first turn of the page. Gone With the Wind is one such book. I read this book every year, and each time there are delightful new discoveries — nuances in characters, poetic phrases, heart-wrenching words, and always Scarlett ’Hara. Not once has the green-eyed, diamond-hard belle of the ball failed to capture my imagination.

There are few books that have captured readers world over like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. On its 75th anniversary, I muse on how my favourite book of all time has managed to do this.

Margaret Mitchell, a little-known Atlanta newswoman, took nine years to write this giant of a book, and a further eight months to check all the historical references in it. She wrote it bedridden after a problem in her leg. Gone With the Wind was Mitchell’s first — and only — full-length book, and I feel that an author’s first book is almost always autobiographical. I wonder how many of these characters Mitchell extracted from her own life! Mitchell had a fairly turbulent romantic life — marrying twice in a short span. How much of Scarlett did Mitchell see in herself?

3 dollars, 30 million

Published in the summer of 1936, Gone With the Wind went on to sell 30 million copies, though it was priced at $3 during the Depression ($3 amounts to almost $50 today, which is around Rs 2,250). The novel now ranks among the best-selling books ever published in English. The novel won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into an eponymous film in 1939. The movie, also a favourite of mine (and we all know that movies can never compare to the book, but this one managed to do it) opened to drama and fanfare and received 10 Academy Awards, a record that stood for 20 years.

Gone With the Wind has many stellar qualities. It is historically rich, captures the politics and turmoil of war, the language is beautiful and the writing powerful. For me, though, what makes this book truly magnificent are the characters and Mitchell’s deep insight into human nature and emotions.

Author Ira Trivedi was in Calcutta for the launch of her third book There’s No Love on Wall Street in April when t2 caught up with the 26-year-old for a chat on books and beyond. Five minutes into the interview and out tumbled the fact that Gone With the Wind was her favourite book. A few weeks on, as the literary world geared up to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel, t2 got in touch with the model-turned-banker-turned-author with a request to pen a piece on her favourite read. Ira readily agreed. “Am very excited to write about my favourite book of all time!” she wrote back. t2 presents Ira Trivedi on Gone With the Wind...

Of all the carefully drawn-out characters in the book, my favourite is Scarlett ’Hara. Though she comes from a different world and time, I can always relate to her, no matter what frame of mind I am in when I’m reading the book. In the beginning of the novel, we see Scarlett as a charming, careless personality, pleasant when she has her way and vain of her looks and her popularity among men. It is only when the screaming post-war tornado of hunger and poverty hit her do we see the elastic conscience, shrewd practicality and selfishness (which she seldom troubles to hide) emerge. Her irascible spirit gets her through the war, makes her kill a Yankee soldier, drives her to build a timber business in a man’s world, inveigle her sister’s fiancι to pay the taxes on Tara, marry a man who she does not love and estrange herself from the society that she is born into and always hoped to please. Through all this, what defines Scarlett is the fierce, silent, southern pride that will tolerate no foolishness.

Then there is Melanie Wilkes, Scarlett’s sister-in-law from her first husband — the southern lady par excellence and the wife of Scarlett’s beloved Ashley Wilkes. Melly is the epitome of goodness, an unyielding nucleus of strength for southern society, a paragon of virtue and honour and we see Scarlett constantly battling against her own feelings toward the do-gooder Melly. Though Melanie is perfection, her heart as clean and pure, our hearts go to Scarlett. Every woman knows she should aspire to be Melanie, though secretly all of us want to be Scarlett. Scarlett was a woman before her time, living life for herself, not for anyone else, or in the shadows of others — her family, her husband or her children, and for that every modern woman will love her.

Pagan prince

Then there is Rhett Butler, the handsome, pagan prince who makes every woman swoon. From the very beginning, he is cloaked in mystery and we are never clear as to where he comes from and who he really is. We know that he is rich, is rumoured to have made his money the wrong way and is contemptuous of the war. Unlike everyone else around him, Rhett draws pleasure from the chaos of war. He is forever amused, mocking and impervious to the opinions of others. His role-playing is so perfect at times that it verges on burlesque.

He appears in the very beginning of the book at the last barbecue at the Wilkeses’ plantation, Twelve Oaks, and his prurient curiosity in Scarlett’s life brings him back throughout the book, till he professes his love for Scarlett and marries her, asking her for her hand at her second husband’s funeral.

The love triangle of the dreamy, golden-haired Ashley Wilkes, the swarthy Rhett Butler and fiery Scarlett is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Mitchell captures perfectly the folly of so many women — when she has the perfect man under her nose, she’ll dream of the man she cannot have. The reader sees how perfect Scarlett and Rhett are for each other, and we know that Rhett will give Scarlett everything that she has ever dreamt of. Yet she holds on to her love for the broken Ashley, maybe because it is a memory of the untroubled, beautiful past, untainted by the horror of war.

Every time I read this book, I want to shake Scarlett by the shoulder and scream: “Can’t you see how perfect he is for you? Why don’t you just realise it and your life will be perfect!”

For Scarlett, Ashley and Rhett are the only two men who elude her girlish understanding, for they are adults and they lack the element of boyishness. Scarlett supports Ashley and his family fiercely, though Ashley is unable to offer her anything in return. Rhett is an ardent, tender lover but also a mocking devil who rips the lid of Scarlett’s temper and enjoys the explosion.

Scarlett and Rhett’s relationship is as unstable as quicksilver, even after they get married; until she realises much too late that she has loved Rhett all along. For, Rhett is the only person who has ever really understood her.

Oh, scarlett!

What is a favourite of mine in the book is the irony, so typical of human character that the author paints vividly. Throughout the book, Scarlett has deep pangs of guilt that she is not the virtuous, kind lady that her mother raised her to be. She vows that once she has food and money she will be that lady. Once she does have everything she has dreamt of, she finds herself thrown overboard and suffers a sea change where she does not even remember what those qualities mean. When Scarlett can have Ashley, she realises that she doesn’t want the man she has held a candle for all her life. It is only when Melanie is dying does Scarlett realise how critical Melly was to her existence.

At the end, this is what makes this book so special. It is the way that the author has captured facets of human nature that transcend time and it is this that will keep Gone With the Wind relevant for readers of all ages and nationalities. It is no surprise that this book is now in its 114th print run.

I recently read Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett, the authorised sequel to Gone With the Wind. Mid-way through the book, motherhood and a humbling sejour to her father’s homeland, Ireland, make Scarlett lose the one quality that makes her unmistakably Scarlett — her feminine vanity and greed. Shortly after this loss, the charm of the sequel wore of.

It is Scarlett with all her devilish traits that keeps the narrative alive. The reader understands that buried deep underneath Scarlett’s apparent callousness and selfishness there is something tender and beautiful.

I am always sad when I finish this 1,037-page tome for I enjoy it so much and I know that I will have to wait another year to undertake this thrilling journey again.

Frankly, you’d have to be a right varmint to not give a damn about this epic book-film combination. As Gone With the Wind, the book, turns 75 this month, the iconic status of both the book and the film continues to blaze stronger than ever.

This American classic, in which the vivacious vixen Scarlett and the roguish rascal Rhett carry on a turbulent love affair in the American south during the civil war and reconstruction, is nothing short of a literary and cinematic masterpiece, a historical treasure house and a firm fixture in the hearts and minds of its thousands of fans across the world. Both the film and the novel have always had the uncanny ability to relate to different people at different times — to be identified with as “my struggle” by its countless readers and viewers.

The book

Journalist Margaret Mitchell wrote her mammoth novel in secret for over 10 years — she refused to show the manuscript to anyone except her husband because she thought it was “lousy”. When it was finally published in 1936, the book was an instant sensation, winning her the Pulitzer. It has reportedly sold more copies than any book since, apart from the Bible!

Written in vivid prose, this saga of over a 1,000 pages is the longest book most of its readers have read, but each page is a delight. The indomitable Scarlett ’Hara — shrewd, manipulative and narcissistic, seductive, scheming and unstoppable, yet utterly lovable — resonates with women the world over. An emotional roller coaster, you become deeply involved with the characters, loving them, hating them, fuming at them and crying with them.

The film

Five directors, 15-plus screenwriters, 50 speaking roles, 2,400 extras, countless hirings and firings, rewritings and 10 Academy Awards — this nearly four-hour movie marvel was the crθme de la crθme of a kind of studio film-making we shall never see again, much like the antebellum American south it depicts.

The film streamlines the book and intensifies its themes in shades of (at the time) newly developed three-strip Technicolor. It presents an indulgent image of the “old south” — with barbecues, balls, beautiful belles and seemingly smiling slaves. Straight from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Gone With the Wind was bigger, better and brighter than anything else at its time and continues to look magnificent more than seven decades later. Panoramic, stylised and superbly cast, the sets and costumes amaze even a contemporary audience.

A still from the film starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh

Film facts

• The film came in 1939, three years after the book was published.
• Before Clark Gable agreed to play Rhett Butler, he asked the studio for extra money, which he used to divorce his wife. He then went off to Arizona with Carole Lombard on March 29, 1939, in between the filming, and got married.
• Clark Gable was so distressed because his role required him to cry on film (in the scene where Melanie comforts Rhett after Scarlett’s miscarriage) that he almost quit. Olivia de Havilland (who played Melanie) convinced him to stay.
• As a publicity stunt, fans were asked to vote for the actress they thought should play Scarlett. Out of hundreds of ballots cast, Vivien Leigh got only one vote. In reality, Vivien had secretly been cast from the beginning.

Why read it?

Very rarely have so many people read such a long book so willingly. Believe it or not, this 1,000-plus page book is impossible to put down and despite the heavy issues it deals with, the prose flows rich and fast. Mitchell’s deep, abiding love for the old south shines through and the reader is given an almost anthropological glimpse into slavery, the American civil war and the customs of this bygone era.

Vivien Leigh does justice to Scarlett’s character, but despite being epically long, the film had to pare down the original story. So, to truly get into Scarlett’s skin, read the book.

Why watch it?

To marvel — at the sets, the costumes, Max Steiner’s sweeping score, Vivien Leigh’s green eyes and that southern rogue Rhett Butler (played by Clark Gable).

The characterisation in this film is unparalleled. Mammy, in particular, is one to look out for. Played by Hattie McDaniel, who was the first African-American to be nominated for and to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, the relationship between Mammy and Scarlett is beautifully depicted.

This was film-making on an immense scale, yet it has a resonance that few period films can match. Watch it to see a piece of history.

t2 verdict

Sometimes, just sometimes, the planets align, pigs fly, there’s a blue moon and there are book-movie combos that can rightfully be called masterpieces in their own right. Gone With the Wind is an example of this — if you love one, you will love the other. Frankly, we can’t recommend both enough.

‘I cried in the loo at Rhett’s cruelty’

The first time I held Gone With the Wind in my hands, my 14-year-old brain groaned at the fatness of the book and my myopic eyes watered just looking at the tiny print. But the bookworm in me could not resist a new book, especially one that promised to “change my life and complete my education”!

I breezed through the first few pages utterly charmed by the coquettish Scarlett O’Hara. And then Rhett Butler walked into the book and changed my life. I sometimes feel that I went through that first reading of the book waiting impatiently for Rhett to appear and he did so, often after hundreds of pages at a time.

The rest of the time I was fascinated by Scarlett. Who would not be? The green-eyed southern belle with the smallest waist in three counties was vain, feisty, pleasant, unscrupulous, strong, selfish — often all at the same time.

The ride through war-ridden Georgia with an ailing Melanie Wilkes and her baby, killing a Yankee soldier in her plantation Tara, making a dress out of curtains and dealing with the death of her and Rhett’s child, Bonnie Blue, were some of the most memorable Scarlett moments of the book.

I remember disappearing into the loo to howl my eyes out in private at the end of the book, because my heart broke at Rhett’s cruelty and his “My dear, I don’t give a damn” when Scarlett finally confesses her love.

My crush on Rhett Butler translated into little hearts and RB doodled all over my school exercise book, which my convent school considered a serious flaw and punished me for it.

I have read Gone With the Wind over 15 times since then and each time I discovered something new. I started off hating Melanie for being too feminine, weak and goody-two-shoes. Her helplessness in defending herself, especially when pitched against Scarlett was irritating. But with time she became one of my favourite characters in the book. Her quiet strength, the continuous effort to contribute to feeding and protecting the family despite being ill herself, her understanding of Rhett and her patience with Scarlett made her a sterling character. The next time I cried while reading the book was when Melanie died.

Scarlett, to my rebellious teenage eyes, was the best. But over the years, though I could not but help admire her courage and her will to survive — who can forget the oath “As god is my witness, I will never go hungry again”? She seemed to be more of a spoilt brat than an epitome of a self-sufficient and independent woman.
The only thing that remained unchanged in my rediscovery of the book was my love for the swarthy, irreverent, devil-may-care blockade-runner, “bulky in the shoulders but tapering to a small waist” (Confession: I often went back to the book just to read parts of it which had Rhett in it and narrated the romance than the civil war) brought delightfully to life by Clark Gable in the film.

It was to comfort my aching heart (for Rhett) that I picked up the sequel Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley and though I was relieved that Scarlett and Rhett got back together, it was no comparison to the original.

Even now, when I put down my well-worn copy of Gone With the Wind, I damn Ashley Wilkes, weep at Melanie’s funeral, nurse a broken heart when Rhett’s Bonnie Blue dies and thank Margaret Mitchell for giving me the thought — “after all, tomorrow is another day”.

Scarlett loves Ashley, but he marries Melanie. There’s a long war and many people die. Rhett loves Scarlett but finally stops giving a damn.

That is Gone With the Wind in 140 characters; a summary for the Twitter generation. And while this interpretation may hold little meaning, perhaps all 1,000-odd pages in this doorstopper of an American classic are not strictly necessary either for the telling of this epic tale of love and loss.

After I put a significant number of years between myself and the first flush of infatuation with Gone With the Wind, a re-reading of the novel as a grown woman has left me surprised by the spontaneous urge I felt to have a go at trimming it down just a wee bit.

Perhaps it was the editor in me, but 423,575 words seemed a little too indulgent to be essential. Couldn’t any point worth making be made more concisely than that?

Gone With the Wind mirrors the slow grace of the very era for which it mourns — like a hot, summer day in the American south, it trips through 12 years that undid a way of life and the world that rose in its stead. It sets a vivid stage, and builds vibrant characters that have become icons for 75 years.

Margaret Mitchell creates a landscape and then destroys it, bringing to life its every detail — and for that a certain girth is undoubtedly required. Yet couldn’t you take, say, 80,000 words out of it without anyone really noticing? Leaving you enough time to read a whole other novel? (Though not War and Peace — which has around 560,000 words. And yes, I wanted to trim that, too.)

Gone With the Wind is sometimes beautiful, sometimes poignant and sometimes gripping in its tumultuous passions and upheavals. And as can only be expected in a novel that runs to over 1,000 pages — and very possibly more, depending on the edition — it can also be a bit annoying.

Even when I was 16, I loved the trials and tribulations of Scarlett ’Hara despite the heroine, and not because of her. Selfish, silly and vain, she is not the most likeable of characters in literature. And yet you forgive her shortcomings, for she survives and fights and breaks the shackles of her time. And when you are growing up, that can mean a lot. Also, when you are 16 yourself, the 16-year-old Scarlett’s headstrong fire and adolescent obsession with men seem both natural and just. Almost 16 years later, I don’t have the same appetite for them.

Of course, the novel is seldom boring. There is plenty of action, more than enough to see you through — three husbands, a war, the remaking of the American south, poverty and wealth, hunger and plenty, a murder, a near rape, and copious amounts of death.

But there is much to test the patience as well: Scarlett’s tantrums, for one. I would like a few less fiddle-dee-dees in general. And a little less flirting. And less matronly chatter to drill home what real ladies are supposed to be like. And less Prissy and Aunt Pitty and India.

More importantly, it would be good to imagine more and be told less — over and over again.

“I once said too God damn many things,” Rhett says soon after Scarlett has accepted his hand. The problem is not that Rhett says many things — in fact, there is only enough Rhett in Gone With the Wind to make you want more, which is probably the secret to its success — but that everyone else says a good many things, Margaret Mitchell herself being the most culpable.

Novelists are implored to ‘show, not tell’, yet Mitchell shows, and then tells for extra measure. Her characters are strong enough to make her point, and yet their every motivation, every thought is spilled over the pages in case we missed it.

At long last, in the closing pages, Mitchell finally realises the need to leave at least one question hanging in the air. Rhett walks out, but Scarlett’s will is not broken. Will Scarlett win Rhett back? The mind says no but the heart says yes.

And here is another issue that troubles me about Gone With the Wind. Scarlett’s world is shattered, built back and shattered all over again. When I was younger, I was overwhelmed by the tragic ending but also refreshed by its novelty in the world of romantic fiction. But now I challenge its need. Yes, it is important to have Scarlett lose everything once, for it allows us to see her mettle, her cat-with-nine-lives survival instinct, which is her true redeeming feature. But then, it is all taken away again, once and for all, and this time it feels more like punishment.

In the end, even Rhett has seen the danger in cutting himself loose of the old grace and respectability, and hankers for another glimpse of the world that has passed with Melly. Scarlett doesn’t, and is stripped of every possibility of happiness because of it. She can’t have Rhett, and finally, doesn’t want Ashley.

If Scarlett represents spirit, in this ancient world she is also all that is considered base, and while allowed to be fascinating for a time, it is ultimately not enough.

Tome trivia

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the publication of Gone With the Wind, Scribner has come out with a paperback edition (above) featuring the book’s original jacket art (below)

Gone With the Wind was first published in May 1936. It was priced at $3 then; today first edition copies are available on eBay for around $100. An author-signed first edition is on offer for $10,000. That’s around Rs 4.5 lakh. The current edition is available in city bookstores for around Rs 300.

Margaret Mitchell (November 8, 1900 to August 16, 1949) began writing GWTW in 1926 after leaving her job at The Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine because of an injured ankle. She wrote the climax first and then the events that lead up to it.

Mitchell initially titled the book “Pansy”, which was the original name for Scarlett’s character. Other proposed titles included “Tote the Weary Load”, “Baa! Baa! Black Sheep”, “Bugles Sing True”, “Not in Our Stars” and “Tomorrow is Another Day”.

Scarlett’s full name is Katie Scarlett (’Hara) Hamilton, Kennedy, Butler.

GWTW was such an overnight success that its publisher George Platt Brett, president of Macmillan Publishing, gave all the employees an 18 per cent bonus in 1936.

On May 3, 1937, Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize for GWTW.

Although Mitchell refused to write a sequel to GWTW, Mitchell’s estate authorised Alexandra Ripley to write the novel Scarlett in 1991.

A second sequel authorised by Mitchell’s estate was released in November 2007. It tells Rhett Butler’s life story, including recounting from Rhett’s perspective the events of GWTW. Written by Donald McCaig, it’s titled Rhett Butler’s People.

In 1986, the US Post Office issued a 1cent stamp honouring Mitchell on the 50th anniversary of her book’s publication.

Margaret Mitchell

The only other book by Mitchell is Lost Laysen, a novella written in 1916. It was, however, not published until 1996. It’s a romance set in the South Pacific.

In August 1949, Mitchell was hit by a car while crossing the road in Atlanta with her husband John Marsh. They were on their way to watch A Canterbury Tale. She died in hospital five days later and was buried in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta.

 

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