This week my eye was drawn to a couple of exchanges about Gone With the Wind on social media.
The book has always been controversial, even when it was first published. It was a huge, instant bestseller, so you couldn’t ignore it. But historians challenged its accuracy and many people were disturbed by its depiction of slave-owning as acceptable and the novel’s attitude to the slaves themselves.
It was published in the USA in 1936, between the end of the Great Depression and the start of the Second World War. It was a debut novel, written by Margaret Mitchell, a 35-year-old woman, and set in her native Georgia.
And it was enormous, a five-part tome covering the whole of the Civil War in the South and its aftermath.
In spite of that, it sold 1 million copies in its first year and won her the National Book Award in 1936 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1937.
The 1939 film of the book was the great colour-filled masterpiece, from the gloriously costumed drawing rooms of Clayton County to the terrifying burning of Atlanta.
It won ten Academy Awards, including Hattie McDaniel’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar, the first award ever to an African American. Though her treatment at the ceremony was shameful, as Queen Latifah is the most recent to point out. It’s all part of the long controversy, social, artistic and academic, that the work has inspired.
Gone With the Wind – the Reader’s Dilemma
Some of the people commenting clearly recoiled from the whole story.
This is particularly poignant in the middle of the current Black Lives Matter Campaign. For the novel is set among the plantation-owning polite society of the Deep South, during the American Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction. And it is told from their point of view.
There are black characters and some are strong personalities and influential in the plot. But they are always seen from someone else’s point of view.
For the duration of the book, the reader is expected to stand behind the shoulder, as it were, of the beneficiaries of a slave-owning society. To share their world view. To accept their codes, moral, social and, especially, of personal behaviour.
For some readers the very idea is abhorrent. Sympathise, even identify, with a slave-owner?
How? Yet how not, if we seek to understand how such things can be?
Gone With the Wind – the Reader’s Experience
Yet some of the other readers, discussing the story, had clearly known and loved the book for years. They wanted to defend it.
Indeed, there was a suggestion, in some of the comments, that they were standing up for it, as they would for an old and much-loved friend, even though they knew he was sometimes in the wrong. I find that touching and very human.
Mostly the comments were about Scarlett O’Hara. She pinched her sister’s beau and she was awful from the get-go. Selfish, shifty, vain, wilful – but they loved her.
Sometimes they even loved her because of those faults, as if it made her a proto-feminist. I suspect both Scarlett and Margaret Mitchell would have been appalled. But I also think those readers have a point. Scarlett takes charge and gets things done when everyone else is wringing their hands and being either noble or ladylike. And sometimes both.
She is also very loving and loyal to both her blinkered parents. (I speak as one who can’t stand either of them.)
And she has a complex and fundamentally respectful relationship with the named black characters. There’s wonderful, strong-minded, truth-telling Oscar-winning Mammy, of course. But also Pork, her father’s personal servant and his wife Dilcey, whom Scarlett sort-of saves, at least in Dilcey’s eyes
Above all, there’s the former overseer at Tara, Big Sam, another truth-teller, who certainly saves Scarlett from looters in the post-war chaos.
Scarlett’s (and possibly/probably Mitchell’s) thoughts on the field slaves on the one hand and the Ku Klux Klan on the other are wincingly unacceptable today, But they are almost incidental to the drama of that group of people whose whole society changes completely over the course of the story.
Gone With the Wind – and my Mother
In 1935, when Gone With the Wind was published, books were hardbacks and expensive. Margaret Mitchell worried that her doorstop of a book would be too expensive to sell at US$3 a pop.
My mother was a single woman on a tight budget. But, after she read someone else’s copy, she bought her own. I’m pretty sure, if she were still alive, she would be one of those defending her old friend.
I think Scarlett has two characteristics that inspired my mother. She is brave. And she never gives up. For much of the story she has her back to the wall in the struggle for survival. Neither her family nor the men in her life are much of a support. Indeed, she supports them. But when it comes to making decisions and taking responsibility, she’s on her own.
My mother told me that every time she felt overwhelmed during the Second World War, she would read a chapter where Scarlett implements one of her survival strategies, no matter how morally deplorable. And it would put heart into her. Not least, I suspect, Scarlett’s mantra “tomorrow is another day”. When the bombs have been falling all night, it must be about the only thing that makes sense.
Gone With the Wind and Me
I was too young when I read it. I know that now. Eleven, maybe? My parents let me read anything on their bookshelf and I knew my mother adored it. I was already into Jane Austen and Dickens, another one who was good on survival against the odds and its attendant horrors. They didn’t try to stop me.
I started by disliking Scarlett quite hard. I came to root for her as disasters struck and she alone kept the show on the road. But, oh dear, the men in her life! Foolish father, silly young Charlie, bumbling, Klan-sympathising shopkeeper Frank, Gentleman Failure Ashley Wilkes …
I had no patience with any of them. (Eleven, remember.)
And as for Captain Butler…! Years later, when the Romantic Novelists’ Association were on University Challenge, one of the questions I didn’t know the answer to was about “a great romantic hero in a novel”. The answer was Rhett Butler. Even after Jeremy Paxman read out the answer, I was dissatisfied.
In my book, Rhett was a spiv, a blockade runner, a bully and a rapist. Romantic? Hero?
To Re-read or Not to Re-read?
Now, my mother and I were very, very good friends. But we often disagreed about books. She never got P G Wodehouse, for instance. We accepted that I didn’t get Gone With the Wind and left it at that.
But now HBO Max has taken the movie off its streaming service. And some people are claiming the book should be suppressed, maybe even burned. And I have started to re-examine my ideas.
Of course, I don’t hold with burning books anyway. But I also think I ought to know the story better. For, prompted by the current discussion, I have remembered two things my mother said when we discussed the book.
Unlike me, she did think dashing Rhett Butler was romantic. He loves Scarlett, though he’s too guarded to tell her so; he knows her worth and thinks she’s gallant; and he makes her dance when she longs to, even though she’s conventionally in mourning.
“He makes her be true to herself,” said my mother.
But the other thing she said, which rings a lot of bells for me in this time of virus, lockdown and terrifying economic uncertainty, was that Scarlett had to find a way to live with no safety net.
My mother was pushed out of home when she was seventeen, with no money, into a job that she had to hang onto or she would, in her own words, have gone down the drain. When it came to no safety net, she knew what she was talking about.
Yes, I think it’s time to read Gone With the Wind again. And if some of it is going to be nasty, well I shall just have to cope. Like Scarlett did.
It’s hugely controversial right now, I imagine. Like you I cannot stomach suppression of books or history. By all means don’t praise unworthy historical figures, but how do we change if we don’t know what went before?
As for Scarlett, I was young too. Didn’t get through the book so know her better from the film and she comes across as spoiled, annoying and much in need of a set down. But you’ve given me cause here to re-evaluate my opinion. She is above all, a survivor. At a time when women had little say over their lives, she must have had strong appeal. My mother loved the film too!
Interesting that your mother loved the film, Liz. My impression is that my mother wasn’t that keen. I remember her saying that Vivian Lee was not her idea of Scarlett O’Hara. She really wanted Olivia de Havilland or, failing her, someone she thought, “had a bit of character” to take the part.
Maybe Vivien Leigh was too pretty and kittenish for her. Though, that goes with the dialogue, as I remember it. But then Vivien Leigh has been Scarlett O’Hara for the whole of my life in the eyes of the world. Very difficult to imagine how the reader of 1936 would have pictured her.
My mum was a strange dichotomy of boldness and inferiority complex. I think the survivor aspect appealed to her most – and Clark Gable, of course. Her favourite song in later years was Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. I’ve remembered now that I hated the film as a child because Bonnie died. I had real trouble with death then. I gave up on Heidi when the grandfather died – my family thought it was hilarious that I threw the book on the floor and stamped on it.
Oh, Sophie, thank you so much for sharing your personal memories on this, it makes such sense and helps in understanding GWTW – the book, the context, the history.
Well, I’m no expert, Sarah – another reason I need to read it again, is to check my memories of it – but I’m glad if I’v provided a bit of context. Thank you.
I loved this, Sophie, thank you. Believe it or not, I have never read it, nor seen the film. The book wasn’t on my parents’ shelves and now, realising afresh how very enlightened my parents were, I see again how much my own opinions reflect theirs in all sorts of things. They never took me to see the film, either. Funnily enough, they didn’t “get” Wodehouse, either, but I think it was more to do with the whole WWII broadcasts thing than anything else. They certainly didn’t mind me reading him. The odd thing is, that a little later in my life I was introduced to Frances Parkinson Keyes, mainly the Louisiana novels, via her murder mystery, Dinner at Antoine’s, and although I remember not liking the depiction of black characters, I think at that time I accepted that it “was how they did things then”, much as I accepted the lifestyle and the Steamboat Gothic mansions were almost fantasy. Might have to get rid of those from my shelves…
Interestingly, my mother never took me to see the movie or went herself a second time, as far as I know.
I went to see it with my friend Toni on an enormous screen in, I think, Bristol, when I was in my late teens. What I remember most was the burning of Atlanta . It was almost overwhelming. Toni and I were both pressed back hard into our seats. It felt as if the horse and cart AND the flames were coming straight for us.