First Published: 1936 (Pan Books ed. 2013)
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work
Memorable quote: “I’m tired of everlastingly being unnatural and never doing anything I want to do. I’m tired of acting like I don’t eat more than a bird, and walking when I want to run and saying I feel faint after a waltz, when I could dance for two days and never get tired!”
The most glaring omissions in my experience of the big literary classics are in the field of American Literature and so far I’ve been enjoying my efforts to fill in the gaps. So yes, I was a Gone With The Wind virgin (I haven’t even seen the film) and I’ll admit I approached this huge brick of historical romance with some trepidation. I was expecting a bit of a bodice-ripper, but what I discovered instead was something far more complex and enjoyably challenging. Mitchell’s world is utterly immersive and her characters evoke such powerful reactions – variously, I wanted to slap them, hug them, cringe away from them and punch the air in joy for them – that it’s hard not to get suckered in. It took me the best part of 10 days to get through this sprawling novel but it feels like time well spent.
The world probably doesn’t need yet another review of Gone With The Wind, but having invested so much time in it I’d like to share a few thoughts. It is, of course, set during the turbulent period of the American Civil War. History is so often written by victors (could polar exploration be the big exception to this rule?) so it was interesting here to get a rarer insight into the world of the losers, the plantation owners who find their whole way of life and systems of beliefs destroyed with the abolition of slavery. The novel elicits some complicated emotional responses around the issue of race and but it’s important to judge it as a product of its time, reflecting the mores of both its 19th century setting and the 1930s in which Mitchell was writing. I’m afraid I don’t know enough about American history to comment on Mitchell’s period accuracy but the book certainly feels convincing and vividly evokes the sights and sounds of the South, from the lavish ballrooms and barbecues to the blood sodden mud-prints of marching soldiers. Indeed, I can readily believe how this book’s fame and power has now come to colour perceptions of history itself.
But the triumph of Gone With the Wind lies in its characters: flawed, complex, vibrant, overblown at times, yes, but captivating. Anti-hero Rhett less cynical than he strives to appear; Ashley Wilkes failing to evolve in a brave new world; Melanie with her deceptive strength in weakness, these are creations who expand to fill the considerable breadth of the narrative and who stay with you long after the final page is turned. Then above all, of course, there is Scarlett. Yes, I now, finally, believe the hype about Scarlett O’Hara. She’s a wonderful creation: headstrong and selfish – so often her antics made me cringe, but – at the same time it was hard not admire her practicality and single-minded pursuit of her goals. Scarlett speaks out with wonderful frankness against her society’s expectations of feminine weakness and frailty but never shrinks from adopting these pretences when they serve her needs. She is both the answer and the problem and several days after finishing the book I still feel like I’m trying to come to terms with my opinion of her. I can understand why devotees return to this book time and again. Gone With The Wind is the quintessential big read: big in size, scale, complexity and personality. Like its notorious heroine it is frustrating, even downright uncomfortable at times, but certainly never to be forgotten.