Gone with the Wind, the book, celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. What’s so astonishing about this, besides the fact that by it’s 75th anniversary more than 30 million copies of the Pulitzer Prize winner had been printed worldwide, is that heroine, Scarlett O Hara, is so thoroughly modern. Her refusal to take no for an answer, her bravery, shrewd leadership and business skills make her timeless.
A love story set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, Gone with the Wind is a benchmark and a blueprint for sweeping historical romances. A fabulous plot with fabulous characters, a feisty flawed heroine and a dashing scoundrel, it’s a vast, compelling page-turner that’s also fiendishly complex, rich and multi-layered. I read it first as as teenager and have returned to it for inspiration many times since, and each time it reveals something fresh and new.
Scarlett’s personal journey cleverly parallels the development of the South. When we first meet her she’s a pretty coquettish Southern Belle obsessively in love with dreamy Ashley Wilkes, blonde, chivalrous heir to the Twelve Oaks plantation, whose ideals mirror the nostalgia for the ways of the old South. Enter Rhett Butler, dangerous and opportunistic, he represents a new pragmatic world and has far more in common with Scarlett, if only she can see it.
Determination is the predominant characteristic that defines and drives Scarlett. When the Yankees burn Atlanta, Ashley’s wife Melanie gives birth and Scarlett drives mother and baby in a cart through the night, through a dangerous forest full of deserters. She arrives at her home, Tara, to find that her mother is dead and her father has lost his mind; and the Yankee army has looted the plantation. Threatened with starvation she makes a vow:
‘As God is my witness, the Yankees aren’t going to lick me. I’m going to live through this, and when it’s over, I’m never going to be hungry again.’
She turns to picking cotton, running her entire plantation and a very successful sawmill business, and even killing a man.
The book is full of truly magnificent scenes and lines. One of the most touching involves the Curtain Dress, a symbol of Scarlett’s will to survive. She’s going to go to Atlanta to beg Rhett for three hundred dollars, and she is determined to go looking like a queen.
‘He had never known such gallantry as the gallantry of Scarlett O’Hara going forth to conquer the world in her mother’s velvet curtains and the tail feathers of a rooster.’
The wisdom Scarlett shows when she realises her love for Ashley was futile is heartbreaking. ‘He never really existed at all, except in my imagination,’ Scarlett recognises. ‘I loved something I made up.’
At the end of it all she still has home, Tara, the red earth of the plantation reflecting the colour of her name.
‘The land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it’s the only thing that lasts”, her father tells her.
Her now legendary mantra, ‘tomorrow is another day,’ is a mantra for us all. ‘There was no going back and she was going forward.’
The first time I read Gone with the Wind I was sixteen years old, about the same age that Scarlett is at the start of the novel. I had loved the movie but I loved the book even more. I remember being bereft when I finished it. I wanted to be a writer and Scarlett’s determination was something I was determined to emulate.
I feel like I’ve grown up with this book and its heroine is so real she’s like a friend. At various tricky times in my life I have caught myself thinking: now then, what would Scarlett do?
Scarlett is my baby grand-daughters name. It’s a lot to live up to but a girl could have a far worse role model!