When I visited Georgia a few weeks ago, I spent the few hours I had in Atlanta visiting the former home of Margaret Mitchell, author of a little book called Gone With The Wind. (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t read Gone With The Wind or seen the movie, don’t read any further.)
A lot has been written about Gone With The Wind and not all of it pleasant, primarily because it’s full of racial stereotypes and takes a nostalgic look at the Old South, a subregion of the American South that included the States represented in the original thirteen American colonies (Virgina, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia) [Wikepedia].
The Old South was deeply attached to – financially, culturally and emotionally – the institution of slavery. The reality is those were the good old days for millions of White men and women who were born into that world. We could spend all day arguing about the merit (or lack thereof) of this point of view, but that’s not the point of this post.
This post is about a work of historical romance fiction that was published in 1936, won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937, and contained one of the strongest and controversial literary heroines ever, Scarlett O’Hara.
It may seem strange, but when my late husband died I thought of Scarlett. I thought of her often actually, for a number of reasons.
First, she was twice widowed. Second, she was hell on wheels to live with. If we’re being honest, she was a bitch, especially early on. Immature. Selfish. Stubborn. Rude. Opinionated. Jealous. Resentful. Angry. Manipulative. Mean. The list goes on.
She had a conflicted view of herself in relation to the “angels” in her midst, women who could do no wrong in her eyes… her mother Miss Ellen and her best friend/nemesis Melanie (Hamilton) Wilkes.
She lost a helluva lot at an early age: her parents, her home (for a while), her world, her husbands, her child, and her love.
She was a survivor and incredibly shrewd. The girl knew how to use what she had to get what she wanted, and she never gave up.
And in the end, right as she’s having an epiphany about what an idiot she’s been for so long, the love of her life walks out on her.
I related to all of it.
I remember thinking of the last scene, Scarlett on the stairs, sobbing, proclaiming her determination to overcome this crushing heartbreak by going home to Tara… and wondering, “What happened after that? How did she pull herself together? What did she do at Tara? Where’s my ‘Tara’?”
Ironically, for as much as I love the book (and movie), I knew absolutely nothing about its author Margaret Mitchell. I didn’t know her mother died when she was 19 years old, or that she herself had been widowed once, and divorced, before marrying her third and final husband. I didn’t know she wrote Gone With The Wind after suffering a severe ankle injury that kept her relatively immobile for a few years. I didn’t know it took her three years to write the 1037 page book, and she never wrote another afterwards. I didn’t know the first section she wrote was the last chapter, the only house she ever bought was for her housekeeper (Margaret rented apartments her entire adult life), and she was an avid Red Cross volunteer during WWII.
I didn’t know that she died at the age of 48 years old, four days after being hit by a speeding car while jaywalking in Atlanta.
I recently came across the letter Margaret’s mother, president of the Atlanta Woman’s Suffrage League, wrote to her on the eve of her own death from a flu pandemic. Margaret was en route to see her, but didn’t reach her her in time to say goodbye. This was the letter her brother handed her at the train station.
January 23, 1919
I have been thinking of you all day long. Yesterday you received a letter saying I am sick. I expect your father drew the situation with a strong hand and dark colors and I hope I am not as sick as he thought. I have pneumonia in one lung and were it not for flu complications, I would have had more than a fair chance of recovery. But Mrs. Riley had pneumonia in both lungs and is now well and strong. We shall hope for the best but remember, dear, that if I go now it is the best time for me to go.
I should have liked a few more years of life, but if I had had those it may have been that I should have lived too long. Waste no sympathy on me. However little it seems to you I got out of life, I have held in my hands all that the world can give. I have had a happy childhood and married the man I wanted. I had children who loved me, as I have loved them. I have been able to give what will put them on the high road to mental, moral, and perhaps financial success, were I going to give them nothing else.
I expect to see you again, but if I do not I must warn you of one mistake a woman of your temperament might fall into. Give of yourself with both hands and overflowing heart, but give only the excess after you have lived your own life. This is badly put. What I mean is that your life and energies belong first to yourself, your husband and your children. Anything left over after you have served these, give and give generously, but be sure there is no stinting of attention at home. Your father loves you dearly, but do not let the thought of being with him keep you from marrying if you wish to do so. He has lived his life; live yours as best you can. Both of my children have loved me so much that there is no need to dwell on it. You have done all you can for me and have given me the greatest love that children can give to parents. Care for your father when he is old, as I cared for my mother. But never let his or anyone else’s life interfere with your real life. Goodbye, darling, and if you see me no more then it may be best that you remember me as I was in New York.
Your Loving Mother
Gone With The Wind was published 17 years later.
What struck me the most about the Margaret Mitchell house was its size. From the outside it looks like a comfortable home. But Margaret and her husband lived in a tiny apartment on the first floor. Their entire living space could have fit into most modern living room/dining room areas. To think that such an epic story was typed on a small typewriter in such cramped quarters over the course of three years. It just goes to show that imagination knows no bounds and is arguably the truest form of survival.