July 22, 2010


by Margaret Mitchell

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

At every writing workshop I've attended, the host will always bring out a copy of Elmore Leonard's “Ten Golden Rules” for writing. I'm not going to repeat them at length here, a quick search on Google will bring up dozens of websites featuring them. Regardless of how well the workshop has gone, as soon as this list is produced, I switch off and start drawing frog-monsters in my notebook. It's not that the advice contained within is totally useless, it's just that I'm not wholly sold on the idea of following a set of rules when engaged in an act of creativity.

Leonard tells us to avoid prologues, to use only “said” as a dialogue tag, to avoid adverbs and lengthy descriptions, to use regional dialects sparingly. Fair enough, if you want to write exactly like Elmore Leonard. I happen to like prologues in books, especially if they are done well. Whilst some writers seem to pander to the short attention spans of modern readers and reject lengthy descriptions, you only have to look at some of the great writers of the nineteenth century to see how such details can be both powerful and utterly enthralling.

Margaret Mitchell's epic “Gone with the Wind” breaks at least eight of these ten rules in the first chapter alone. If this isn't enough, Mitchell's book also breaks the cardinal rule of writing and has multiple points of view within chapters. The book is obscenely long, littered with unsympathetic characters and follows a political agenda that appears suspect to say the least. For a first-time writer, it would seem that Mitchell was actually trying to alienate her readers and incense the critics. Why, then, did this book sell millions of copies and win the Pulitzer prize?

Because it's bloody brilliant, that's why.

A summary of the plot is unnecessary as most will be familiar with the enormously successful 1939 movie adaptation. Besides which, if I was to try to summarise the novel, this review would end up being a novella in itself. Suffice to say the book is epic in both scope and ambition. History may well be written by the victors but Mitchell, a Southerner whose elderly relatives experienced the American Civil War first hand, chose to write her novel from the perspective of the Confederates and their families. This angle enabled the author to explore the values and beliefs of the South that were swept away by the tide of change. Although this way of life is frequently viewed through rose-tinted spectacles, Mitchell's crisp, clear prose carries the reader above the mire of political incorrectness.

At its heart, “Gone with the Wind” is a character study of Scarlett O'Hara. Starting the novel as a whiny, spoilt little bitch, we experience the war through her eyes and see her mature and grow in strength. Unlike many Bildungsroman, though we watch her character develop, we do not really sympathise with her at the end any more than at the start of the book. Though fiercely independent and strong-willed, Scarlett is a hard character to like. Full of schemes and motivated by selfish desires, she stops at nothing to get her own way. Her childish love for Ashley shows a naivety that we hope she will grow out of. By the novel's conclusion she finally sees Ashley for the weak and staggeringly dull person that he is, but has thrown away all chance of happiness with Rhett. Do we feel sorry for her? Yes, but only because we have followed her journey so far, not because she is actually deserving of our pity.

Like Scarlett, Rhett Butler is another pretty unpleasant creation. Armed with devilish good looks and an acerbic wit, he cuts a swathe through the stuffy society of Georgia. Though utterly charming, Mitchell never lets us forget that Rhett is a thorough rogue. Shameless in his behaviour, he profits from the war, first as a blockade runner, then as a speculator and finally by befriending and doing business with the occupying Yankee forces. His callous and avaricious nature reminded me of George Macdonald Fraser's Harry Flashman. In Rhett, Mitchell provides a perfect match for the ruthless Scarlett, and their tempestuous relationship is the novel's strongest point. The interplay between these two strong characters is wonderful, so much so that we feel Rhett's absences in the book almost as much as Scarlett does.

The characters of Rhett and Scarlett are such sublime creations that many of the supporting cast seem a little flat in comparison. Melanie Wilkes is a fine example of this, her role in the novel is solely to show Scarlett in the worst possible light. Where Scarlett represents greed, Melanie is generosity incarnate. When Scarlett is jealous, Melanie is selfless. Whilst Scarlett can pop out kids to three different fathers in the course of the book, Melanie remains faithful to one man throughout and the act of childbirth nearly kills her the first time. Even though Scarlett lusts after Melanie's husband for most of the novel, Melanie chooses to remain completely oblivious to the fact. Melanie's unblinking love for Scarlett is in stark contrast to the simmering loathing that Scarlett feels for her. Though Melanie may well be a pretty one-dimensional creation, her goodness serves to highlight Scarlett's flaws and add to her depth.

Though polite society in Atlanta may criticise and condemn Scarlett's behaviour, Mitchell's narrative remains neutral throughout and this enables the book to be approached from many different angles. Is Scarlett a proto-feminist, standing up for herself and proving her worth in a man's world? Can Rhett's behaviour be seen as a statement of capitalism and the American dream? Are Rhett and Scarlett characters “out of time”, their independent ways better suited to life in the twentieth century? The novel raises many questions and over the years scores of readers have had wildly different views on the book. If you run a book club and want to provoke some in-depth discussion, Mitchell's novel could be the answer to your prayers.

“Gone with the Wind” is a dazzling novel. From riches to rags and back to riches again, Scarlett's journey is long but seldom dull. Though some may find Mitchell's views on slavery distasteful, it is always interesting to see a different side to history. The bitterness that the South felt towards their Northern masters is portrayed without a sense of irony and though Mitchell was clearly sympathetic towards the plight of the disenfranchised South, the novel is less a lament for the old ways but a frank and honest study of how people adapt to the upheaval and changes that come with war.

Hereward L.M. Proops

1 comment:

  1. Interesting review, the politics of the book are way past suspect, it's an out and out glorification of the southern slave system, something cleaned up (slightly) in the film. Still, it certainly gripped readers. Mitchell breaks the rules, but what she provides, as you aptly point out, is characters -- especially Scarlett and Rhett, who hold the readers' interest and carry us through the story. It's interesting that even today, as so many obsess about rules, Steig Larrson's Millenium Trilogy also breaks many of the same ones with multiple points of views, prologues, obscene length, etc. and has become a phenomenon.What both Larrson and Mitchell have in common is the ability to write characters who are memorable and get not just under the reader's skin, but straight into the blood. In this era of moribund book sales, perhaps that's a lesson for fiction writers more valuable than any being taught at workshops.