Frankly, the public still gives a damn
AUTHOR: Suzanne Goldenberg
One hundred and forty two years after America's civil war, 71 years after the fictional Scarlett began pining for Ashley, 53 years after the desegregation of education, and 16 years after the last attempt to recreate the saga of white damsels in hoop skirts and their strangely contented slaves, do we really give a damn? Apparently we do. At least, that is what the keepers of the Gone With The Wind legacy believe.
SOURCE: Guardian Unlimited
PUBLISHED ON: Friday November 2, 2007
On Tuesday readers will get another opportunity to indulge a nostalgia for the antebellum south that just won't die with the release of yet another take on the Margaret Mitchell novel.
"The public itself wanted another sequel," Paul Anderson, a member of the committee that advises Mitchell's estate, told reporters.
Rhett Butler's People, by Donald McCaig, is both prequel and sequel, and purports to tell that sweeping story of love and loss from the point of view of the rakish scoundrel that is really Scarlett O'Hara's great love, as she realises too late.
The 500-page book opens an hour before sunrise on a misty morning in the Carolinas where the young Rhett Butler, immortalised by Clark Gable in the movie, is preparing to fight a duel. He is, as soon becomes clear, a hellraiser.
It is a dozen years before Rhett and Scarlett O'Hara set eyes on each other at a barbecue at the Twelve Oaks plantation in the halcyon days - at least for the white gentility that provide Mitchell's material - before the civil war.
But Rhett Butler, unlike the dutiful and earnest Ashley Wilkes, the object of Scarlett's unconsummated affections and the scion of Twelve Oaks, is already rebelling against the social order of the old south.
He is disowned by his father, a callous rice planter from the Carolinas who strikes out his heir's name from the family Bible. He befriends African-Americans, free and enslaved, and associates with the poor whites that the plantation society disdains.
Rhett's relationship with Scarlett is just as fiery as in the original Mitchell novel. But as you might expect - because otherwise what other story would McCaig have left to tell - their romance does not end when he exits with that famous line: "My dear, I don't give a damn." The film version saw 'frankly' added to the line as immortalised by Clark Gable.
The work is the third revisiting of the Margaret Mitchell saga. In 1991 Alexandra Ripley published the first Gone With the Wind sequel, called Scarlett, which was excoriated by critics, but sold 6m copies and was turned into a television miniseries.
A decade later, Mitchell's estate took legal action to block publication of a version of the story told from the point of view of a slave called Cynara, who is Scarlett's half-sister.
Mitchell's heirs eventually dropped their suit against The Wind Done Gone, reaching a settlement with the author, Alice Randall. The book remained on the bestseller lists for weeks.
Rhett Butler's People is further testimony, as if any were needed, to the hold Mitchell's novel has on the popular imagination. In the more than 70 years since publication, the novel has sold more than 28m copies, making it among the five bestselling novels of all time.
Mr McCaig, a bestselling author of civil war fiction of his own, peoples his version with the familiar figures from Mitchell's work: the saintly Melanie Wilkes, Ashley's sister, goes to her grave believing in the barely perceptible goodness in Scarlett's soul. Belle Watling, the consort, also makes an appearance, only now do we learn the truth of her connection to Rhett Butler.
In a nod to modern mores, we also see far more clearly than in the original the brutality of slavery. In McCaig's version, slaves are lashed to death, lynched and framed after being falsely accused of molesting a white woman. But Rhett Butler's People also banks on our seemingly unending infatuation with the romantic stereotypes of the old south.
There is Rhett Butler and the other swashbuckling males of the day, bound up with their vanishing ideals of honour. And there is the great passion of Rhett and Scarlett.
In McCaig's telling, their romance leads to a contented domesticity at Tara. As Scarlett muses: "She and Rhett might rebuild Tara. Or maybe they'd just travel for a time. There were a world of places Scarlett had never seen. Maybe she and Rhett would go to Yellowstone and see those natural wonders."
But improbable as it may seem to imagine Rhett and Scarlett in wedded bliss, or situated outside the languid south, as the heroine herself so famously said: "Tomorrow is another day." And as the coda of McCaig's novel reads: "Which wasn't nearly the end."