Sarah Lawson on Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

Frankly, My Dear

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Mention Gone with the Wind and everyone thinks of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. It is Gable, in the role of Rhett Butler, who utters the immortal ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ when a repentant Scarlett, rejected by Butler, asks what she is to do now – but that is not what he says in the book. Clark Gable added the ‘Frankly’ and that is how it is always quoted. In fact most of the popular images of the novel are from the movie. You could leave the cinema thinking Gone with the Wind was mainly a love story dealing with nostalgia for a golden antebellum age. In fact the book is closer to an anti-romance, and is full of ambiguity and ambivalence about the good old days.

I read Gone with the Wind for the first – and until recently the only – time during the week before and after my sixteenth birthday, when I was in high school in Indiana. That is what made me think of reading it again in late 2009, in matching bookend weeks around my sixty-sixth birthday. Fifty years on, would I still be enchanted by the thousand-page story of Scarlett O’Hara? Would I again feel a regretful pang when my bookmark reached the second half of the novel? In those fifty years I had grown older, read novels in other languages, and acquired degrees in English literature; the American Civil Rights movement and the Women’s Liberation movement had happened. How would all that affect my second reading of the novel?

I had still another reason for wanting to reassess it. When I was a student a friend had asked me what I thought the ‘best novel’ was. I thoughtlessly blurted out ‘Gone with the Wind ’, and her face fell. My answer was shockingly middlebrow and unsophisticated. Gone with the Wind was everything that really great literature almost never was. I had really put my foot in it. Still, I have never again felt the same pang on passing the halfway point of a novel. Doesn’t that count for something?

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About the contributor

Sarah Lawson is a Yankee twice over by being from Indiana and living in England. She was so charmed by GWTW the second time around that she wrote The GWTW Fortnight about the overlooked gems in it.

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