Margaret Mitchell’s Long Shadow

I didn’t mean to write an American Civil War romance. Indeed, I didn’t mean to write a historical romance at all. My first book was a contemporary and so was my third. If I had sat down and decided to write something historical, surely I would have chosen another period, a more commercially-viable one, than I did. A nice Regency involving a brooding duke perhaps. (And for the record, I love a good Regency with a brooding duke as much as the next girl. In fact, probably more than the next girl.)

But writing Brave in Heart (which will be out in 2.5 weeks, if I hadn’t mentioned it lately) just sort of happened. I wanted to write a novella to experiment with different plotting, but the subject unfurled without consulting me. The first 20,000 words appeared very quickly — honestly, I could really use that sort of inspiration with the two creative writing projects sitting on my harddrive now, not to mention my still-unfinished dissertation — though the second half was more of a march. It was only when I had finished that I realize what I had done, which was to enter a very specific subgenre and one that has an almost inescapable Ur-text.

The only Civil War romance I’ve read is Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and (spoiler alert), given the lack of a happy ever after, it isn’t really a romance. But it’s a book with a very long shadow.

Scarlett O’Hara is an early example of the spunky, never-say-die heroine that so often appear in the genre; Rhett Butler is a marvelous rogue. Drop them into an epic setting, add in some misunderstandings and history, a bit of unrequited love, the straightjacket of social expectation (which they both often flout), and colorful supporting characters, and you’ve got a recipe for success. If you’d like to learn more about Mitchell and her first and only novel, she was the subject of a good episode of American Masters, which you can watch here.

But it’s also a politically troubling book. The representation of the African-American characters falls into a pattern that finds its genesis in the pro-slavery literature of the antebellum period: happy, subservient, simple enslaved characters who are devoted to their white masters and thrive in the institution of slavery.

The character of Mammy in particular fits into a very troubling — and ahistorical — stereotype that would be perpetuated in advertising well into the twentieth century (think Aunt Jemima). And this isn’t even to get into the book’s portrait of the Reconstruction and the Klu Klux Klan.

It’s in short the most prominent example of Lost Clause ideology in literature. I’d trace this subgenre to Augusta Jane Evans‘ novel Macaria (1864), which was published as the Civil War was still being fought. It portrays Confederate causalities as sacrifices for a glorious revolution (which the book seems oddly prescient about the impending failure of) and suggests white Southern women can be most useful by keeping their (the dead men’s) memory alive.

Lost Clause texts glorify and romanticize the antebellum period, view the history of the war through a certain prism, and vilify Reconstruction and (eventually) the Civil Rights movement. Another notable entrant in the genre would be Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, which was adapted for the screen as The Birth of a Nation in 1915.

Watching the American Masters episode I linked to above convinced me that Mitchell’s own politics were very complicated, so I don’t want to oversimplify her views or even to reduce the novel to merely being a conduit for the Lost Cause. Rhett himself openly mocks some of this myth-making in the book, for example.

But I don’t think there’s anyway to deny that Gone with the Wind does a certain kind of cultural work and has a legacy among and reputation for people who are invested in seeing the antebellum American south and the history of the Civil War in a certain way. (And for a much smarter and more sustained discussion of this, I recommend Tony Horwitz’s excellent Confederates in the Attic, which considers shifting perspectives on the memory of the war in the contemporary American south.)

What I do want to say is that if I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have wanted to write a Civil War romance novel because the politics surrounding the memory of the war are very deeply tied to contemporary racial and sectional politics. Northerners for the most part don’t seem that interested in the memory of the war, but I can promise you the phrase “the war of Northern aggression” is still in use. And who wants to get into all that?!

Once I’d realized I was writing a Civil War series, I did make a conscious decision not to read any other Civil War romances, so I can’t say whether I think the subgenre today is promoting or resisting the Lost Cause. But I can say that a stigma seems to surround books set in this time and place as if that’s what they are doing.

When I talk to people about my book, when I see bloggers discussing historical romance and they mention the subgenre, there seems to be an expectation that the setting, characters, and politics descend from Gone with the Wind. It’s almost impossible to write something set in this period that doesn’t comment on, use the tropes of, and just exist intertextually with Mitchell’s book — even if you’re trying to resist or amend her work. For some readers, this association is an immediate turn-off. For others, it’s the appeal of the genre.

Gone with the Wind, the book and the film, were massively successful. Whatever else you think of Mitchell, she wrote characters that have touched generations of readers and viewers. But for everyone else who follows her, her book is the elephant in the room. The inescapable giant that will be in every reader’s mind along with whatever we’ve created.

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10 thoughts on “Margaret Mitchell’s Long Shadow

  1. A lovely post on this challenging space you’ve chosen to write in! Along with Jane Eyre, GWTW was sort of a foundational text for me as a reader of historical fiction and romance. I read both these books the same summer – 12 turning 13. It is so interesting to think about how many hundreds of books have been written in the decades since my adolescence that take up the gothic tropes of the one novel, vs. the vacuum that exists for Civil War fiction with female lead, and/or Civil War romance.
    I do think Scarlett is more than spunky and never-say-die. Unlike most fierce romance heroines, she’s also portrayed by Mitchell as selfish, self-interested, insensitive and cold, far from altruistic, and downright bitchy. In romance, I think there’s much more of an effort to make the pragmatic, fierce heroine sympathetic, and temper her edges. But this is an aside to the main point of your post, which so thoughtfully captures the challenge of writing romance (escape reading…?) set in a period which invokes controversy for some readers, and in which Rhett and Scarlett loom so large.

    • You’re quite right that Scarlett’s unapologetic self-interest is much more than the mere spunkiness of her paler imitators. If I had to pick a model for Scarlet, it would be Bizet’s Carmen and her successor is probably Katniss Everdeen.

      I do think that later romance writers thought they were writing Scarlett-like characters but in order to make them more likable and less controversial, what they gave up was what made her most interesting.

  2. As someone who has never been to the South (well, I’ve been to Austin, but I hear that it’s “not really Texas”) and doesn’t quite understand the still prevalent myth of the “Lost Cause”, the “War of Northern Aggression”, and “The South Will Rise Again”, GWTW is a fascinating look into how those myths came about.

    Personally, I think Scarlett is one of the most fascinating characters ever written, and her sharp edges are some of my favorite aspects of her. And as I get older, I’m beginning to think that it’s not really a romance at all, in the sense that I no longer think that Scarlett and Rhett were meant to be together, at least not by the end of the book. I think his line to her at the end about wishing that she were still young and like she was before the war so he could spoil her is very telling. He wants her as she was at the beginning of the war, but that girl doesn’t exist anymore.

    But even if I don’t think of it as a romance anymore, you’re correct, it will overshadow most discussions of Civil War romances, just as Heyer and Austen overshadow most discussion of Regencies.

    • Yes. Absolutely. In A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Pamela Regis calls GWTW “a near miss” and emphasizes how it’s really readers who have made it a romance novel, bringing genre expectations and conventions from contemporary romance back in time to the text rather than reading what’s on the page. (She’s also really smart on how the adaptation makes changes, like eliminating Scarlett’s children with her first husbands, that reinforce this process.)

      I’ll admit I haven’t read it a few years (okay, maybe a decade), but I would argue that in some ways, Scarlett operates as a metaphor for the American south. At the start of the book, she’s very complicated. Her beauty is a bit of an illusion (isn’t that the opening line? something like, “Scarlett O’Hara wasn’t truly beautiful”?), she’s self-consciously performing chivalry, etc. Then the war happens and she does whatever it takes to survive, eventually embracing the new, post-Reconstruction South, but in the process, becoming much harder. Rhett’s desire for her to be what she was before the war — which might not be a truthful recollection at all — is the essence of Lost Cause ideology.

      Have I taken this too far?

      • I looked it up. The opening is: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” That’s some good stuff.

  3. Yes, the opening line is just great–implying that she has to work at being charming and beautiful, and she’s damn good at it.
    I think you’re dead on in your assessment of Scarlett as being metaphor for the Lost Cause and Rhett’s yearning for it. He mocks the whole concept, but he also joins up after the Fall of Atlanta and when Bonnie comes around, he very clearly states that she will only associate with the Old Guard and not their new carpetbagger friends.
    And then what happens to the both of them after she dies–so heartbreaking! In a traditional romance, we would have the catharsis of them reuniting after that, but Mitchell takes the more truthful route, and their relationship ends. And I think that Mitchell really did mean for it to be final.

    • There’s an extent to which Bonnie’s death feels like a feature of Mitchell’s interest in 19th C lit, in which such scenes are commonplace. I really can’t think of a contemporary romance in which a child’s death takes place on the page. I’m pretty sure that I’ve read romances in which the hero or heroine is recovering from having lost a child, but the death is always safely in the past. (And really, all I can think of now in terms of this pattern is the film Rachel Getting Married, but I swear I’ve seen it in popular genre books too.) I think it’s just one of those things that once you go there in a contemporary context, it’s just too damn dark for a modern reader. I think the death of a child would almost immediately shove the book from romance into literary fiction, and is a good example of how the genre division can be a function of content and not just form.

      • I just thought of one romance novel featuring a hero mourning a child: (SPOILERS) Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Raven Prince, in which the hero lost a wife and child in childbirth. Spousal loss is very common, but loss of children seems very rare. What is more common is for a couple to experience miscarriage and then reconciliation, such as in Sherry Thomas’ Private Arrangements, there are also miscarriages in other Elizabeth Hoyt and Courtney Milan novels. Finally, there’s Susanna Kearsley’s The Winter Sea, which includes loss via adoption.

        (END SPOILERS) … so I think this is another way in which GWTW isn’t a romance novel.

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