Monday, March 25, 2019

Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" Letters, 1936-1939

One of the nicest perks of working in a library was getting first pick of the donated books for the semi-annual Friends of the Library sales. Gone with the Wind was one of my all-time favorites, so I was naturally intrigued by Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" Letters, 1936-1949, and was happy to part with $1 for this edition from 1976. Of course it only took me five years to get around to finally reading it.

As the title indicates, this book is a collection of letters written by Margaret Mitchell regarding her iconic novel Gone With the Wind, first published in 1936 and famously adapted into a blockbuster movie in 1939. It's a really interesting chronicle of how GWTW exploded into an international phenomenon and affected Mitchell for the rest of her life, not to mention her husband and indeed the city of Atlanta. The letters are chatty and for the most part interesting, and it's quite fascinating to see how this novel became such as sensation. 

Margaret Mitchell was a born-and-bred Atlantean, and grew up hearing stories of the Civil War and Reconstruction. She was born in 1900 and attended Smith College and originally hoped to become a psychologist, but left college when her mother died suddenly and never graduated. She returned to Atlanta to keep house for her father and eventually got a job as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal in the early 1920s. After her marriage to attorney John Marsh, she suffered an ankle injury that didn't heal, so she was forced to quit her job. Spending months bedridden, she read nearly every book in the library and out of frustration, her husband brought her a stack of paper and a typewriter and told her to write her own novel, which she did over a period of about three years. 

The novel then lay unpublished in manuscript form for several years, until MacMillan editor Harold Latham came to town. Goaded by a braggart acquaintance who claimed her own manuscript would win a Pulitzer while Mitchell's would never be published, Margaret grabbed most of the envelopes with the manuscripts and gave them to Latham as he was getting on the train, so that "at least she could claim that she'd been refused by the very best publisher." She was given a contract and merely hoped that the publishers would make enough to cover their costs, never dreaming that it would be of interest to anyone but the most hard-core Atlanta fans and Civil War buffs. 

GWTW then became a massive success, winning the Pulitzer Prize and becoming one of the best-selling novels of all time. The book of letters was really interesting to me, to see her perspective and all the problems the attention from her book created, with fans constantly hounding her for autographs, other authors claiming plagiarism, issues from foreign publishers pirating the books, and then the whole circus that erupted after the movie adaptation was announced. It was an absolute circus, and I can't even imagine how much worse it would have been today with the internet and social media. Mitchell was basically hounded for the rest of her life, and never had time to write another book. With all the hullaballoo, I I'd be surprised if she weren't sick to death of it, not to mention the pressure she would have been under if she had written a second book. 

This book is very interesting to learn the context of the publishing and the movie adaptation, especially with the looming backdrop of WWII. There are also a lot of letters written to other authors that she enjoyed, mostly history but there are poets and other contemporary authors mentioned, including Betty Smith who wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I was also delighted to find a letter from 1946 to a writer from the New York Herald Tribune in which she requests the address of Angela Thirkell so that she can send her a holiday care package during the severe rationing in Great Britain after the war. She mentions how much she loves Thirkell's novels and is about to read Miss Bunting (#14 in the Barsetshire series, which I haven't yet read). 

For me, the collection of letters did rather slow down after the war years, I suppose because much of the attention toward GWTW had died down. The last letter included is from July 1949, just a few weeks before Mitchell's death after being hit by a drunk driver. The book ends after the last letter, without any mention of her death, or any biographical details, so I suppose I'll have to track down a biography, and of course I have to watch the film adaptation of GWTW, now that I've already re-read that book as well. 

But that's three books finished for the TBR Pile Challenge -- I still have a biography of Edith Wharton and a memoir by Elizabeth Jane Howard, so that makes four books by and about 20th century female authors for this challenge. 

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Gone With the Wind: Problematic, But Still Wonderful

The lovely 75th Anniversary edition.

Possibly the ultimate in Big Fat American Novels, I first read Gone With the Wind as a youngster, in the sixth grade; I'd seen the movie when it first aired on network TV in the 1970s, which was a huge television event. I've since read it at least a dozen times but it has been at least 20 years since my previous re-read. I did get a lovely hardcover edition as a holiday gift a few years ago but never got around to re-reading it until recently, inspired by  by the GWTW Readalong hosted by The Book Corps and by another recent read, Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind Letters," which I finished for the TBR Pile Challenge. 

As nearly everyone knows, GWTW was published in 1936 and was a runaway best-seller, and was adapted into the most successful movie of all time. The novel is more than 1000 pages long, but basically, GWTW chronicles the story of fiery Georgia debutante Scarlett O'Hara during the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and her undying love for the dreamy blond and bookish Ashley Wilkes. To Scarlett's chagrin Ashley marries his cousin, the sweet, saintly Melanie Hamilton, so in a fit of pique, Scarlett marries Melanie's brother, the shy Charles. Scarlett and Melanie are thus tied together during and after the War, and Scarlett must use her wits and bravery for them to survive, along with the O'Hara family's plantation, Tara. Scarlett also has a love-hate relationship with the dashing profiteer and scoundrel Rhett Butler, in what is one of American literature's greatest tragic love stories. 

It's always really hard for me to re-visit a favorite book from my childhood -- what if it doesn't stand up the test of time? Some books are just as good or even better (like To Kill a Mockingbird) and some are truly disappointing. For me, GWTW was a really mixed re-read. As always, I find the characters indelible and the story of spunky Scarlett so compelling -- she truly is a feminist icon. However, reading it decades later, I was constantly aware of the more problematic aspects of the book. Mitchell depicts the African-American characters as mostly lovable but childlike and easily manipulated by those terrible Yankees (with the exception of Mammy); also, it definitely perpetuates the romanticized, racist version of The Good Old South in which white people know best and all the African-Americans are happy and well-cared for, glossing over the fact that all the rich white folks are living off wealth accumulated by the suffering of generations of slaves. 

The same mass-market paperback edition as I read in 6th grade. 
Mine is equally tattered, I'm sure it's still packed away somewhere in storage. 

There's also lot of usage of the n-word and variations which made me really uncomfortable. Ashley Wilkes is the only character who seems to think Emancipation is a good idea and he's depicted as a dreamy and unrealistic. Scarlett is a feminist and I'm always rooting for her survival, but she is NOT a nice character -- she's really selfish and self-centered, and often cruel. Also, sometimes Mitchell's prose is a little flowery, and there are passages in which she digresses with battle scenes and background of Reconstruction history that definitely romanticize the white Southerners as victims. Um, no. 

However, it's a fascinating story with a great plot and great characters, and I found myself really enjoying the re-read, despite all my issues with the book. (Scarlett is definitely what I would call a fascinating train wreck). I still wish I knew what happened to Scarlett and Rhett Butler. Sadly, Mitchell never wrote a sequel nor left any hints about their fate before her untimely death in 1949.  It is a great, sprawling historical epic and I do still love it, despite its flaws.

 I'm counting it as my 20th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge

Monday, March 11, 2019

Fenny by Lettice Cooper: An Expat Living in Italy

I bought Fenny almost three years ago, after reading and loving Lettice Cooper's National Provincial. I never got around to reading it until last week when I was going on a short jaunt to Dubrovnik -- I do try to bring books on holiday that have a local connection. I couldn't find anything on my shelves set in the Balkans or on the Adriatic, so I decided a book set in Italy would have to do.

Set in the 1930s through the 1940s, Fenny is the story of an Ellen Fenwick, an English schoolteacher who gives up her job at a girls' school to take a temporary post as governess to a little English girl living in Tuscany. The story begins in 1933 when Fenny arrives in Italy to begin her new post at the Villa Meridiana, a house loaned to the Mr. and Mrs. Rivers. The husband travels back and forth from his work in London, so most of the time it's just Ellen, nicknamed Fenny, with her charge Juliet and her mother Madeleine, the daughter of a famous stage actress. They tend to socialize with the Warners, another ex-pat family, and Fenny finds herself much thrown together with Daniel, tutor to Warner's the oldest child. It seems like an obvious romantic interlude but things take a very unexpected turn. The rest of the book details Fenny's life until the late 1940s, and how it is entwined with members of the two families, before and after the war.

Though it's primarily a domestic story, Fenny does include the rise of fascism and WWII, and how expats were affected. The book is divided into four parts, and the second part jumps forward about three years, just before the war; then to 1945, as the war is ending; and finally 1949.

The Tuscan countryside, near Siena.

I really enjoyed this book but I think I would have liked it even better without the time jumps -- I really wanted to know more about Fenny's story, especially during the war. Also, I feel like some of the side characters' outcomes were only mentioned as afterthoughts. I know there seem to be a lot of books where characters miraculously show up years later, and it's completely realistic that people disappear from your life entirely, but still, it felt a little unresolved. Of course it would have made for a much longer book but I'm quite sure I would have enjoyed that! National Provincial is about 600 pages but I was thoroughly engrossed.

I do want to read more of Lettice Cooper's work, but I don't know a thing about any of her other novels except National Provincial and The New House, both Persephone reprints I loved. Most of her novels seem to have plenty of used copies available online, except for one called Desirable Residence, copies of which start at around $35 US, and have price listings upwards of $200! However, there seem to be library copies available through WorldCat, so I'll have to wait and check it out via ILL after I return to the U.S.

I'm counting this as my book set in Italy for the Reading Europe Challenge