03 November 2007

Departed with the Breeze

Hasta la vista, baby

Yet another writer has succumbed to the temptation to write a sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind: Donald McCaig has just published Rhett Butler’s People, an exploration of the background of Mitchell’s dashing hero. So be it. McCaig’s approach at least avoids the pitfalls of previous attempts at sequel-writing, wherein the authors struggle vainly to find something interesting for Scarlett to do while waiting for Rhett to come back to her. This is particularly challenging because most of the things Scarlett might really do are potentially offensive to readers with contemporary sensibilities: if she has even a conversation with one of the black characters, the author will have to dredge up a lot of unhappy racial realities that Mitchell was able to prettify or gloss over altogether. Thus Alexandra Ripley sent Scarlett packing to Ireland, where the O’Haras had family and nobody had slaves. It was implausible, but safe, as plot devices go.

When Cervantes set out to write the sequel to
Don Quixote, he had a clear objective: to stop other people from writing sequels. Quite a lot of bad imitations and “further adventures” rushed into print after the first novel appeared, and Cervantes was having none of it: he seized control of his own story and, when he got to the end, killed off the hero. What happens next to the mad knight of La Mancha? Nada.

Margaret Mitchell opted instead for a cliffhanger that drove up sales, provoked dinner-party fistfights, inspired some of Hollywood’s most memorable dialogue, and contributed to the novel’s enduring mystique. Not a bad move, but it left the door wide open for other writers to continue telling the story. Badly.

Yet it’s always struck me that Mitchell’s cliffhanger was no cliffhanger at all, just an attempt to spare Rhett (with whom she was clearly smitten) one final, deeply humiliating emasculation in a book that’s already crowded with such scenes. To illustrate, I provide the
real sequel to Gone with the Wind, as follows.


“Tomorrow is another day,” Scarlett mused as she sat studying the door through which Rhett had left her.

“Why, Miss Scarlett! What are you doing sitting on the floor in the dark?” Prissy said. “Would you like for me to light a lamp?”

“No, Prissy, I am too upset.” Indeed, Scarlett was so upset that she hardly noticed the tender, well-modulated expression of Prissy’s voice — far from the shrillness she most often employed.

“Yes,” said the servant. “I heard about Miss Melanie.”

“You know already? I only just left her deathbed.”

“Word travels fast among the servants of Atlanta,” Prissy replied with a sad smile. “We typically know what the white folks are doing, long before you know yourselves. It’s almost like some kind of twenty-four-hour news network.”

“Then you must know, too, that Mr. Rhett has left me.”

“Half the neighborhood heard the door slam, Miss Scarlett.”

Scarlett frowned. “You are speaking remarkably good English today, Prissy.”

The young woman shrugged. “I know you used to find endless diversion in my little minstrel-show routines,” she said. “But it’s been such a difficult time for you — first Miss Bonnie died, now Miss Melanie. I thought you might like to hear a little straight talk, for once in your life.”

“Yes,” said Scarlett, drying her eyes with the handkerchief Rhett had given her. “You’re right. Oh, Prissy! How sensible you are, and how seldom I have realized it.” She shook her head sadly. “I understand so many things now.”

Prissy pursed her lips. “Mm-hmm,” she said. “But better late than never, I suppose. Is there any chance you might understand that the war is over and it’s time to start paying me a living wage?”

“I can’t think about that!” Scarlett snapped. “I’ll go mad if I think about it!” She had begun to cry again. “Mr. Rhett has left me! Where shall I go? What shall I do?”

Prissy glanced at the clock on the parlor mantel, visible through the doorway. “Honestly, ma’am, I don’t think you need do anything but wait a bit. Would you like a cup of coffee? Perhaps a newspaper?”

“What do you mean?”

Prissy rolled her eyes impatiently. “Have you been paying any attention at all? Has it not occurred to you, ma’am, that Mr. Rhett has never been able to deny you anything? Oh, he may balk a bit, like an old mule, but sooner or later he gives you anything you ask. Against his better judgment — if, indeed, he has any — he spoils you. He always has. Any man with gumption would have told you to jump in the lake years ago. But Mr. Rhett isn’t capable of that. Oh, how we laugh at him down in the servants’ quarters! Pork does a most amusing imitation of him, you know. ‘Buy me this! Buy me that! Give me all your money! Risk your life for me!’ ‘Yes, honey! Yes, sugar! Yes, Scarlett! Anything you say, dearest!’

“I never really thought about it.”

“If I may say so, ma’am, there’s not a man in the South who’s ever stood up to you for ten minutes. Certainly not your father! Poor old Mr. Ashley was so terrified of your temper tantrums that he couldn’t even tell you he was in love with his wife. And as for your first and second husbands — well, it’s been a rough morning. You really don’t want to know what we say about them in the servants’ quarters. Mr. Rhett has a little more backbone than those mealy-mouthed pantywaists — but not much more. Heaven only knows what you’ve done to deserve that kind of devotion.”

Scarlett barely heard the reproach in Prissy’s voice. Her thoughts were racing elsewhere. “So you’re saying that I don’t need to go home to Tara — to think of a way to get Rhett back?”

Prissy laughed. “Ma’am, if you go to Tara, you’ll only increase the distance that Mr. Rhett has to come crawling back to you.” She looked again at the clock. “Ten minutes are up,” she said, opening the front door.

There was Rhett, on his knees. He looked up at the women and blushed.

“I —uh — dropped my key.”

Scarlett stood. “You walked out on me!” she cried. “And you didn’t even make it past the front gate?”

Sheepishly, Rhett stood now, too. “Forgot to pack socks,” he mumbled.

Scarlett stepped forward and took Rhett’s hand in hers. “There, there,” she said softly. “There are plenty of socks in your room. You can pack as many as you please. Take your time — take all the time in the world.”

Rhett began to sob like a baby. “Oh, Scarlett! I love you so much! I can’t live without you! I can’t help it!”

Scarlett wrapped the man in her arms. “Nobody wants you to live without me, you little fool. Love me! Love me all you can! I don’t mind.” They kissed.

Rhett sighed through his tears. “Frankly, my dear, this is what I was meant for.”

Prissy stood by the door, her arms folded across her chest as she watched her employers. “Now that we’ve got that out of the way,” she said, “can we talk about that raise?”