Almost 60 years ago, somewhere early in 1964 to be exact, my family and I were living in a crummy little apartment building on Babcock Street in Brookline, Massachusetts. We’d been in the USA for only a few months, having arrived three weeks before JFK was shot. I was in the fourth grade, attending Edward Devotion Elementary School just round the corner. (Poor old Ned was cancelled not too long ago (the usual reason) and it was was renamed the “Florida Ruffin Ridley School” after the black activist and suffragist. Not, in itself, an ignoble thing. But I object to the obliteration from public memory of Edward Devotion a man who (it seems) may have owned a single slave (something that was acceptable in the time in which he lived, although we find it abhorrent nowadays–as we should), but a man who did considerable good with his wealth and his legacy, nevertheless.
November 1963 was an extraordinary time to be introduced to this country. To come home from school, turn on the television expecting to see (in my new world, so far from the West Africa of my upbringing) Bozo the Clown, and to find, instead, Walter Cronkite taking off his glasses, and saying, with a catch in his throat, “President Kennedy died at 1PM Central Standard Time.”
The aftermath was excruciating, and something I’ll never forget. My mother phoning Harvard University, where Dad was a Fellow (in the days where “Fellows” were chosen on merit and when they could be, without complaint or irony, of either sex), only to find that they didn’t know what had happened. The three young bachelors in the apartment across the hall pretty much moving in with us for a few weeks and crying on our shoulders. Schools shutting down. People wandering the streets not quite knowing what to do. It was awful–one of those “remember where you were when…?” moments that are so few in our lives but so potent when they occur.
And yet, we, and you, made it through to the following Spring.
At which time, perhaps somewhere almost exactly fifty-eight years ago, I contracted whooping cough. (Linking to the description and symptoms because it’s not so common anymore, and folks may not be familiar with it.)
I was required to stay home from school for three weeks. (During which time, my evil fourth-grade teacher–who’d made it very clear she held me, and my rather unconventional upbringing and, to that point, educational experiences, in the utmost contempt, took the opportunity to undo my election as “class secretary” and appoint someone else in my stead. Early deep-state-wannabe, thy name is “Miss Maroney.” She was, in the words of Ashley Judd, a “nasty woman.” Although I think Ashley meant that, in context, as a compliment. I do not.)
So there I was. Stuck in bed for weeks in a new country with only immediate family and very few friends to keep me company.
As usual, my poor mother wasn’t much help. She’d never been much good at self-amusing, didn’t like to read, enjoyed Punch and the Telegraph’s cryptic crosswords, but otherwise didn’t offer much.
Dad, however, came up trumps. Books galore! I read, at the age of 9 1/2, the entire Sherlock Holmes canon. Wuthering Heights (which, to be honest, I was a bit queasy about, even at that young age). Most of the Hornblower series. And, somewhere along the way, he fetched up a copy of Gone With The Wind.
I loved it! I thought Miss Scarlett was the most wonderful heroine ever:
Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.
Oh, how I wanted to grow up to be that girl! Fascinating. Desired. Adventurous. Indomitable.
I read on. And cried when her dreams turned to dust, and when the man she loved tired of her and dumped her. And I cheered at the end when she went back to Tara:
With the spirit of her people who would not know defeat, even when it stared them in the face, she raised her chin. She could get Rhett back. She knew she could. There had never been a man she couldn’t get, once she set her mind upon him. “I’ll think of it tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back.”
Crimenutely. My nine-year old heart went pitter-pat, and I
hoped just knew there would be a happy ending.
Subsequently, I discovered that there was actually a Gone With the Wind movie. And as I became acclimated to American culture, I found myself (with my family) watching it on its near-annual appearances on the television screens when the “Sunday Night Movie,” or the “Monday Night Movie” were occasions for cultural cohesion in the days when there were only about three-and-a-half television channels on offer and not much else in the evenings to do.
In my exuberant youth, I loved the movie, and Scarlett even more.
At some point, I began to feel frissons of dissatisfaction with it. I began to get short-tempered with Scarlett’s interminable posing and preening. I began to see her manipulation of those she said she loved. And–yes–I began to wonder if the story of her heroism was a snare and a delusion.
(None of this journey on my part has anything to do with the woke objections to the “slavery” narrative that caused HBO Max to pull the film from their catalog for a brief period in 2020, before they reinstated it with a disclaimer about its “painful stereotypes” and inadequate depictions of the “horrors of slavery.” TBPC, I think it’s appropriate to issue contextual information about matters from previous times. I do not think it’s appropriate to simply memory-hole them because we–in our infinite enlightenment–are so far advanced that we should not even consider them. So, well-done, HBO Max. We used to take it as read that folks understood that slavery was a horrible thing. These days, we really can’t. I (with real sadness) get that.)
As it turns out, though, what the maturing and evolving me was discovering for my own self was a new definition of “heroine.” One in which Scarlett was judged and found wanting.
There’s a moment, in both the book and the movie, in which Scarlett–who’s been jonesing after the hapless, hopeless, and “honorable” Ashley Wilkes for the better part of a thousand pages, or for innumerable hours of screen time, suddenly realizes that Ashley never really loved her. Sure, I’d have preferred it if he’d grown a pair, manned up, and told her so early in the story so she didn’t have to figure it out on her own account, but I guess his need for the passive-aggressive drama-queen narrative outweighed an early end to the story, and so we had to go through the motions and live with the consequences (some of which were ghastly) through the book and the movie.
That moment–when I finally recognized, once and for all, Scarlett’s self-delusion and blindness–was the moment when it all settled and became clear.
The heroine of GWTW isn’t Scarlett O’Hara.
She’s Melanie Wilkes.
Change my mind.
(Posted after a discussion with, and for, a beloved friend who’s the Melanie Wilkes in my life, My light. My marker. My guidepost. )