Whenever I take a poll or fill out a questionnaire or a profile that asks about my favorite book, I always answer: Gone With The Wind. It's also one of my favorite movies, mostly because it adheres so closely to the book. AND it's my favorite romance.
Even though it's not exactly a romance. If it were written today, it would not be sold as a genre romance. It's too long; it doesn't have a happy ending, and I'd be surprised if Scarlett's many marriages survived the editor's pen. Maybe the first one to Charles (but she'd somehow still be a virgin when he died). Scarlett's infatuation with Ashley would also be an unusual element in a modern historical.
Nevertheless, Gone With The Wind started me off on a lifetime love affair with romance and it set a high standard. I have often boiled down my criteria for a truly transcendent romance as this: "Do I believe the hero and heroine are absolutely MADE for each other?"
GWTW is a book I've re-read many, many times. Through most of my teenage years and early twenties, it was my summer vacation book. I re-read it every summer. One year, I also read biographies of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. Somehow in my head I was trying to make the story true.
I first fell in love with Scarlett. I identified with her daddy's-girl issues; with her first-born impatience with younger sisters and deeply pragmatic streak of do-what-must-be-done. I coveted that green sprigged dress and her ability to make boys notice her. I loved how she went after and got what she wanted; how she bucked convention and did wtf she wanted to, what any fool could see that she needed to do to survive. How she understood that the old pre-war conventions could not survive.
I liked Rhett because he was worthy of her. He let her have fun when no one else would. He loved her for all the things that her social circle frowned on, things that made her what she was. And he was a fun hero; a swashbuckling privateer; handsome; utterly un-intimidate-able.
I can't pinpoint exactly when it was that my perception of the characters started to change. Sometime in my 20's, it hit me really hard that Scarlett was only sixteen when the book opens, which wasn't so crazy, but that she was not even twenty when the war ended, and perhaps 26 at the end of the book. She was so young to go through everything she went through.
And then I started looking at Rhett's character, and how he always stood back and "gave Scarlett her head," as they used to say a lot in historicals; how he let her pretty much do and be exactly what she needed to. I noticed his tender side, that he showed to Melanie and Belle Watling and Mammy, but never to Scarlett, lest she plant it squarely with a delicate green morocco leather slipper. He knew her, understood her in ways that both helped and hurt his case as a lover. He waited for her to grow up. And waited.
Scarlett never treated Rhett like a lover or a suitor - he didn't fall into step with her plans. He was really almost more of a father figure; someone she could turn to for help, to lean on when everyone around her was leaning on her. In fact, she treated him pretty shabbily, reacting to what she saw as him being "mean" to her -- ie, not groveling at her feet.
Her infatuation with Ashley, and along with it, her emotional maturity, was stunted by the war and never played itself out as an adolescent crush normally would. Rhett knew better than to set himself up as competition to a phantom, but waiting it out took longer than anyone could have imagined. Part of Mitchell's genius is that as readers, none of us want Ashley and Scarlett together. We know, as Rhett and Melanie both know, that Ashley would never make her happy.
This bit here, where she accepts Rhett's proposal, I think sums up the push-pull tension between them perfectly:
"And you are the only man I ever saw who could stand the truth from a woman, and it would be nice having a husband who didn't think me a silly fool and expect me to tell lies-- and-- well, I am fond of you."
"Fond of me?"
"Well," she said fretfully, "if I said I was madly in love with you I'd be lying and what's more, you'd know it."
"Sometimes I think you carry your truth telling too far, my pet. Don't you think, even if it was a lie, that it would be appropriate for you to say 'I love you, Rhett,' even if you didn't mean it?"
What was he driving at, she wondered, becoming more confused. He looked so queer, eager, hurt, mocking. He took his hands from her and shoved them deep in his trouser pockets and she saw him ball his fists.
"If it costs me a husband, I'll tell the truth," she thought grimly, her blood up as always when he baited her.
"Rhett, it would be a lie, and why should we go through all that foolishness? I'm fond of you, like I said. you know how it is. You told me once that you didn't love me but that we had a lot in common. Both rascals, was the way you--"
"Oh, God!" he whispered rapidly, turning his head away. "To be taken in my own trap!"
"What did you say?"
"Nothing," and he looked at her and laughed, but it was not a pleasant laugh. "Name the day, my dear," and he laughed again and bent and kissed her hands. She was relieved to see his mood pass and good humor apparently return, so she smiled too."
She's not spiteful, she's genuinely clueless.
The theme in the book that totally fascinates me is the polarization of "earthy love," or sex, and what they used to call "courtly love" in Eleanor of Aquitaine's time. You see the dichotomy everywhere in the book-- in the first paragraph:
In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father."
And on the same page:
But for all the modesty of her spreading skirts, the demureness of hair netted smoothly into a chignon and the quietness of small white hands folded in her lap, her true self was poorly concealed. The green eyes in the carefully sweet face were turbulent, willful, lusty with life, distinctly at variance with her decorous appearance.
While Ashley is the man she thinks she should love, with his intellectual ideals and angelic looks, Rhett is the one she wants with her heart and body-- and she rejects that desire because she aspires to her mother's unattainable ideals, and associates her desire for Rhett with her father's lower-class influence. Ashley sees Melanie as his courtly ideal, but is tempted by Scarlett's earthiness-- and when Scarlett realizes this, she's mortified.
Anyway, that's a tangent I can wax on about for way longer than that -- it's everywhere in the book and constantly leads Scarlett astray as she tries to resolve the two incompatible needs. (I also like discussing how Melanie represents the grace and weakness of the past while Scarlett is the youthful, strong, but crass and sometimes ugly progress of the future, but that doesn't have much to do with the romance question).
Happily Ever After
I really do want -- nay, demand, the HEA with my modern genre romance. I still remember the one I read in the 80's by Danielle Steele that killed off the hero. WTF, Danielle Steele? YOU CAN'T DO THAT. But let's remember, the "rules" of genre romance developed quite a bit after 1939. There's a certain perception that sadness is worthier than happiness; that tragedy is more intellectually satisfying that comedy. That making someone cry is deep but making them smile is shallow.
I think that perception persists today; you'll find it wherever literary snobs who've never looked further than the Fabio cover of a romance declare the entire genre unworthy. I mean, we know better.
But let's not go too far the other way. Just because there isn't a happy ending doesn't mean the story isn't romantic. That the love story isn't amazing and emotionally wrenching. Kristie writes that without that HEA, it's just not a romance. I will agree that a tragic ending means that the story doesn't really provide what I am usually looking for in a genre romance. But the sad ending doesn't negate the romance of the emotional journey.
There's a bit here at the end of the story that just give me chills, it makes me ache so hard for Scarlett:
She had never understood either of the men she had loved and so she had lost them both. Now, she had a fumbling knowledge that, had she ever understood Ashley, she would never have loved him; had she ever understood Rhett, she would never have lost him. She wondered forlornly if she had ever really understood anyone in the world.
Who among us cannot relate to that feeling? If you can't, consider yourself very, very fortunate.
And the end is not unambiguously tragic. It's true that Rhett's dumping of Scarlett has all the hallmarks of utter finality, as even she comprehends it. But still...
There had never been a man she couldn't get, once she set her mind upon him.
"I'll think of it all tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day."
I wouldn't underestimate her.