Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Karma, Miss Scarlett and Me

During a lull in proceedings in my normally hectic office earlier today, I took advantage of the quiet to browse through some of the British papers online. There's a big financial scandal in the brewing here, involving all three major political parties. It concerns MPs abusing expenses privileges. It makes Gordon Brown look more like the spent force he is and it makes David Cameron look like a liar.

But thumbing through today's Guardian, I came across an article concerning something that's particularly dear to my heart, in an almost perverse sort of way; and that's the fact that this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Southern Girl's Bible ... Gone With the Wind.

I first happened upon the book when I was thirteen years old - ironically, I bought my first copy of the book in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of the battle where Ashley Wilkes went missing and the Tarleton twins were killed. That was the first of many copies of the book I've owned, and I've probably read the damned thing more than I've ever read any other book, certainly more than I ever read The Bible. I wouldn't say it's my favourite read either - that's reserved for the brilliantly poignant To Kill a Mockingbird - but it's certainly the most fascinating book I've ever read; and each time I return to it, it affects me in a completely different way.

I read it on the recommendation of my mother, it being her favourite book and film. I was weaned on the Civil War, and mine was probably the last generation in Virginia raised this way. Mine was the generation, white and black, which saw the end of Jim Crow and racially segregated schools. I remember the Centenniel of the Civil War being celebrated in my hometown, which boasts no less than the corpse of Col John Singleton Mosby resting in its cemetary. Girls of my generation, growing up during the Sixties, were the last generation of Southern girls to be raised to be professional ditzes, described accurately by Margaret Mitchell in the early part of the book, when she remarks upon how it was all important for an unmarried girl to act as if she didn't have two brain cells to rub together in order to snare a poor, dumb, unsuspecting (but socially acceptable) male, only to turn into a bastion of intelligence, common sense, efficiency and intellect as a married woman - as if marriage redeemed a woman's social and intellectual status. An old maid, like the character India Wilkes was destined to be, was a pejorative creature to be pitied and consigned to the eternal and charitable care of a reluctant male relative or shunted off to live in genteel poverty as a teacher in some out of the way school district. But then, Margaret Mitchell is at pains to remind us, part of poor India's problem was that she just couldn't hide the fact that she was intelligent. She was well-read and articulate; that made her a bluestocking. That, more than anything physical, made her plain. In hindsight, I think it actually made men fear her. After all, knowledge is power and if women are kept ignorant and in intellectual darkness, what can they hope to achieve? Just look at the Taliban.

As adolescents, my friends and I read the book around the local swimming pool. We actually didn't give a toss about Scarlett (whom I found, initially, faintly annoying) or Melanie. We were more interested in arguing the pros and cons about which male character we preferred - Rhett or Ashley. As young girls, the book was read to experience the romance of the South, the bodice-ripping, more than anything, which - apart from the marital rape scene in the book - never really got past first base.

From time to time, however, every five or six years or so, I'd return to the book and read it again. Being such a long book, it's easy to forget certain parts and the film left out great chunks and even some major characters. Reading it much later, after I'd married and gone to live in Britain, I was appalled at how horribly politically incorrect it was, looking back at the book then, in the last quarter of what was the Twentieth Century. Still later, I reread the tome yet again, after a long visit to Virginia, in which I had managed to reconnect with a lot of friends from my high school and college days.

Something entirely different struck me during that read - and that was the dialogue Mitchell used, especially Rhett Butler's dialogue, his banter with Scarlett. Something hit home in me with that and I suddenly realised what it was. My alma mater is the University of Virginia, and I had occasion to be part of the third class of women entering in the autumn of 1972. Suffice it to say that that portal of learning dubbed 'the last vestibule of Southern decadence' by the late great William Faulkner, and commonly known amongst the ivy-clad walls up and down the East Coast as 'the country club of the South', wasn't too enamoured of the fact that the University had been dragged kicking and screaming, suddenly, into the Twentieth Century and told it had to admit women. Women, in short, were not wanted there. We were about as welcome as a bastard at a family reunion and the 'gentlemen' let us know it in no uncertain terms.

That was some glass ceiling to crack, let me tell you.

The Virginia gentlemen liked to import their women from amongst the local talent in neighbouring women's colleges, little more than expensive finishing schools (all of which had offered me a place to study, which I had, in turned, politely declined). The Wa-Hoo male wanted women for weekend consumption only. To put it crudely, he wanted a girl from Friday night until Sunday morning, so he could suck her, fuck her and then chuck her and not have to risk running into her in the student cafeteria or tripping across The Lawn on the way to class on Monday morning.

These were girls who came down acting like the proverbial ditzes, whose sole purpose in attending a college of higher education was in order to obtain an MRS degree, preferably in union with someone attending medical or law school. And you know what the co-eds did?

We adapted. We learned the art of ditzing with the best of them. We dressed the part in preppie pink and green, with expensively shod Docksiders gracing our dainty feet and we traipsed off each weekend with our chosen date to the fraternity of his choice. We smiled at their drunken antics, we laughed at their inane banter, and our smiles assumed the stiffness of rigor mortis, as our Cavalier proceeded to puke on our shoes. We learned to match them drink for drink and hold it. We made the 'Gentleman's C' grade totally unacceptable. Standards were raised. The ceiling was broken.

Reading Gone With the Wind years later, reading the cadence of Rhett's banter, made me realise how very little men had changed in all those years. Take away everything in the story except some of the lighter scenes when Rhett's talking to Scarlett, dumb bitch that she is, and you have any good old Southern boy bantering with a girl whose panties he's hoping to explore by the end of the evening. Bill probably spoke with Hillary this way, and Jimmy with Roslyn. Hell, that numbnutz Dubya probably wooed Laura with the same shit different day.

And that's when I started thinking back over a lot of the Southern boys I'd known. That's when I realised that Margaret Mitchell had cracked it. Because, you see, there are really only two types of Southern fellas - Rhetts and Ashleys. Of course, the Rhetts were always the Alpha males - well-educated, well-spoken, but good at things like huntin', fishin', shootin', drinkin' and all things masculine (mostly gridiron football). The Ashleys were well-educated, well-spoken and towed the line on all things male without heart but because it was expected. They were the dreamers, the idealists.

My childhood sweetheart was an Ashley. My high school boyfriend was an Ashley as well, who went on - to my horror- to reveal to me during our first year at university that he wanted to be a Presbyterian minister. I spent the remainder of my college days veering between two men who embodied a peculiarly hybrid species I'd call 'Rhashley'. One was an engineering student who wanted nothing more than to be a DJ and who cracked me up with a sexy rendition of Groucho Marx's 'If a Nightingale Could Sing Like You.' The other was a law student from the Deep South who almost got me arrested in Georgetown when he spat on a statue of William Tecumseh Sherman. I repaid him the favour by tricking him into attending the wedding of a close college friend of mine, who happened to be a black woman marrying a white man. My boy was from Alabama. Need I say more?

He was as rightwing as I was on the left. We argued politics all, I mean all, the time. He lectured me on my heritage; I bucked against it. When, in my last year, I took the LSATs and scored well on them, he and my sainted mother connived to convince me that my sole lot in life was to teach rural children to conjugate French and Spanish verbs until he'd finished his law studies and then I could retire and breed Republican babies.

I went to Spain instead for the summer. He cheated on me with a fat girl from North Carolina and that put paid to that.

But that was all the bad bits.

The good bits were the making up after a heated political debate or any debate about social culture of the day. For all he was a weeping, rightwing gooper of the Gingrich variety, he bloody encouraged you to think. He'd make you read the paper and he'd argue the toss on various articles and problems of the day. He stimulated my mind and then it goes without saying that he stimulated something else as well.

It was Rhett's banter that reminded me so often of this Bubba.

Now here's the karma bit ... out of the blue (pun intended) and out of cyberspace, I got an e-mail today from my Rhashley man of the past. The entire afternoon and evening's been one continuous e-mail of banter, with pictures exchanged. He's aged well - hardly at all, the bastard. Still to the right, still with the gift of the gab, still egging on at the intellect, still a tease.

The fat girl got left behind someplace between DC, North Carolina and Heidelberg, Germany.

I wouldn't kick him out of bed, even now ... but, for once, I'm glad I'm on this side of the Pond and married ... still, it's sort of enticing to think that the frisson's still there after all these years ...

Who knows?

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