Miz Peggy

Penelope Gilliatt

  • The Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell by Anne Edwards
    Hodder, 369 pp, £9.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 340 32348 5

From Anne Edwards’s biography of Margaret Mitchell, we know that Peggy Mitchell had ‘sailor-blue eyes’. We also know that she stood four feet eight, which is mighty small for the militant author of Gone with the Wind. At this size she mounted, or climbed up a ladder to, a large horse. Wheeling him (fervently: her whole life was led in adverbs) and crying ‘Look at me!’ to the South in general, she fell off. The horse landed on top and she had a leg injury that forced her into orthopaedic shoes for the rest of her life. She wore a bow on one side of her hair for the premiere of her film: infant star, around forty. By this time, her book was well over a thousand pages long, but she was no taller. Even if this Minnie Mouse of a figure was wearing stiletto heels under her orthopaedic shoes, which one suspects in the light of her many disguises, she would never have stood more than four feet eight. She liked dancing the tango in those shoes, in a black satin dress slit up to her knees. One wishes there were a photograph of this wild Depression sight.

She absolutely hated writing. Accident-pront as she was, one of her many accidents included a car falling on top of hers, leaving her to live in a back-brace. The back-brace hurt her when she was typing. When it gave pain she gratefully flung a bath-sheet over the typewriter and went out in search of miniarguments. She also flung a dust-sheet over her first husband. Miss Edwards excellently takes it off. The second husband, John Marsh, was an advertising copywriter and a PR man. He read her epic carefully and, among many other things, took out the dashes.

Gone with the Wind was written in a peculiar manner. It is, of course, very long, but epics are supposed to be. (Beckett’s epics are short, but no one will confuse Miz Peggy with Beckett.) Many an epic written in the Mid-West has been carried in a steamer-trunk to be freighted to New York publishers: these publishers, in all true films about best-sellers, go about their daily tasks in dinner jackets and critics in tails lecture the authors about the dangers of success. Margaret Mitchell was pre-dinner-jacket and would anyway scarcely have reached up to a cummerbund or braces, but she was keen on etiquette and tutored people in Hollywood on the hurtfulness in the South of a maid being referred to as ‘a coloured lady’. The polite thing was to call her ‘a coloured maid’. Bessie, the Faithful Bessie of Margaret Mitchell’s household, was Ever-Faithful and didn’t mind at all about the Klu Klux Klan on account of Miz Peggy being so busy. As to the peculiar method of working on the hated epic, Miss Mitchell wrote the last part first and put it into a manila envelope. Any other part that struck her fancy was also written out of sequence, with a note about a bridge passage being necessary and put into another manila envelope. These envelopes were scattered all over the place: among her hats, in drawers, under the bed, possibly in the fridge. After many, many years there came about the feeling that Gone with the Wind had been accomplished, apart from the bridge passages. Her friends in Atlanta were bound to secrecy. A number of them had babies during the writing process, though not she. Baby-having was, in her eyes, much like the act of a car dropping onto the innocent roof of your own, and she resented it.

This dinkie Confederate general grew in militancy as the scattered manila envelopes developed in number. Macmillan, her prospective publishers in New York, exhibited infinite patience as bits and pieces of the manuscript arrived. Long before the manila collection seemed to be complete, they had given her a considerable advance and kept on putting it up of their own volition. Miz Peggy fainted when the proofs came. Best-seller lists were hit. The book won a Pulitzer prize. Sixteen million copies were sold. The book went into every possible language. She made a mint. She covered the walls of the little Mitchell house in peach-and-green striped wallpaper with a couch to match. One doesn’t know where her husband or Faithful Bessie sat. Her husband stayed up night after night dealing with foreign rights. He went down to 138 pounds, which is little for an average-sized American, even during the Depression. Why didn’t the Mitchells use an agent for the foreign rights? The telephone went from autograph-hunters every three minutes; callers came all the time; Faithful Bessie grew tired, though she remained constant; Miz Peggy had the vapours with the tiresomeness of all this praise. But why didn’t they change their telephone number and make themselves ex-directory?

Anne Edwards’s book is good. It begins by being skippable when there are too many adjectives and adverbs, but the author of The Hesitant Heart is beautifully hesitant to make judgments about her heroine until near the end of the book. It is only then that she starts to say that Miz Peggy became acquisitive and rat-like. There have been wretched stories of her suspiciousness about friends from her days as an Atlantan newspaperwoman, who were trying to help her. Her behaviour to her husband seems to have been altogether abominable.

There are two cliff-hangers to the story. Will the manila envelopes ever be found and pieced together? Will Scarlett O’Hara, named ‘Pansy’ by Miz Peggy throughout her manuscript, ever be cast for the film? Bette Davis was thought of, to Bette Davis’s disgust. Norma Shearer was thought of. Eventually, eventually, Vivien Leigh was chosen by Selznick. She is said by Miss Edwards to have looked extraordinarily like Margaret Mitchell, though not the faintest bit can one discern from the photographs in the book. At the premiere of the film, held in Atlanta, at a branch of Loew’s chain decked out with the stately white columns that Selznick thought proper for the film, though they had nothing to do with the Tara described by Margaret Mitchell, Vivien Leigh apparently exclaimed, on hearing ‘Dixie’, that they were playing the theme-tune composed for the film. There was some trouble over the title of the book. It was to be called ‘The Road to Tara’. One of Mrs Mitchell Marsh’s invaluable editors found ‘Gone with the Wind’ buried somewhere in the manila-manacled typescript. It must have been one of the most obstreperous typescripts any publisher has ever had to deal with.

And why was Gone with the Wind such a huge success? Miss Edwards suggests that there may be an analogy, in these Depression years, with the hysterical response to Lindbergh. Or has it to do with bringing together a very recently split continent through the sort of romantic saga that is always called feminine, though men readers and critics much respond to it? Or has it to do with its sheer length: when people are starving, does amplitude help, as five-hour dance-drama films aid thin villagers staving off hunger with betel nuts in India? Or is it a help to have a woman writing about men desperately at war? Or is it a help in America that the people of a hundred and thirty years ago embody the characters and ethics of the people of a romanticised Thirties? The questions are interesting and one likes Anne Edwards’s book for provoking them, though one still retains disquiet about the stated likeness of Vivien Leigh to a woman in orthopaedic shoes behaving horribly to loyal local friends. Miz Peggy’s over-worked second husband, who must often have wanted to have put a dust-sheet over his tired head, as his wife had put it over her first husband’s existence and her typewriter, is dismissed by his wife as not being a true Southerner because he didn’t come from Atlanta. He came only from Kentucky.

It is often said that wars leave a ‘wake of devastation’ behind them. Gone with the Wind did even before it got started. Miz Peggy was clearly quite wearing. A lot of trouble was taken about her first wedding. Friends and relations were imported from all over. Miz Peggy insisted, probably with some sense of the reality that usually escaped her, that she wanted to carry a bouquet of red roses. It took an army to shove white ones into her hands. And then there was this accident-proneness. Only Miz Peggy could have been concussed by a bottle of whisky waved in the hands of a man pouring himself a drink, a man a good foot taller than her. She seems to have had a dubious sense of humour. One of her jokes was to imitate the pregnancy of her friend Augusta at parties, by wrapping a shawl around herself and rolling a beach ball up and down under it. Her parents and their friends had done their best. The brat had early been taken out in a buggy and told that she was to go to school tomorrow instead of playing hookey and to conquer arithmethic.

This notion of conquering may have done the harm. She seems to have had no notion that Southerners thought of themselves, and still do, as a conquered people, which may well account for their freedom from the Mafia intelligentsia of much of the Eastern and Western cultures of the North. The South remains gentle and mannerly; for all its Klu Klux Klan, blacks are happier in the South and find Manhattan noisy and vicious. Margaret Mitchell heard in her childhood, through her other friends and relations, everything about the Civil War except that the South had lost it. Perhaps that explains a little of the apparent idiocy of the hidden manila envelopes. The ante-bellum chapters were eventually found at the top of the saucepan cupboard. It was as if she were hiding something crucial from herself. But oh, that wake of devastation. Although she had been an adolescent fan-letter writer – to Vincent Benét and to F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was later to be one of the many writers hired and sacked on the script of the film – the admired ones’ sage abstention from answering taught her nothing. When Gone with the Wind was published, fan letters arrived in sacks which, troubling her not one whit, strained the postman’s back. Miz Peggy answered every one of them at a length that apparently reached in total the wordage of the phenomenal novel. This could only have been her decision, but she wore everyone out with it. Instead of getting on with any next piece of work, she complained without cease and eventually fled for privacy to, of all places, a writers’colony.