"As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!" I swear, trying to clench my fist and lift it up to a burning - I mean overcast - sky. I can't; I am too full.
An hour or so earlier we drove into Atlanta and the first thing I noticed was a Peachtree Street sign. I was immediately filled with a deep rapture.
"Look, Steve, look! This is where Aunt Pittypat's house was!" I pointed, hopping up and down in my seat.
"God's nightgown, Steve!" I exclaimed, scandalised. "Aunt Pittypat from Gone with the Wind, of course! The plump one who always pretended to faint; Charles and Melanie Hamilton's aunt? Where Scarlett O'Hara went to live just before the civil war?"
"Oh … right," said Steve.
It turned out he had never read the magnificent, glorious Gone with the Wind. Not once. He hadn't even seen the film - which won eight of the 13 Oscars it was nominated for, at the 12th Academy Awards - apart from giving it a cursory glance on television when he was a teenager.
I, on the other hand, am on intimate terms with every line, every character major and minor in the book, having read it probably 25 times in the past 30 years. Driving along Peachtree Street, where so much of the action in the epic book that gave birth to the most profitable motion picture in American history (adjusting for inflation) takes place, sent me into a fictional, or rather, fiction-related, frenzy.
Now I wanted to change our road-trip plans and spend the rest of my time in the United States - or my life - in the southern state of Georgia, following in Scarlett's footsteps. Go to Tara, Twelve Oaks, Jonesboro, Decatur Road, Charleston and Savannah. I wanted to see the place where Rhett Butler, having suddenly decided to join the Confederate army after years spent scoffing at the heroes in grey, left Scarlett in the middle of the night, with Atlanta in flames behind them and Yankee soldiers everywhere. I wanted to stand on the red earth of Georgia and know in my heart that land - it's "the only thing in the world worth workin' for, worth fightin' for, worth dyin' for, because it's the only thing that lasts" - and I wanted to stand on the staircase where Scarlett so unhesitatingly shot a prowling Yankee right between the eyes. And then I wanted to …
"Let's have lunch first," Steve suggested.
MARY MAC'S TEA ROOM, in the heart of Atlanta, is a splendid piece of Americana, looking like a Norman Rockwell painting full of photos of the celebrities who have eaten here and apparently made it out alive. Now I will have my first proper Southern hospitality meal as described in Gone with the Wind: grits, hogs on spits, yams dripping with butter, biscuits and gravy, hominy, okra, fried chicken with coleslaw and corn on the cob.
Being semi weight-conscious, I order something that looks like a lighter meal - chicken and vegetables - only to have it come at me like General Stonewall Jackson himself, and punch me in the guts. The chicken, the carrots, the peas, the broccoli; all come in a batter so heavy it is impossible to see what lurks beneath. Is it broccoli? Or a spoon? I can't finish a third of it, but there are plenty of people in the restaurant who look as though they have lived off five or six such meals a day for decades, polishing off every last morsel.
I wonder how on earth those Southern ladies, especially those in the upper echelons, for whom every meal was a banquet, could have maintained, like Scarlett, a 17-inch waist (the smallest in three counties). Of course, they all had their mammies or other Negro (slave) maids to tighten their corsets for them while they clung to their four-poster beds, but still …
Another question that soon raises itself is how in the world did those ladies, at least while they were still "belles", with no household responsibilities, keep themselves regular on this fibre-less, over-starchy diet. Scarlett was a bit of a tomboy who enjoyed riding and climbing trees, but girls like her whingeing sister, Suellen, who "had hardly walked more than a hundred yards at a time in her life", must have found bowel movements tough going, as it were.
I have put on 3kg in a single meal and will probably have to take laxatives for the rest of the year. But - fiddle-dee-dee! Like Scarlett often said, "I'll think about it tomorrow."
She also said "Great balls of fire!" a lot. And that's exactly what I think when I discover that it's been 80 years since Margaret Mitchell published her masterpiece. To me, it's still as fresh as when I first read it in, let's say, 1971. My reading habits and tastes have naturally evolved since those tender years and, as I change, I appreciate different parts of the book.
As a young girl, I read it for the glory and romance, the barbecues and gowns, the swashbuckling glamour of Rhett and the irresistible drive and selfishness of Scarlett, secretly hoping that if I read the book again, they would, this time, reunite in the end. I mostly skipped the boring pages, describing the beauty of Georgia, the intellectual Ashley's bitter musings about the lost "Cause" and most of the descriptions of the civil war and its aftermath. In those days, the book would have been perfect for me had it ended after Rhett outrageously paid US$200 for "Mrs Charles Hamilton" (Scarlett) to dance with him at a fundraiser for the Cause, with her swathed in mourning black for her husband "not one year in the grave".
As an adult, I could appreciate the war of love between two proud and stubborn people, the terrible finality of death and the words "too late". I realised with what superhuman patience Rhett had loved Scarlett and marvelled at how the author could make a book's heroine so totally unlikable and still have the reader rooting for her, despite there being no moral comeuppance or redemption awaiting the protagonist at the end.
Then, in recent years, after having visited the US and reading up on its fascinating history, I have become more and more interested in Gone with the Wind as a historical document about the civil war (1861-65), in which more Americans lost their lives than in all subsequent wars put together.
"LET'S GO TO MARGARET Mitchell's house-slash-museum!" Steve says, back in the car.
"Why, you scallywag, you varmint! You carpetbagger Yankee cracker GENIUS!" I say, fondly. Steve always plans the best road trips.
The house, built in solid and respectable brick and set in a small garden on - where else - Peachtree Street, looks stately and sedate; the very picture of respectability. But Mitchell called it "The Dump".
Once we've paid a rather extortionate US$25 to get in, we see that the house, now a museum of sorts, has been divided into six small units. Although spacious by Hong Kong standards, the one-bedroom flat she and her husband lived in would have represented a depressing downgrade for Mitchell, born into a prominent upper-middle-class Atlanta family. Yes, the flat is small, dark and poky, with typical early 20th-century over-furnishing and thick curtains making it look smaller and darker. But there, on a small table under a stained-glass window is The Typewriter, the Remington on which Mitchell painstakingly hammered out Gone with the Wind over 10 years, endlessly fact-checking, rewriting and re-rewriting. Forget about fictional houses and characters, here is real literary history.
Mitchell's second husband, John Marsh, gave her the typewriter during one of her many illnesses. He had grown weary of carrying the huge stacks of books that kept her feverishly active mind occupied and suggested that she "write her own book" instead. The house was already bursting with handwritten notes to a historical novel; as with everything she wrote, Mitchell started with the last chapter and worked her way backwards.
"Of course I knew it would never sell but I didn't intend to sell it. I was just writing to keep from worrying about never walking again," Mitchell wrote to a friend, while recovering from an operation on her ankle. All the same, she showed the "unsellable" manuscript to a literary agent, and the book, published in 1936, went on to become the best-selling first novel by an unknown author in history.
With Gone with the Wind's depiction of a people humiliated and suppressed and its strong anti-authoritarian themes, the book was banned in Hitler's Germany, as was the film. After the war, people in the cities of liberated Europe wept openly at cinema premieres. Everybody could identify with depictions of people surviving against all odds and, although the film contains not a single battle scene, of a terrible war that haunts America to this day.
Mitchell, born in 1900, 36 years after the last battle of the civil war was fought, grew up with everything being about The War, The War, always The War. Raised as a tomboy while confusingly having to adhere to the many rules governing the behaviour of a Southern lady (like Scarlett, she barely managed a veneer of lady-ness), she wore trousers and climbed trees, calling herself Jimmy.
She would ride out with old Confederate soldiers, listening to their stories from the battlefield. So convincing were these old salts and her relatives in their wishful reconstructions of events that she was 10 years old before she realised the South had actually lost the war.
Mitchell got a job as a feature writer on The Atlanta Journal, where she covered all sorts of topics and interviewed legendary actor Rudolph Valentino, whose "… face was swarthy, so brown that his white teeth flashed in startling contrast to his skin". It's possible Valentino inspired the character Rhett Butler, about whose incredible swarthiness page after Gone with the Wind page is filled.
As we stand in Mitchell's tiny 1920s kitchen, with the stove, furniture and utensils reminding me of those of my own grandmother, I wonder if Scarlett, now indelibly etched in people's minds as bearing the face of Vivien Leigh, would have been the same exasperating, exhilarating girl if she had been called … Pansy? Because that was the name Mitchell had initially given her, changing it just before the book, initially titled Tote the Weary Load, went to print.
The author had also planned for the self-sacrificing and angelic Melanie Hamilton to be the heroine of the book. But Scarlett elbowed her way in and sucked all the oxygen out of every page she was on, becoming one of the most-loved - and exasperating - fictitious female characters of all time.
The book was an immediate success and it didn't take long before Hollywood came knocking on Mitchell's door, in the shape of producer David O. Selznick. Every actress - from pigtailed girls barely out of primary school to toothless crones - wanted to play Scarlett, and Selznick used the media circus to his advantage, to create buzz around the film.
It worked; to this day Gone with the Wind is the biggest box-office hit the world has ever seen; and that at a time when a ticket was a big expense for most people, and many had to travel for hours to even get to a cinema.
It seems impossible now to imagine anyone but Leigh as Scarlett. With her dimples and batting eyelashes, her coldly narrowing eyes and crashing eyebrows whenever anyone tried to cross her, she seemed born to be in the film of a book written solely for her. But the search for the perfect Scarlett went on for two years and the shooting had already begun when Leigh, a virtual unknown, was chosen over such luminaries as Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, Susan Hayward and Lana Turner.
The entire South had been in an uproar while the search went on, with everyone either wanting to play Scarlett or professing to know who should, but after Leigh was chosen, tempers simmered down surprisingly quickly. "Better an English girl than a Yankee," people reasoned.
In fact three of the four leads were played by English actors (Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland being the other two), with only Rhett played by a real American, Clark Gable - and he was the only one who couldn't do a Southern accent.
On the second floor of "The Dump", footage from the premiere of the film at Loew's Grand Theatre, in Atlanta, plays on an endless loop. Leigh and de Havilland (at 99, the only surviving member of the cast) are there; so young and glamorous. There is Gable, with his flashing white teeth, graciously saying the evening "is Margaret Mitchell's night" and he just a spectator. There were 2,000 guests at the party but it looks like the whole country, Yankees and all, were in the Georgian state capital that night.
After a protracted and ferocious battle, Atlanta had won the right to host the premiere over New York, to the great and righteous relief of the entire South. But had the Big Apple hosted the festivities, although teeth-gnashingly vexing for Southerners, at least the black actors would have been allowed to attend. As it was, Georgia's segregation laws spoke louder than even Gable, who had threatened to boycott the premiere if the black actors were kept out. In the end, Hattie McDaniel, who played and won an Oscar for the role of Mammy in the film, talked him out of it.
Also present at the premiere was a group of veterans, shown in the flickering black-and-white film reel dressed in Confederate uniforms, shrunken and doddering. Watching them is strangely poignant for me, because although I know I'm supposed to support the Union soldiers and not the Confederates, it's difficult to be steeped in Gone with the Wind lore and not secretly root for the South, hoping against hope that it will win this time.
According to Gone with the Wind, the following "reconstruction" was, if possible, even worse than the actual civil war. Southerners had everything taken away from them by Yankees swarming in to lord it over a defeated people, who took solace in memories of an idealised past of "magnolia and moonshine", a time when "darkies" knew their place but did the job as long as you treated them like young, not very intelligent children.
Nevertheless, in the book, it's mostly the black characters who are portrayed sympathetically, with the whites - with the exception of Melanie and Scarlett's mother, Ellen Robillard O'Hara (those two being so selfless that, if they were real people, you'd probably want to slap them hard) - shown as being stupid, scheming, egocentric and evil, or weak, gormless, whimpering cowards.
In the film, the casual racism, the portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as patriotic heroes, the fear of black men raping white women and the frequent use of the "N" word have been erased, but in the book they're all there, making Gone with the Wind an important historical document. That's one of many reasons why I think everyone whose relationship with this epic novel consists of nothing more than glancing at the film as it plays in the background at a family Christmas dinner should read the book.
In it, Scarlett has three children, for example, not just the one ("A cat's a better mother than you," Rhett remarks). The history is more historical, the drama more dramatic, Rhett is far swarthier with many more cutting remarks and swearwords. And maybe most importantly, on the page there's no overwhelming 1939-style soundtrack. This allows the book to stay firmly in the realm of huge, billowing drama instead of letting it frequently totter on the brink of melodrama, as the relentless motion picture violins bear down.
Read the book, and you'll discover that Rhett's parting remark is actually, "My dear, I don't give a damn". No "Frankly …" in sight.
Gone but not forgotten
When Margaret Mitchell was thrown from her horse as a teenager she broke her ankle, an injury that was to plague her for the rest of her life.
She and her second husband, John Marsh, were both frequently ill and/or depressed, and lovingly nursed one another through their various withdrawals from public life. Although a successful journalist, Mitchell claimed to be writing Gone with the Wind "for her own amusement", as admitting to having any kind of professional ambition wasn't comme il faut among women at the time.
But even in her dreams she could never have anticipated the instant and runaway success of her novel. Overwhelmed by the publicity, and ensuing letters and phone calls as well as fans turning up on her doorstep, she became a virtual recluse and never wrote another book.
Mitchell was struck down on her way to the cinema by a speeding car when she was 48 years old. A sedentary lifestyle had left her overweight and unable to leap out of the way.