Trying to think of our most romantic reads has been a cause of some concern in the office over the last few weeks – there are just too many to choose from! In the third instalment of this brand new feature, Publicist Madeleine Feeny tells us how she fell in love with epic classic Gone With the Wind . . .
I agonised at length over this; there were so many contenders jostling for my attention. I pitted classics like Jane Eyre against offbeat coming-of-age novels like I Capture the Castle and gothic romance thrillers like Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting, whose rakish hero Raoul may be the first man I properly fell in love with. I found myself struggling to pin down the idea of ‘romantic’– should a romantic book have a happy ending or a tragic? And if love features heavily as a theme throughout a book, does an ambiguous ending undercut the romance that has gone before?
In the end I plumped for Gone with the Wind, because I finished it under my covers with a torch at 2am on a school night – with anguished sobbing that failed to abate for at least ten minutes. The copy I read was an ancient hardback from my grandparents’ bookshelves, which I carted about with me devotedly for several back-breaking days. I thought the ending was simply the most tragic thing I had ever read. In its historical scope and setting, it really is the ultimate epic novel, carrying you on a journey into an extraordinarily dramatic period in America’s past.
Scarlett O’Hara is a genius heroine, because she is unlikeable in many ways with her arrogance and her obnoxiously tiny waist, and so flawed in the way she relates to the world and her dealings with others – yet you are completely drawn into her story. As she is thrown into desperate circumstances by the unfolding events of the American Civil War, we witness the spoiled Southern Belle become the toughest of survivors. Scheming, sacrificing her dignity and working flat out to keep herself and her extended family alive in a brutal war, her behaviour is consistently unladylike (which is applauded as heartily by us readers as it is lamented by the novel’s characters.)
Scarlett’s resourceful negotiation of the Civil War’s hardships is not matched by success in her romantic life. Deluded and constantly pining over a man she cannot have, her love-life is both ambiguous and unsatisfactory – and she fails to understand the most genuine love she ever receives until it is too late. The tragedy at the core of Gone with the Wind is that of Scarlett and Rhett’s doomed, tortured relationship, beset by pride, hubris, guilt and blame. It is this, combined with the sheer epic scale of the story that reduced me a howling heap in my teens, and for which reason I crown it my most romantic read ever.