This week’s Romance, Writing, & Relationships feature goes to none other than the controversial Southern romance novelist, Margaret Mitchell. In her entire lifetime, Mitchell only wrote one novel, and this single romance novel helped her make a name for herself for the rest of her life and beyond. Gone with the Wind is unarguably one of the most recognized books of all time. Whether or not you have read the book, chances are you at least know of its title either due to its popularity or its controversy.
Gone with the Wind is an American Civil War period piece that follows the romantic exploits of young Scarlett O’Hara as she navigates life during and past her once-wealthy family losing their plantation home. To keep herself afloat, Scarlett finds herself in various relationships, all while pining over the real love of her life, Ashley Wilkes. Scarlett marries three men (not including Wilkes) throughout the five-part book and is still not happy with her life in the end. Many consider her character to be spoiled, entitled, and ignorant. Yet, she is still the heroine of what is considered to be America’s greatest romance novel.
As popular as the book is for its romantic plot, it is just as popular for its controversy. It is clear that Gone with the Wind romanticizes and glorifies the American Confederacy during the Civil War. After all, the story is about a white woman crying about losing her plantation and running after men. In addition, the book is ignorant to the actual plight of enslaved people of the time, and the Black characters who do appear in the novel are depicted as “loyal workers” who “care for and about” the families that have enslaved them. One character’s name is actually Mammy, a racist stereotype used for black women in charge of white families’ children, and when given the choice to leave the O’Haras following the Emancipation Proclamation, she chooses not to because she is “faithful.” And despite the level of controversy around this novel, it is still one of the most popular novels in American literature.
Similar to Scarlett, Margaret Mitchell was a self-proclaimed flirt who enjoyed hopping from relationship to relationship in young adulthood. In her private letters to a college friend, Mitchell proclaimed she was once engaged to five men at once; although, “she neither lied to or misled any of them.” One of these men was more than likely Clifford West Henry, a man to whom she was engaged in college but died in France during WWI. She enjoyed erotica and loved to scandalize Atlanta high society. As outgoing and free-spirited as Mitchell was, she only married twice in her lifetime. And these marriages are interesting stories in themselves. Let’s take a look.
Berrien “Red” Kinnard Upshaw
When Mitchell was twenty-two, she claimed to have been dating two men at once. The men in question: friends and roommates, Berrien “Red” Kinnard Upshaw and John Robert Marsh. Upshaw was a part of the United States Naval Academy before resigning to make money bootlegging alcohol (after all, it was the time of prohibition in America). It is said the two met in 1917 at a family friend’s dance party and were married by 1922 (even though Mitchell claimed to be seeing John Marsh during this time, as well). Upshaw was younger than Mitchell and certainly didn’t have any money, so needless to say, Mitchell’s family greatly disapproved. Nonetheless, the couple wed in September with Marsh as their best man. (It is said that Upshaw was the inspiration for Scarlett’s Rhett Butler, who ends up becoming her third husband in Gone with the Wind.) However, the marriage was falling apart by December of that same year. During their three months of marriage, Mitchell had suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of Upshaw’s alcoholism and unhinged temper. Marsh loaned Upshaw the money so Mitchell could move forward with a divorce. By 1924, their whirlwind romance had come to an end.
John Robert Marsh
John Robert Marsh, who had been by Mitchell’s side both during her marriage and her divorce, swept in to save a bereft Margaret seven months after she divorced Upshaw. The pair were married in July 1925 and stayed married until Mitchell’s sudden death in 1949. During their almost twenty-five-year marriage, the couple settled in a home in Atlanta (which is now the Margaret Mitchel House and Museum) and encouraged one another throughout their careers. When Mitchell was on a work leave due to an injury, Marsh apparently said, “For God’s sake, Peggy, can’t you write a book instead of reading thousands of them?” He bought Mitchell a typewriter, and the rest is history. Mitchell would work on Gone with the Wind for three years, but it would take her another seven to get it published. All the while, Mitchell insisted that Marsh was the person who helped bring Gone with the Wind to fruition. He encouraged her to do something with her spare time, and in doing so, assisted in the creation of an American literary classic. The book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, and when a film was released in 1993, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Some even still state that it is one of the greatest movies of all time.
Marsh and Mitchell were walking to a movie when Mitchell was struck by a drunk driver in 1949. She passed in the following days, and Marsh passed not three years later. The two are buried side by side in Georgia. To many, it seemed like the couple’s love was everlasting, and some even think that Marsh inspired Scarlett’s unrequited love, Ashley Wilkes. But the reasons for why Scarlett never married Wilkes (like how Mitchell ended up with Marsh), we will never know. Margaret Mitchell is the quintessential example of a writer whose personal life plays a great role in her novel. Although from two completely different time periods, both Margaret and Scarlett’s stories are captivating, controversial, and one-of-a-kind. It would have been incredible to see the kind of literature Margaret Mitchell still had up her sleeve.
If you missed last week’s Romance, Writing, and Relationships post, click here to read about Jane Austen’s lesser-known romantic affairs.
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