Archive for March, 2012

Ellen and Beatrice, Two Very Different kinds of Southern Lady

March 5, 2012

Like many young women, I fell in love with Gone With the Wind. I read it over the summer the year I graduated from high school. I enjoyed its rich imagery, its varied and colorful characters, and its mix of the humorous, the harrowing and the heartbreaking.
I reread GWTW this past summer, and something struck me that I hadn’t noticed the first time I read it. What I noticed was that there was a lot more wiggle room for Southern ladies back then, at least in the book, than most people think.
Yes, women of quality were expected to be ladylike and feminine. Ellen O’Hara, Scarlett’s beloved mother, embodies this image perfectly. Always calm, always gracious, always knowing the right thing to do, and always willing and able to help her neighbors, even the “poor white trash” Slatterys.
Ellen was everything Scarlett wasn’t, but Scarlett still admired her above all others, and only the redoubtable Mammy could eeven come close to wielding the kind of influence Ellen did over Missy Scarlett.
Ellen was admired, respected and loved by all.
Now take the Tarletons’ mother Beatrice. She was as much a “lady” as Ellen was, but you couldn’t find a woman more different than Ellen. Beatrice was loud, outspoken, hot-tempered, and “did all domestic things badly.” She spent as much time as she could riding her beloved horses, hunting and enjoying the outdoors. She was perfectly comfortable talking horse matters with the menfolk, and they loved and respected her. The other women might have raised eyebrows at some of Beatrice’s behavior, but they too held her in high regard.
Curiouser and curiouser.
And then there’s Melanie, the only woman besides Scarlett that Rhett Butler respected. You might have thought, on first glance, that Melly was everything that Rhett found irritating in most of the women he knew. She was quiet, unworldly, and naive. Also, she was married to Ashley, whom Rhett despised for his wishy-washy, helpless ways. Yet Rhett loved Melanie as if she were his own sister.
My theory is that he saw that Melanie, while naive and almost childlike, had an inner strength that not even Scarlett possessed. Scarlett might rage against the hardships and injustices of post-Civil War life, but Melanie didn’t waste her energy or emotions grieving for what was lost; Melanie forged ahead and made the best of things, and I think she was probably happier than Scarlett could be. Scarlett was all wants, and only after Melanie’s death did she realize that about herself: that she would always want something until she got it, and then she would lose interest in it. Melanie took her happiness from the here and now and was not one to take her good fortune for granted.
We could probably all take a few lessons from these fictional women: determination from Scarlett, dignity from Ellen, kindness from Melanie, and a lust for life from Beatrice. I salute you all.

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