Literary Etiquette: Scarlett


You can see how many times I have read my copy, that I probably bought for 50 cents at Goodwill. Also, I went through two packages of post-it flags marking all the etiquette bits!

You might argue that Gone With The Wind is a very problematic book, and you would be right, but the character of Scarlett O’Hara has captured a lot of people’s imaginations, including Alexandra Ripley who wrote the completely unauthorized sequel, Scarlett, in 1991.

A short synopsis- we start out immediately after the ending of Gone With the Wind- Melanie is dead (spoilers for a 90 year old book!), Rhett frankly doesn’t give a damn about Scarlett and has left her. As Gone With the Wind was all about Scarlett’s scheming to win Ashley, Scarlett is all about her scheming to win Rhett back. In doing so, she estranges herself from everyone in Atlanta by not following the proper etiquette. She follows Rhett to Charleston, where, for the first time in her life she tries to settle down to be a “great lady” like her mother. After a quick side trip to Savannah, she gives up on Rhett and goes to Ireland to visit her peasant cousins and discovers that not everyone has to follow the stiff etiquette of Victorian America and that maybe she is happier and stronger being who she is. As a pretty fancy lady, Scarlett eventually gets bored of hanging out in the backwaters and descends on the high society of the Anglo-Irish gentry and manages to very nearly become a countess. Rhett rescues her in the end from some revolting tenants and they realize that neither of them want to follow any rules and they go off to be adventurers together.  It’s very fun, and Alexandra Ripley seems quite familiar with Charleston and it’s customs (which makes sense as she was from there) and does great portraits of Savannah and Ireland of the 1870s/1880s as well (btw, don’t see the movie, it’s horrible.) What is also great about Scarlett is that Ripley throws a whole TON of etiquette rules and situations in and the fact that I’ve read it…oh a dozen times, probably has contributed greatly to a lot of my etiquette knowledge.

The book is really poorly written, I will grant everyone that. I hadn’t really noticed before I was reading it with a close eye to the details, but it is trashy and delightful. However, I was reading it specifically for the etiquette bits and as I was doing so, I realized that you can map Scarlett’s character development almost entirely by how the book talks about etiquette and how she relates to it over the passage of the novel.

In the first half of the book, Scarlett does a grand tour of the high society of Atlanta, Charleston, and Savannah and comments frequently about all the etiquette rules she has to follow to be accepted as a “lady”:

  • “Oh if only a lady didn’t have to have a companion ever single time she put her foot outside her own house.”
  • “It was more than six months ago now that Bonnie had died. Scarlett could leave off the unrelieved dull black of deep mourning. She could accept social invitations, invite people to her house. She could reenter the world.”
  • “Scarlett wished– not for the first time– that taking a drink was not a pleasure from which ladies were automatically excluded.”
  • “Society needs rules, Scarlett, to hold itself together. What you did broke all the rules. You made a scene in public. You laid hands on a man who wasn’t your husband. In public. You raised a ruckus that interrupted a burial, a ceremony that everybody knows the rules to. You broke up the last rites of a saint.”
  • “A lady’s name could be in the news three times only: at her birth, her marriage, and her death. And there must never be any details.”
  • “Scarlett paused, ready to smile and say hello. The two Elsing ladies stopped dead when they saw her, then, without a word or a second look, turned and walked away…She sent Elias inside with the clerks’ pay envelopes. If she got out, she might see someone else she knew, someone who would cut her dead. It was unbearable even to think of it.”
  • “Now that she was done with deep mourning, it was time to let her friends know that she could be invited to their parties, and the best way to do it was to invite them to a party of her own.”
  • “‘Ordinary mourning’ wasn’t awful like deep mourning, there was plenty of leeway in it if you had magnolia-white skin to show in a low-cut black gown.”
  • “…a man in mourning doesn’t have to give up going out the way a woman does. He can put an armband on his best suit and start courting his next love before his wife’s hardly cold in her grave.”
  • “Even in the spartan conditions of post-War life, society was a quicksand of unstated rules of behavior, a Byzantine labyrinth of overelaborate refinements lying in wait to trap the unwary and uninitiated.”
  • “‘You needn’t call on all these people who left cards, dear,’ she said, ‘It’s enough to leave you own cards with the corner turned down. That acknowledges the call made on you and your willingness to be acquainted and says that you aren’t actually coming in the house to see the person.'”
  • “In fact, most of the cards were ‘old and knocked around.’ No one could afford new ones– almost no one. And those who couldn’t wouldn’t embarrass those who couldn’t by having new ones made. It was accepted custom now to leave all cards received on a tray in the entrance hall for discreet retrieval by their owners.”
  • “…she was out and about by ten o’clock…carrying her card case and her personal supply of sugar, an expected accompaniment in rationing times.”
  • “Scarlett turned automatically toward whatever voice was speaking, an interested expression on her face. When she heard laughter, she laughed. But she thought about other things…She looked at the clock behind Sally’s head. She couldn’t leave for at least eight more minutes. And Sally had seen her looking. She’d have to pay attention. The eight minutes seemed like eight more hours.”
  • “Scarlett’s first ball in Charleston was full of surprises. Almost nothing was the way she expected it to be. First she was told that she’d have to wear her boots, not her dancing slippers. They were going to walk to the ball…”
  • “Charleston had developed formalities and rituals in the long years of its history that were unknown in the vigorous semi-frontier world of North Georgia. When the fall of the Confederacy cut off the lavish wealth that had allowed the formality to develop, the rituals survived, the only thing that remained of the past, cherished and unchangeable for that reason.”
  • “There was a receiving line inside the door of the ballroom at the top of the Wentworth house. Everyone had to line up on the stairs, waiting to enter the room one by one and then shake hands and murmur something to Minnie Wentworth, then to her husband, their son, their son’s wife, their daughter’s husband, their married daughter, their unmarried daughter…In Georgia, [Scarlett] thought impatiently, the people giving the party come forward to meet their guests.”
  • “Dance cards? They must be dance cards. Scarlett had heard Mammy talk about balls in Savannah when Ellen O’Hara was a girl, but she’d never quite believed that parties were so peaceful that a girl looked in a book to see who she was supposed to dance with. Why, the Tarleton twins and the Fontaine boys would have split their britches laughing if anyone told them they had to write their names on a tiny piece of paper with a little pencil so dinky that it would break in a real man’s fingers!”
  • “He bowed over the hand Julia Ashley held out to him; the back of his ungloved hand supported it respectfully, and his lips stopped the prescribed inch above it, for no gentleman would commit the impertinence of actually kissing the hand of a maiden lady, no matter how advanced her years.”
  • “Scarlett covered her mouth with her hand. She’d gone too far. She’d broken three of the unwritten, inviolate rules of the Southern code of behavior: she’d said the word “money,” she’d reminded her dependants of the charity she’d given, and she’d kicked a downed foe. Her eyes when she looked at her weeping aunts were stricken with shame.”
  • “Go ahead and have an affair with Middleton Courtney if you want to, but for God’s sake be discreet. What you’re doing is in appallingly poor taste…This is an old city with an old civilization. An essential part of being civilized is consideration for the sensibilities of others. You can do anything you like, provided you do it discreetly. The unpardonable sin is to force you peccadilloes down the throats of your friends. You must make it possible for others to pretend they don’t know what you’re doing.”
  • “Charlestonians had a particularly vicious and cunning game, developed after the War. They treated outsiders with so much graciousness and consideration that their politeness became a weapon.”
  • “P.P.C’ they hand-lettered in the lower left corner. ‘Pour prendre conge’ — to take leave.’ The custom had never been observed in Atlanta, but in the older cities of coastal Georgia and South Carolina, it was a required ritual. Scarlett thought it a great waste of time to inform people you were leaving. Especially when, only a handful of days earlier, he aunts had worn themselves out leaving cards at the same houses to inform the same people that they had arrived.”
  • “I can’t! Scarlett thought frantically. I can’t shake all those dead cold hands and smile and say I’m happy to be here. I’ve got to get away…’You are not permitted to feel ill,’ [Grandfather] said, ‘Stand straight, and do what is expected of you. You may leave after the ceremony of dedication, not before.'”
  • “She was eating on the street! No lady would do that, even if she was dying from starvation. Take that, Grandfather! she thought, delighted by her own wickedness.”

When Scarlett goes to Savannah, she discovers that she had many O’Hara cousins living there. They provide a huge contrast to the stuff society world that she has been rebelling against. They have loud, fun parties that go late into the night, where the men and women mix, and everyone is allowed to drink.

“Ellen Robillard also instilled in her daughter the rules and tenets of aristocracy. Now her instincts and and her training were at war. The O’Haras drew her like a lodestone. Their earthy vigor and lusty happiness spoke to the deepest and best part of her nature. But she wasn’t free to respond. Everything she’d been taught by the mother she revered forbade her that freedom. She was so torn by the dilemma, and she couldn’t understand what was making her so miserable.”

Scarlett finds out that she is pregnant by Rhett and is extremely happy because that means that they will be able to be happy together again. However:

“When Rhett came for her, she would have to go back to Charleston. Why not put it off for longer? She hated Charleston…

I don’t want to wear colorless dresses and say ‘yes ma’am’ to old biddies whose grandfather on their mother’s side was some famous Charlestonian hero or something. I don’t want to spend every single Sunday morning listening to my aunt’s picking at each other. I don’t want to have to think that the Saint Cecilia Ball is the be-all and end-all of life…

Why shouldn’t she visit the rest of her O’Hara kin? It was only two weeks and a day on a great sailing ship to that other Tara. And she’d be Irish and happy for a while yet before she settled down to Charleston’s rules.”

So she goes to Ireland and has a grand time hanging out with all the peasants she is related to. She finally gets to stop wearing corsets and loves the free and happy family relationship she discovers.

“I’m never going to be squeezed into a corset again, never. I’m Scarlett O’Hara, an Irish lass with a free-swinging skirt and a secret red petticoat. Free, Colum! I’m going to make a world for myself by my rules, not anybody else’s. Don’t worry about me. I’m going to learn to be happy.”

She does so well with her Irish family that they bestow a great honor on her:

“They’re calling you The O’Hara, head of the family O’Hara…

‘I don’t understand. What do I have to do?’

“You’ve already done it. You’re respected and admired, trusted and honored. The title’s awarded, not inherited. You have only to be what you are. You are The O’Hara.”

This is the first time in Scarlett’s life that she has been admired for being just who she is, not what someone else wants her to be:

“They were all wrong! The idea was so explosive that it woke Scarlett from a sound sleep. They were wrong! All of them– the people who cut me dead in Atlanta, Aunt Eulalie and Aunt Pauline, and just about everybody in Charleston. They wanted me to be just like them, and because I’m not, they disapproved of me, made me feel like there was something terribly wrong with me, made me think I was a bad person, that I deserved to be looked down on.

And there was nothing I did that was as terrible as all that. What they punished me for was that I wasn’t minding their rules. I worked harder than any field hand– at making money, and caring about money isn’t ladylike. Never mind that I was keeping Tara going and holding the aunts’ heads above water and supporting Ashley and his family and paying for almost every piece of food on the table at Aunt Pitty’s plus keeping the roof fixed and the coal bin filled.

They were wrong. Here in Ballyhara I worked as hard as I could, and I was admired for it. I kept Uncle Daniel from losing his farm, and they started calling me The O’Hara.

That’s why being The O’Hara makes me feel so strange and so happy all at the same time. It’s because The O’Hara is honored for all the things that I’ve been thinking were bad all these years.

I’m The O’Hara, and I’d never be called that if I was as bad as they make me out to be in Atlanta. I’m not bad at all. I’m not a saint , either, God knows. But I’m willing to be different, I’m willing to be who I am, not pretend to be what I am not.”

Of course, Scarlett O’Hara is not going to live out the rest of her life in a mud hut, so she buys the massive Big House on the historic land of the O’Hara’s, Ballyhara and decides to join Irish high society, on her terms. And we get a whole bunch more fun etiquette:

  • “It wouldn’t do for any informality to develop, she said firmly, and she explained the strict hierarchy of an Irish Big House. Her position as housekeeper would be undermined if the respect accorded to it was diminished by familiarity on anyone’s part, even the mistress’s. Perhaps especially the mistress’s.”
  • “To add to Scarlett’s confusion, Felicity and Marjorie were ladies. Not simply ‘ladies’ as opposed to ‘women.’ They were Lady Felicity and Lady Marjorie and their “dim papa” was an earl. Francis Sturbridge, their disapproving chaperone, was also a ‘Lady,’ they explained, but she was Lady Sturbridge, not Lady Francis, because she wasn’t born a ‘Lady’ and she’d married a man who was ‘only a baronet’.”
  • “She was wearing the most conservative riding clothes fashion allowed. Unrelieved black wool with a high neck…Scarlett was rebellious in only one matter: she would not wear a corset under her habit. The sidesaddle was torture enough.”
  • “Almost as bad was the news that ladies dressed for breakfast, changed for lunch, changed for afternoon, changed for dinner, never wore the same thing twice.”
  • “Besides, I know the important part. A duke is more important than a marquess, then comes an earl, and after that viscount, baron, and baronette.”
  • “When Charlotte could speak, she explained.  At the more sophisticated houses the ladies’ bedrooms were supplied with a plate of sandwiches that could be used to signal admirers. Set on the floor of the corridor outside a lady’s room, the sandwiches were an invitation for a man to come in.”

Scarlett does so well she is even presented to the Viceroy, the Queen’s ruler in Ireland:

“Madame, The O’Hara, of Ballyhara.’

Oh, Lord, that’s me. She repeated Charlotte Montegue’s coaching litany to herself. Walk forward, stop outside the door. A footman will lift the train you have looped over your left arm and arrange it behind you. The Gentleman User will open the doors. Wait for him to announce you.

‘Madame, The O’Hara, of Ballyhara.’

Scarlett looked at the Throne Room. Well, Pa, what do you think of your Katie Scarlett now? she thought. I’m going to stroll along that fifty miles or so of red carpet runner and kiss the Viceroy of Ireland, cousin of the Queen of England. She glanced at the majestically dressed Gentleman Usher, and her right eyelid quivered in what might almost have been a conspiratorial wink.

The O’Hara walked like an empress to face the Viceroy’s red-bearded  magnificence and present her cheek for the ceremonial kiss of welcome.

Turn to the Vicereine now and curtsey. Back straight. Not too low. Stand up. Now back, back, back, three steps, don’t worry the weight of the train will hold it away from your body. Now extend your left arm. Wait. Let the footman have plenty of time to arrange the train over your arm. Now turn. Walk out.”

Scarlett does so magnificently among the Irish aristocracy that she attracts the attention of the Earl of Fenton, her next door neighbor. He becomes very interested in her as a wife when he meets her daughter, Cat, who is a marvellous child (not knowing that having a c-section to give birth to Cat has made Scarlett unable to have any more children.) Scarlett is happy to go along with it and become a Countess regardless because the Earl is a terrible person. However there is a big battle between the English soldiers in Ireland and the Irish rebels and some other stuff. Then it turns out that the woman Rhett married while Scarlett was off in Ireland has died, and he loved her all this time, and they hide in a tower from an angry mob, and they finally realize how much they love each other but don’t want to have to live with society’s rules:

“You belong with me, Scarlett, haven’t you figured that out? And the world is where we belong, all of it. We’re not home-and-hearth people. We’re the adventurers, the buccaneers, the blockade runner. Without challenge, we’re only half alive. We can go anywhere, and as long as we’re together, it will belong to us. But, my pet, we’ll never belong to it. That’s for other people, not for us.”

And they go off into the sunrise to, presumably, live happily ever after.

So that was really long (it is a 900 page book, afterall), but is one of the finest examples of literary etiquette I know about. And I highly encourage you not to bother reading it unless you really like the genre.


2 thoughts on “Literary Etiquette: Scarlett

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