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Rhett Butler's People - Donald McCaig

Feature by Lizzie Guilfoyle

THIS week sees the launch, both here and in the States, of the much anticipated sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s epic tale Gone with the Wind – Donald McCaig’s Rhett Butler’s People.

It isn’t, of course, the first sequel to be written. In 1991, Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett was published and went on to become one of the fastest selling novels of the last century. It even spawned a TV film with Joanne Whalley-Kilmer and Timothy Dalton as Scarlett and Rhett.

So why another sequel? Although Scarlett was a commercial success, it fared less well with critics, a small matter that didn’t go down well with the Mitchell estate.

Nevertheless, in 1995, St Martin’s Press paid £2.25 million for the right to publish a second sequel and, in due course, best-selling British author Emma Tennant, who had previously written a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, was commissioned for the work.

However there were stipulations – the true tone, vision and character of the original had to be retained; while acts or references to incest, miscegenation (sex between people of different races) or sex between two people of the same sex, were banned.

Sadly for Tennant, her novel Tara was turned down and she was barred from ever publishing it. Next came Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides who, having tried unsuccesfully to persuade the estate to give him the freedom to write his own story, simply gave up, thereby paving the way for present incumbent, Donald McCaig, a man who had never even read the original or indeed, seen the film.

Surprisingly perhaps, McCaig insists that no restrictions were placed on his work, “Nobody said ‘You can’t do this or that.’ The story was my idea.”

So what can we expect? According to reports, Rhett Butler’s People is a re-telling of Gone with the Wind but from Rhett’s perspective and continues almost two decades beyond the original. As McCaig explained:

“I thought I saw places in the original where stories were hiding. In the original book, Rhett is very mysterious: you know nothing about his background. He’s very wealthy and you don’t know how he’s made his money. I thought I could do a companion book filling in the gaps in Rhett’s life and loves, which the reader could enjoy without having read Gone with the Wind.”

Whatever the result, one thing is certain – for six years McCaig’s life was taken over by Scarlett and Rhett. As he further explained:

“It was the most tremendously difficult book I’ve ever done. I had three chronologies to keep straight: what happens in Gone with the Wind month by month; what happened in history each month; and finally what happens in my book each month.” And he added, “I must have written 30 or 40 drafts.”

Without a doubt a marathon undertaking but just how successful will Rhett Butler’s People be? The answer, of course, is far less certain for time alone will tell.