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Gone With the Wind: The legend lives on as a musical of the novel hits the West End

When Margaret Mitchell wrote 'Gone With the Wind' to pass the time during an illness, she could never have foreseen its amazing popularity. As a musical of the novel hits the West End, Liz Thomson traces the life story of its reclusive author

It's more than 70 years since the Pulitzer Prize committee bestowed its laurels on Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, yet still the novel makes news. Another sequel, Rhett Butler's People, hit the bookshops last year. A play, Moonlight and Magnolias by Ron Hutchinson, depicting David O Selznick's struggles to bring Mitchell's 420,000-word epic to the screen, enjoyed a successful run at London's Tricycle Theatre. And now comes Gone With the Wind: The Musical, which opens in the West End in April under the auspices of Trevor Nunn. Nunn, apparently something of an American Civil War anorak, is well used to translating large books from page to stage – he did it with Nicholas Nickleby and Les Misérables – and has said he relishes "the challenge of telling Margaret Mitchell's epic story through words, music and the imaginative resources of the theatre."

From the outset, Gone With the Wind, Mitchell's only full-length novel, set records. Within a year of its first publication, on 30 June 1936, the author had earned more than $500,000 in royalties and another $50,000 for the film rights. Mitchell, a one-time reporter on The Atlanta Journal, had become a celebrity and didn't much like it. She undertook just one formal signing (only around 3,500 autographed copies are thought to exist), and gave just one interview. She liked to say that "in a weak moment, I have written a book" and, had it not been for a riding injury that forced her to quit work and convalesce at home, she might never have done so.

It was Selznick's celebrated screen version, released in December 1939, that made a legend out of a bestseller, and it's estimated that 90 per cent of Americans have seen the movie. It cost a then record-breaking $4.25m to make (Clark Gable, as Rhett, received $120,000, Vivien Leigh as Scarlett $30,000; the rest of the cast was a bargain at just $10,000), but its profits since, adjusted for inflation, make it the highest grossing film ever. The search for Scarlett took a year and Leigh's was in the end a chance casting – the role was still undecided when she turned up to watch the first night's shooting as Selznick torched the Culver City lot to recreate the burning of Atlanta. Mitchell herself had favoured Bette Davis for the role.

In Britain, it's likely that more of us have watched the movie than have read the novel, but Gone With the Wind remains the biggest-selling book of all time, after the Bible. If asked in a pub quiz who wrote it, most of us could answer correctly. But who exactly was Margaret Mitchell? A visit to the Margaret Mitchell House, an unprepossessing building in downtown Atlanta, tells her remarkable story – through letters, photos and the journalism on which she cut her writing teeth. Today, its four rooms are kept much as they would have been when Mitchell lived there, with an old Remington on a table by the window. Carved on the banister in the hallway outside the front door is a lion's head, which Mitchell rubbed for good luck every morning – as Scarlett does.

Mitchell was herself a debutante, born in Atlanta in 1900 to a lawyer of French-Huguenot descent and an Irish-Catholic mother. On childhood visits to her grandfather's plantation house near Jonesboro, south of the city, young Margaret first heard stories of the Civil War. Less than 40 years earlier, General Sherman's troops had gone "marching through Georgia", slashing and burning all in their wake: Atlanta was the cradle of the Confederacy and its eventual fall, in September 1864, is vividly described in Gone With the Wind.

It was from her mother that Mitchell acquired her rebellious spirit, for May Belle Mitchell was a member of the Georgia Women's Suffrage Association. May Belle was determined that her daughter would have a proper education: "The strength of women's hands isn't worth anything, but what they've got in their heads will carry them as far as they need to go," she said.

What, then, of Gone With the Wind, which, in the years following the Second World War and, particularly, the 1968 Civil Rights Act, was seen as glorifying the antebellum South and thus as inherently racist? While her characters speak of "darkies" and "stupid negroes", Mitchell herself held altogether more enlightened views. In 1941, following an approach from the president of Morehouse College, she began making anonymous donations to support young black medics. It appears that she provided at least 50 such scholarships. Had she lived – she died, aged 48, after being hit by a car – it seems reasonable to assume that she would have fallen in behind Martin Luther King's banner.

"There is absolutely no doubt that she would have supported the Civil Rights movement," insists the writer and critic Donald Spoto, whose "biography" of Gone With the Wind will be published for the 70th anniversary of the film's release in 2009. "Presumptions of racism are not well-founded. The novel does not glorify the old South... It hardly presents the owners as slaves as admirable." Spoto believes that Mitchell "was far more advanced than people give her credit for... She was a woman of great wit and courage and perseverance." Her book was, and remains, he says, "a great work that straddles the fence of entertainment and literature."

For further information go to www.gwtw.org; 'Gone With the Wind: the Musical' opens at the New London Theatre, London WC2 (0870 890 0141) on 4 April