Alexandra Ripley

Author of 'Scarlett', the best-selling sequel to Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone With the Wind'
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The Independent Online

Alexandra Braid, writer: born Charleston, South Carolina 8 January 1934; married 1958 Leonard Ripley (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1963), 1981 John Graham; died Richmond, Virginia 10 January 2004.

Ironically, the historical novelist Alexandra Ripley's greatest publishing success came with a book about a character she did not particularly care for. Nor was the character even her creation. In the late Eighties Ripley wrote Scarlett, the "official" sequel to Margaret Mitchell's melodrama Gone With the Wind. It was published in 1991 to a barrage of bad reviews but nevertheless became a worldwide best-seller.

Of Scarlett O'Hara Ripley said, at the time her sequel was published:

I really don't know why Scarlett has such appeal. When I began writing the sequel, I had a lot of trouble because Scarlett is not my kind of person. She's virtually illiterate, has no taste, never learns from her mistakes.

One constant in Ripley's other Southern romances - such as Charleston (1981), New Orleans Legacy (1987) and From Fields of Gold (1994) - is that her female protagonists do learn from their mistakes. Their common theme is that of a woman growing up and through life's vicissitudes finding her identity.

Ripley's own identity was forged in her childhood in South Carolina where memories of the American Civil War were still fresh and vivid. She was born Alexandra Braid in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1934, two years before Margaret Mitchell published Gone With the Wind.

As Ripley grew up, her imagination was fired by the stories of the Civil War she heard from elderly relatives. As she said later of "her people": "We're not home-and-hearth people. We're the adventurers, the buccaneers, the blockade runners. Without challenge, we're only half alive."

She first read Gone With the Wind when she was 12 and later claimed that she used to sell directions to Rhett Butler's grave to naïve tourists. (Charleston was Butler's home town.) Her father, an insurance salesman, wanted her to be a Southern belle. She was sent to Ashley Hall finishing school and then, on a scholarship, to Vassar college in New York State, where she studied Russian. After university, she tried several jobs, including working in the advertising department of a magazine in New York and for an airline in Washington, DC.

In 1958 she married Leonard Ripley, but they divorced in 1963. The Ripleys had been living in New York (and, for a time, Florence) but now Alexandra Ripley returned to Charleston. Again she tried a range of jobs, before eventually she went back to New York to read manuscripts for a publisher. She also wrote copy for catalogues and the "blurb" to go on the back cover of books. Inevitably she thought she could probably write a better book than the ones she was reading and hyping.

Ripley moved to Charlottesville, Virginia. The cost of living was much less than in New York and she later joked that Virginia had the added attraction of cheap cigarettes. (She once said: "If I had my way, I'd live on cigarettes, coffee, M&Ms and potato chips.")

Her first novel, Who's That Lady in the President's Bed? (about a female president), was published in 1972 under the pseudonym B.K. Ripley. She wrote several other books in different genres which attracted little attention. Indeed, it wasn't until 1981 that she broke through with Charleston, an epic novel that established her reputation as a writer of vivid historical romances.

Charleston was a sprawling romantic saga beginning in the middle of the American Civil War and ending in 1898. Its heroine, Elizabeth Tradd, experienced riches and poverty, love and brutality. It might have been written for those who yearned for another Gone With the Wind, although Tradd was no Scarlett O'Hara.

That same year Ripley married an academic, John Graham, and moved with him into an old Virginia farmhouse. Two years later, in 1984, Ripley produced On Leaving Charleston, a sequel to her 1981 best-seller. Presumably inspired by her time living in Florence, she then made an abrupt switch to Renaissance Florence for her next novel, The Time Returns (1985). Some critics carped at its historical inaccuracies.

New Orleans Legacy (1987) found her back on safer ground, although critics still complained. Publishers Weekly referred to "the sorely abused conventions of the historical romance genre". Not that Ripley needed to worry about critics. Already a best- selling writer, the previous year she had struck a lucrative deal with the Margaret Mitchell estate to write the sequel to Gone With the Wind. As preparation for the work ahead, she not only re-read the novel six times but also famously wrote out in longhand the first 300-odd pages to see if she could capture the essence of Margaret Mitchell.

It didn't work - at least in the eyes of the critics who reviewed Scarlett on its publication in 1991. "I haven't read the reviews," Ripley remarked at the time, "but I understand that they are pretty awful. I don't think they would have liked a sequel written by Margaret Mitchell herself."

The public didn't listen. The book topped the New York Times best- seller list and the renewed interest in Mitchell's novel put that on the same list 57 years after its first publication. CBS paid a then-record $8m for the rights to make a TV mini-series from the book, which starred the British actors Joanne Whalley-Kilmer and Timothy Dalton as Scarlett and Rhett.

Scarlett, whatever its literary qualities, was a hard act to follow. When Ripley did so in 1994 it was with another Southern romance, From Fields of Gold, about Virginia tobacco barons.

Her final novel, published in 1997, was a total break from the novels that had brought her most success. A Love Divine was an 800-page blockbuster about Joseph of Arimathea set in ancient Palestine, Gaul and Britain.

Peter Guttridge

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