Art House: Mansion that inspired Scarlett O’Hara-Rhett Butler’s first meeting place in Gone With The Wind auctioned
The message, from a friend in the UK, woke me in the middle of the night about a couple of weeks ago. “Twelve Oaks to be auctioned in July” it read, with a link to an article dated June end. I was instantly wide awake, transported back to a summer 17 years ago, when as a teenager of 16, I was first introduced to Twelve Oaks – that address from an era captured so poignantly by Margaret Mitchell in Gone With The Wind.
Mitchell’s classic tale of romance, set against the backdrop of the American Civil War (1861-65), begins at Tara – the home of protagonist Scarlett O’Hara, and ends with the promise of return there. But for most fans of the novel, the other residence that will remain forever etched in memory is Twelve Oaks – the house where Ashley Wilkes (Scarlett’s neighbour and first love) lived. It is here that a young Scarlett, her heart set on Ashley, had dreamt of arriving as a bride; the house she finds burnt and ravaged, as much of the ‘Old South’ America, after the Civil War.
It is said that Mitchell came across a photo of the actual antebellum mansion in Covington, GA, near Atlanta, in the Atlanta Journal and told the producers of the film adaptation that she liked it for the home of Ashley. The Twelve Oaks of the film was modelled on this.
According to the website of Target Auction, the company which handled the auction of the property, the original mansion was built in 1836 and is spread over 10,000 sq ft. It “served for six years as a bed and breakfast”, according to an article in the Mail Online in June, “before current owners Nicole and John Munn gave it a $2 million facelift in 2017 and shut it down for use as a private residence in November”. The article also mentions that Nicole named the property Twelve Oaks in honour of its association with the fictitious address of Gone With The Wind.
The first mention of the Wilkes residence in Gone With The Wind comes in a conversation between Scarlett and two of her beaus – twins Stuart and Brent Tarleton from a neighbouring plantation – as they animatedly discuss a barbecue there the next day. The warmth goes out of the conversation, however, when the boys casually mention that Ashley’s engagement to his Atlanta cousin, Melanie Hamilton, was to be announced at the ball following the barbecue, pushing Scarlett into despair and giving readers a glimpse of her feelings for Ashley. A broken-hearted Scarlett wanders off to await her father’s return from his visit to Twelve Oaks - the first time the name appears in the book - to get his confirmation of the news.
Many of the events in the beginning of the novel unfold at the barbecue at Twelve Oaks, setting the tone for things to come. It is here that Scarlett will confess her love to Ashley and lose him to Melanie. It’s here that she will take the spur-of-the-moment decision to marry Charles Hamilton – Melanie’s brother and Scarlett’s first husband, who dies in the beginning of the war. Here that news of the call for soldiers for the war will come. And it is here that we – and Scarlett – will meet Rhett Butler, the man of scandalous repute and wicked, scathing humour, for the first time, sparking a tumultuous relationship.
The barbecue at Twelve Oaks also gives us an early indication to Scarlett’s social position - popular with the men and disliked, distrusted and disapproved of by most women – a rift that will only grow wider with time, as Scarlett drops much of the conventional behaviour expected from Southern women of the period, till she incurs the displeasure of even the men.
For Ashley, Twelve Oaks will remain a symbol of a life before the war, when there was “real beauty to living”. “And now it is gone and I am out of place in this new life,” he says, after the war.
Online bidding for the antebellum mansion had opened on July 4 and a live auction was held at the property on July 25. We don’t know what the new owners of Twelve Oaks have planned for that mansion. But as Scarlett would say, “Tomorrow is another day”.