How To Be A Heroine:
Or, what I’ve learned through reading too much
By Samantha Ellis
Rating: 5 Stars
‘Cathy Earnshaw or Jane Eyre? Petrova or Posy? Scarlett or Melanie? Lace or Valley of the Dolls? On a pilgrimage to Wuthering Heights, Samantha Ellis found herself arguing with her best friend about which heroine was best: Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. She was all for wild, passionate Cathy; but her friend found Cathy silly, a snob, while courageous Jane makes her own way. And that’s when Samantha realised that all her life she’d been trying to be Cathy when she should have been trying to be Jane. So she decided to look again at her heroines – the girls, women, books that had shaped her ideas of the world and how to live. Some of them stood up to the scrutiny (she will always love Lizzy Bennet); some of them most decidedly did not (turns out Katy Carr from What Katy Did isn’t a carefree rebel, she’s a drip). There were revelations (the real heroine of Gone with the Wind? It’s Melanie), joyous reunions (Anne of Green Gables), poignant memories (Sylvia Plath) and tearful goodbyes (Lucy Honeychurch). And then there was Jilly Cooper…How To Be A Heroine is Samantha’s funny, touching, inspiring exploration of the role of heroines, and our favourite books, in all our lives – and how they change over time, for better or worse, just as we do…’
I came out of reading this book with a much longer reading list and a profound urge to read more non-fiction.
Ellis guides the reader through a series of heroines – each chapter is titled by a seperate book and heroine but contains multiudes – whilst weaving the tale of her own upbringing and journey of literary discovery. I think that’s what really sets this book apart. It’s not just a series of feminist readings of popular texts or even simply a writer looking back on the books that she loved when she was younger, this book speaks about so much. Ellis touches on – amongst other things – the Jewish diaspora, the wars in Iraq, tradition, superstition, dealing with illness, growing up, boys, friends. feminism, expectations, defining your craft and – of course – writing. The lens that she views this through is compelling and kept me turning pages as if I was racing to get to the end of a cracking plot.
Another of the best things about this book is Ellis’ ability to look critically at things she loved, address the problems and, in many cases, continue to love them whilst being aware of those problems. She looks at things with her eyes wide open but she’s not afraid to care about things that have issues.
The only real issue I had with the book is that it addressed a lot of stories that I hadn’t read (for instance Lace, What Katy Did or The Bell Jar) so there were sections where I felt quite lost as I tried to work out the plot as well as Ellis’ opinions. I almost felt like it could have been helped by a section in the back telling you what each book was about. From the extensive bibliography I know this isn’t practical, nor could Ellis only include books everyone has read (do any of those actually exist?) but there seemed to be something missing to make these sections a little clearer and stop me looking up book synopsises on Wikipedia.
All in all Samantha Ellis’ exploration of a literary upbringing is clever, though-provoking and often laugh-out-loud funny. Ellis cheerfully romps across genres, forms, literary and popular fiction. It was my bus book for a couple of days and my laughter resulted in more than a few funny looks and one Bible pamphlet. An elderly gentleman with his grandson leant forward and said ‘why don’t you read this instead?’ whilst pressing a leaflet about Jesus into my hand as I got off the bus. Quite what that man thought I was reading I do not know, though if I remember rightly I was on the section about Jilly Cooper so I was laughing uproariously.
I’ll definitely be seeking out more of her work and would love to see a memoir from her in future as she sounds like she’s had an incredibly interesting life!