How to Be a Heroine – Samantha Ellis

How to Be a Heroine begins with Ellis on the (West) Yorkshire moors on her way to Top Withins, the house that apparently inspired Wuthering Heights. Ellis and her best friend are arguing whether they’d be Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. Ellis says Cathy. (And I say, yes, of course, Cathy, she’s far more interesting.) But Ellis’ friend argues for Jane and it has an affect on her:

But when we reached Top Withens, the skies cleared. The clouds vanished and the sun shone, as if this was the backdrop for some moment of revelation. Which it was. I was wrong.

My whole life, I’d been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane.

It sets Ellis wondering whether she’s been wrong about the other heroines she admired throughout her formative years and that gives her a project: to work out what these heroines mean to her – as a girl and as a grown woman and playwright – and to see where she’s going, what her narrative arc might be.

She begins with princesses, Disney princesses and the European fairy stories from which they originate. But, as a young child, Ellis soon became aware there was a problem with her dream of being a princess and marrying a prince:

One evening, I confided my life plan, but she said, ‘You can’t marry a prince.’ Just like that. ‘There are no Jewish princes.’ I was crestfallen. It did not occur to me that I didn’t have to marry a Jew, or marry at all. I thought my dream was over. How would I ever become a princess now?

Skip to Ellis’ teenage years and her discovery of Andrea Dworkin’s radical feminism and she’s ‘…denounced all fairy tales as instruments of the patriarchy’, which sounds like a happy ending to me. Eventually she discovers Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and realises that fairy tales can be spun in feminist ways (and how wonderfully Carter does it too).

Each chapter of the book integrates Ellis’ own life with the fictional heroines she was reading at the time, and others she decides to consider alongside them now. She rereads books she loved at the time and finds them wanting – Little Women is:

…unbelievably preachy…[and]…I never realised before that in Little Women, each March sister is tamed, one by one, apart from Beth, who doesn’t need taming because she is a personality-free doormat. Which apparently is the ideal.

And discovers others which she misread completely, like A Room with a View:

…I never noticed how sympathetically he writes Charlotte…in a devastating passage Forster explains why she is how she is. Lucy is lying, claiming she doesn’t love George. And Forster writes ‘The night received her, as it had received Miss Bartlett thirty years before.’…Reading this now, maybe because I’m older and more sympathetic to maiden aunts, eternal chaperones and companions to the younger, friskier, more skittish heroines, I find it unbearably moving.

She also considers others she didn’t read at the time, either because they scared her– Jilly Cooper’s Riders – or because they didn’t exist – the Twilight series.

Each of the heroines is looked at through a feminist lens; do they stand up to scrutiny as modern women, making their own way in the world? Ellis also considers what she learnt from them and whether revisiting them is teaching her anything new. Each chapter focuses on one heroine in particular, whilst others are brought into the discussion where relevant.

There is so much to enjoy in this book: Ellis’ choices of heroines are brilliant; I’d read many of the novels discussed and it left me desperate to revisit them and to seek out those which I hadn’t already read. It’s also completely engaging, sometimes I found myself nodding along with Ellis’ revelations – Miss Bartlett’s brilliance and how utterly fantastic Lace is (although I am also forever scarred by the goldfish scene) – and at other points I was arguing with her about Jilly Cooper’s novels and Twilight and whether you should be using Cathy or Jane as an example of how to live your life. (#TeamCathy) But that’s part of what makes this book great: Ellis shows how she took what she needed from her heroines and how that’s changed whilst leaving space for the reader to consider the relationship they have with the same books.

I can’t recommend How to Be a Heroine highly enough. It comes with a caveat though: it’ll send your TBR pile out of control.

 

Thanks to Vintage Books for the review copy.

42 thoughts on “How to Be a Heroine – Samantha Ellis

  1. I loved this too – fortunately Samantha Ellis and I grew up on a lot of the same books, but she had me lining up re-reads and adding a few more books to my wishlist.

  2. I loved this too – fortunately Samantha Ellis and I grew up on a lot of the same books, but she had me lining up re-reads and adding a few more books to my wishlist.

  3. Completely agree, How to be a Heroine is an amazing book! I’ve never wanted to re-read so much in my life after reading it.

  4. Completely agree, How to be a Heroine is an amazing book! I’ve never wanted to re-read so much in my life after reading it.

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  7. Had this on the wishlist for what seems like donkeys! Heard many ‘just a few words’ reviews so great to have a much more comprehensive report… earmarked for next book-buying session 🙂

  8. Had this on the wishlist for what seems like donkeys! Heard many ‘just a few words’ reviews so great to have a much more comprehensive report… earmarked for next book-buying session 🙂

  9. I’ve spent most of my life behaving like a Jane, but am really a Cathy at heart (and that frightens me, hence the Jane control impulses).
    Sounds like a really interesting book, sure to start a debate.

  10. I’ve spent most of my life behaving like a Jane, but am really a Cathy at heart (and that frightens me, hence the Jane control impulses).
    Sounds like a really interesting book, sure to start a debate.

  11. I’ve wanted to read this for ages as it just sounds so good. I like to think I’m a Cathy but the inner Jane is strong with this one 🙂

  12. I’ve wanted to read this for ages as it just sounds so good. I like to think I’m a Cathy but the inner Jane is strong with this one 🙂

  13. I love the sound of this book, and have had it on my list for a while now. My library still does not have it, so I might have to pull out the pocketbook for this one. 🙂

  14. I love the sound of this book, and have had it on my list for a while now. My library still does not have it, so I might have to pull out the pocketbook for this one. 🙂

  15. Speaking of the Cathy/Jane divide: Anne Carson’s AMAZING long poem The Glass Essay is about Emily Bronte (amongst other things), but it strikes me that Carson is also using that poem to contribute to the Cathy/Jane debate. She seems to come down on the Cathy side: that you should love and feel, even if it involves suffering–but she makes it clear just how much pain that can involve. It might be interesting to read alongside Ellis’s book, to see whether either text illuminates the other. They’re certainly both very interested not only in how women *should* live, but how women *can* live.

  16. Speaking of the Cathy/Jane divide: Anne Carson’s AMAZING long poem The Glass Essay is about Emily Bronte (amongst other things), but it strikes me that Carson is also using that poem to contribute to the Cathy/Jane debate. She seems to come down on the Cathy side: that you should love and feel, even if it involves suffering–but she makes it clear just how much pain that can involve. It might be interesting to read alongside Ellis’s book, to see whether either text illuminates the other. They’re certainly both very interested not only in how women *should* live, but how women *can* live.

  17. Even though I found myself often feeling that I had a very different reading experience with the books she discussed, I could easily relate to the passion that she had for these stories. That’s my favourite thing about truly bookish books, they are as much about the individual readers as they are about the books, but the love of the books knits together our individual reading experiences brilliantly. Enjoyed reading your thoughts about this one. It’s a book that I borrowed but I realize now that I should have a copy on my shelves!

    • Yes, I completely agree: I had a different experience with some of the books too but I loved her passion for them and I wanted to be in the same room as Ellis so I could discuss them further with her.

  18. Even though I found myself often feeling that I had a very different reading experience with the books she discussed, I could easily relate to the passion that she had for these stories. That’s my favourite thing about truly bookish books, they are as much about the individual readers as they are about the books, but the love of the books knits together our individual reading experiences brilliantly. Enjoyed reading your thoughts about this one. It’s a book that I borrowed but I realize now that I should have a copy on my shelves!

    • Yes, I completely agree: I had a different experience with some of the books too but I loved her passion for them and I wanted to be in the same room as Ellis so I could discuss them further with her.

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