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.