How To Be A Heroine: Or What I've Learned From Reading Too Much
By Samantha Ellis
Vintage February 2015
From the library
Samantha Ellis has been a reader for as long as she can remember. As she discusses literary heroines with a friend one day, she suddenly realizes that she has spent years trying to emulate Cathy Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights. But maybe she should have been trying to be like Jane Eyre instead. Ellis decides to go back and re-read all of the books she loved as a girl and discover which heroines she still loves and which ones have changed with time and years of perspective on life, love, and literature.
Our author is perhaps particularly suited to write about literary heroines, as she herself is a playwright. Each chapter features a few books that correlate to a certain period in Ellis' life - finding friends, falling in love, or starting a new job. She found fellow kindred spirits in imaginative Anne of Green Gables and fellow writer Jo March. When Ellis suffers from seizures, she looks to the suffering of Sylvia Plath and her character Esther in The Bell Jar. She has great insight into these stories and characters and the ways in which they shaped her childhood and continue to inspire her as an adult. Some of the most fascinating chapters are the ones where she sees a story one way in her youth and in a completely different way as an adult.
It would be easy for this book to become trite, an exercise in retelling beloved stories or navel-gazing as Ellis tells her own stories. But we are treated to both engaging analysis of characters and themes and really fascinating autobiographical writing. Although many of the women she is engaging with are written decades or even centuries before her life, Ellis is part of an Iraqi Jewish family that is living in London but holding on tightly to their traditions. From an early age, she was told that her focus should be on finding an appropriate husband, not writing and certainly not going to college. The history and heritage of this particular family gives her insight into characters yearning for freedom over their own lives.
I worried at the outset that I would be confused, as I haven't read all of the books that Ellis references. Somehow though, she hits the perfect balance of giving enough information to bring new characters to life while not boring you when discussing characters you know and love. This is the book you want to read and then discuss with all of your friends as you talk about the women, both real and literary, that shaped you.