How to be a Heroine opens with the author recounting a good-natured argument she has had with her best friend Emma about the merits of Jane Eyre versus Cathy Earnshaw. Samantha Ellis is all for the passionate, wild and free-spirited Cathy and rejects Jane, while Emma thinks that Cathy is a silly snob who betrays Heathcliff for Edgar and a conventional life, and makes all three of them deeply unhappy by so doing, while Jane Eyre courageously goes her own way and finally marries Mr Rochester on her own terms. Samantha Ellis has had a lifelong dedication to Cathy and has read Wuthering Heights every year since she was a child, and has always thought that Cathy was her ideal heroine – but now she re-reads the book with fresh eyes and wonders if she was right to want to emulate Cathy. Should she really have been trying to be more like Jane, whom she now realises is not a meek and mild woman but a courageous one? After all, Jane bravely turns down both the offer to live in financial security with Rochester without being married once the truth about Bertha is revealed, and the offer of marriage from St. John.
Who is braver – Cathy opting for the comfortable life with Edgar or Jane facing financial insecurity in rejecting both these offers? The life of a single woman without money was hard beyond belief at the time.
This argument starts Samantha Ellis on a journey – revisiting her favourite fictional heroines, looking at them afresh, starting with her childhood love of Katy Carr (of What Katy Did and the other books in the series by Susan Coolidge) whom she now rejects as being a drip rather than a carefree rebel! Some of her heroines have stood her new test remarkably well, like Lizzy in Pride and Prejudice (my own Desert Island choice of books, and one to which I’ve returned time and time again), while others definitely don’t stand her new scrutiny and are rejected. In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett is replaced as Samantha’s chosen heroine by Melanie. Sara Crewe of A Little Princess is knocked off her pedestal for Ms Ellis by her pleasure at Becky, with whom she’s shared the attic in so many difficult times, becoming her “delighted attendant” once Sara is restored to her earlier wealthy lifestyle. (I differ on this – if she’d been many girls who’d grown up wealthy and returned to a wealthy lifestyle, she would have left Becky behind in the attic.)
But that’s one of the joys of this book – it made me read A Little Princess again and think about it in a new light, although I still came to the same conclusion. Samantha Ellis has made me want to re-read several more of my old favourites – books I’ve not read for many years. In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Hardy created an extraordinary heroine – a woman of indomitable spirit and strength in facing the realities of her hard life. “Poverty and censure only make her stronger”… “She goes to her arrest like a goddess”, to quote Ms Ellis. It is not at all surprising that Hardy wept when he (spoiler alert) “killed off” Tess. Many of us weep whenever we read this.
The other great joy of How to be a Heroine is the author’s ability to make her readers want to join her through reading books they’ve not previously read. I’ve never, perhaps to my shame, read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, but now it’s rapidly headed to the top of my to-read list, along with Little House in the Big Woods, Cold Comfort Farm and South Riding. How have I never read any of these? I blame my old-fashioned English degree, in which anything past 1900 was considered too modern to be worthy of our attention. Samantha Ellis sums up her feelings for these novels and their heroines in such a clear, pithy style that she’s made me want to read more, to find out if I agree or disagree with her. I’m sure she won’t mind at all if her readers do disagree – I’m sure that what she wanted with this book was to get people reading her favourite books. After all, this quest for her started with a debate with her friend Emma about Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. The important thing is that we read books and think and talk about them.
Woven into her journey through her favourite books, Samantha Ellis gives us her life story; she’s the heroine of her own book in many ways. She’s a playwright and journalist, a Cambridge graduate who defied her family who wanted her to stay in London for her studies, and who has battled with epilepsy since being a young adult.
In short, if you love books I strongly recommend this as a stimulating and thought-provoking read. I defy you to read it without wanting to add more books to your to-read list!
Rating: 5 stars