How to be a Heroine – Samantha Ellis

how to be a heroineHow 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

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Thornfield Hall – Jane Stubbs

thornfieldIf you’re a fan of Jane Eyre, you’ll either love or loathe this book. It’s the story of Thornfield Hall viewed from the perspective of Mrs Fairfax, the discreet housekeeper who is mentioned in Jane Eyre, but who here takes centre stage. The familiar story of Mr Rochester and his “mad wife” are told from an entirely new direction, and this time it’s a completely different take on his first wife from that given either in Charlotte Bronte’s novel or from that in the more modern classic Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys.

Mrs Fairfax as portrayed by Jane Stubbs has a strong and credible voice – she’s a parson’s widow and a gentlewoman who has fallen upon hard times and has had to seek employment for the first time as a paid housekeeper to a distant relative – Mr Rochester senior. On the death of her “first Mr Rochester” (soon after the death of his own elder son Rowland), young Edward Rochester has to return from Jamaica to take up his responsibilities at Thornfield Hall – bringing with him “an unfortunate invalid who suffers from great weakness of mind” as he describes Bertha in a letter to Mrs Fairfax. (That’s not the description we’re accustomed to hearing of the wife locked in the attic rooms of the Hall!)

Mrs Fairfax’s words lead us through the familiar story but explain key events such as the fire in Mr Rochester’s room in an entirely different way. The novels shows us how “mad” Bertha Rochester lived for many years quietly in the seclusion of the isolated house on the moors, forming relationships with the servants who were her regular companions, taking care of her and of the house and grounds, frequently in the absence of their master. Jane Eyre herself is a relatively minor character in this version of the story, entering into it well into the second third of the novel. The main interest is in Mrs Fairfax herself and in the Hall, the destruction of which is now reinterpreted, so that poor Bertha is no longer seen as to blame for the devastating fire which sweeps through it. As for the famous “Reader, I married him…” ending of Jane Eyre, this novel stops short of showing us that moment or indeed Jane and Edward’s future, instead revealing a very different view of what might have happened after the fire.

Jane Stubbs’ clever book shook up my ideas of both the story line and the characters, and gave me a whole new but connected world of people and events. I loved it and would be fascinated to see Jane Stubbs’ or other writers’ takes on other well-known classics. Anyone want to have a go at the story of another famous fictional Fairfax – Jane Fairfax in Emma?

Rating: 4 stars

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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