How to be a Heroine; subtitled or what I learned from reading too much (honestly! like there is any such thing) was chosen by my very small book group. A more perfect book for us I couldn’t possibly think of.
This much more than a book about books, it is a work of feminism, literary criticism and memoir – and it is a book about books. I loved every bit of it, meeting up with my own literary heroines, and encountering new ones or ones I had forgotten about.
The book started life as a conversation between the author Samantha Ellis and her best friend Emma. On a trip to the Yorkshire moors – Bronte country – they were arguing about whether they would rather be Cathy Earnshaw or Jane Eyre, Samantha had been trying to be Cathy for years, Emma was firmly on the side of Jane (as I have been since I was eleven). Suddenly Samantha Ellis must face the possibility that she has channelling the wrong heroine all along.
“But when we reached Top Withers, 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.”
From here we accompany Samantha Ellis on a fabulous journey through the books of her life (it’s a pretty spectacular list – and yes reader there are spoilers) – meeting up and re-examining the heroines who have meant different things to her at significant times in her life. The eleven essays which follow, explore a myriad of books, examining and re-examining the heroines. Some of those re-examinations stand the test of time, heroines like Lizzie Bennet, Mary Yellan and Esther Greenwood, Tess (whom Ellis calls an avenging angel – oh yes!!) – others are something of a disappointment. Katy Carr (What Katy did 1872) she now finds pious, a vapid goody-goody – not at all how she had thought of her originally.
“I thought Katy Carr the heroine of this 1872 book, was a carefree rebel. Her hair, like mine, ‘forever in a snarl’, always having adventures with her five younger siblings, and getting into trouble with her strict Aunt Izzie, who is helping their distracted widowed father bring them up. I remembered Katy falling off a swing and being horribly injured, but if you’d asked me where this came in the book I’d have said near the end. I blanked out the rest of the book – the bulk of the book – in which Katy comes to terms with being bedridden.”
Woven throughout this book of books are the stories which make up Samantha Ellis’s own life, her coming of age – the daughter of Iraqi-Jewish refugees, – the marriage plot was always one which resonated through her life. We see Samantha Ellis at Cambridge, meet the boyfriends and witness the break ups – and see her coming to terms with the seizures which began while she was in her second term at Cambridge. Ellis is very good company, intelligent, funny and engaging, the reader cheers her on – every bit as much we do our favourite literary heroines.
As a writer Ellis is furious with L.M Montgomery for stopping Anne Shirley from writing when she married – the exact same thing which happened to Jo March – I admit I had forgotten that – it shocked me too. How could women writers do that to their creative female characters?
“I started to realise that when bold, clever, creative girls like Anne and Jo became women, something happened. They became less themselves. This was a worry because I would soon be a woman myself.”
Love and marriage is a big theme – naturally enough in a book about literary heroines, – Ellis has had moments of concern about her own prospects. She is dismayed to learn that Anne Elliot is not actually as ancient as she had remembered – just twenty-seven. Laura – the heroine of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s brilliant Lolly Willowes; however, helped Ellis to keep her feet on the floor, worry less about finding Mr Right – Laura taught Ellis (as she teaches all readers I think) about freedom – about having a life that is simply one’s own, that is not dictated by a man, or spent running around after relatives’ children.
Then there is the battle between Cathy and Jane – as Ellis point out hardly anyone loves both books (Wuthering Heights I have only read once – still makes me shudder). Cathy’s love is so extreme – unrealistically so Ellis suggests, written by a woman who had never been in love. Jane; on the other hand, written by a woman who did know love, Jane is a tough little thing. He spirit rages at us from the pages, and I will always love her for that speech, (oh you know the one – I am not typing it out now).
I find there are so many things I could talk about from this book – too many – but before I stop – I will soon, a word about lighthouses. I love lighthouses, they are present in my home in various ways. So when Ellis is told (by a man) that lighthouses are phallic symbols in literature (a thousand times no!) I am as outraged as she was. I agree with Samantha here too as she considers Lily Briscoe from To the Lighthouse.
“A lighthouse is a symbol of self-sufficiency. Like the lighthouse keepers who live there, not needing anything from the mainland, Lily has become self-sufficient. And like the lighthouse beam that stops shipwrecks, she saves lives: she has saved her own life.”
This is a wonderful book, I have only scratched the surface of the books and heroines that Ellis discusses – she packs a huge amount into this book of less than 250 pages. Alongside the Brontes, Austen, Alcott and Sylvia Path we have Jilly Cooper’s Riders, The Valley of the Dolls, Scarlett O’Hara, The Little Mermaid and Scheherazade. The list is actually impressively long and varied.
I am looking forward to discussing this book with my friends on Wednesday – but it’s no surprise that I still love Jane, and I won’t be tidying away my lighthouses anytime soon.