I first heard about this book from HeavenAli’s blog and knew immediately that I needed to read it. How to be a Heroine is part memoir, part literary criticism, part feminist exploration of the impact of reading on the female experience. It’s also very entertaining and extremely easy to read, a fact which helped me immeasurably on an epic car journey back from Cornwall which seemed it might never, ever end. How to be a Heroine follows writer and playwright Samantha Ellis’s heroine worship, starting with an argument with her best friend about which is the better heroine: Cathy Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights) or Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre, of course!). Ellis is firmly in the Wuthering Heights camp, her friend (and I) firmly in the camp of the poor, obscure, plain and little Jane Eyre. This discussion prompts Ellis to revisit her heroines to see if she still believes in them in the way she did, or whether her age and experience, and with the nostalgia glasses off, will change her perceptions.
As Ellis revisits each book, we learn a little about her life, her emotional state at the time of reading, what was going on in her family and how that particular heroine influenced her. Ellis comes from an Iraqi-Jewish family; her mother fled to Britain as a young woman with her family, suffering imprisonment in Iraq for a time, meeting Ellis’s father in Britain and making her home and family here. So her back story is quite interesting in itself, as Ellis straddles a diasporic community and a British upbringing. She struggles with a conservative family environment (I think it is quite common for diasporic communities to become more conservative) as well as an introverted personality both of which conspire to make her invest in her heroines more, perhaps, than most. But interesting as her back story is, it is the way her reading weaves itself into her being that makes this such a strong read. She has heroines, lots of them. Are they all still heroines by the end of her re-reading? I guess you need to read the book to find out.
Ellis covers a diverse range of books including What Katy Did, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Gone with the Wind and other childhood favourites; then as she grows older she moves onto books like The Bell Jar, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights and A Room with a View as well as Riders and Lace. It makes for a strange blend. What comes across in all her explorations is how intimately she knows the books and how much pleasure she gained from reading them. As she dissects each heroine, exploring the features which led them to connect so strongly with her, she also explores how they impacted on her life and how they represent both her values and the values and attributes she admires. It’s perhaps not surprising that a reader who reads about writers – so many of the heroine characters write – would become a writer herself, but like any heroine her path was not straight, there were many holes in the road and she fell in to a fair few before reaching, if not an ending, a conclusion.
I found How to be a Heroine an extremely enjoyable read, but it also reminded me of something. Or rather it brought clarity to something I’d been vaguely thinking about. What I remember most strongly about reading from being a child is exploring the same books, the same characters, over and over until their stories became a part of me. This is something that Ellis elucidates in the book, her heroines were part of her. It was a joy of reading, returning to the same worlds, to familiar characters and stories, and though each reading was a repetition it also allowed me to discover different things about the characters, to see them in different lights. It was also like having an extended family, the characters became friends. Like Ellis I was attracted to adventurous characters, characters who pushed past their inherent timidity to fulfil their potential, much like Jane Eyre (who would be on my heroine list). I have felt for some time that my endless reaching in reading, always the next book and the next book and the next book, is more like skimming a surface, it doesn’t allow connection and it limits my ability to re-read. I realised, as reading this book, that I remember little about most of the books I’ve read in the last 12 months, excepting a few notable books (The Outrun, for example, The Essex Serpent), most of the books have made no impact on me at all. Ellis’s book, here, exposed something that my reading is missing: a deep connection. I think I need to find a way to get that back. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do or how I’m going to do it, but I definitely need to revisit some of the books I’ve loved, more than once, to allow them to seep more deeply in.
How to be a Heroine has reminded me about what it means to be a great reader. For this I will be forever grateful. It is also a soulful and entertaining read, which explores the (few) female heroines deeply and honestly, exposing their flaws and their merits, reminding us that we are what we read.
How to be a Heroines is published by Vintage Books.