How to be a Heroine (or what I’ve learned from reading too much) by Samantha Ellis

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.

About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
This entry was posted in comfort books, gender, memoir, non-fiction, writers. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to How to be a Heroine (or what I’ve learned from reading too much) by Samantha Ellis

  1. heavenali says:

    Oh I am so glad you enjoyed this book. I definitely felt as if I was in danger of ending up with another reading list. I too loved rediscovering those heroines I had first read years earlier.

    • bookbii says:

      Thanks Ali, and thanks for bringing it to my attention. I have already bought Lolly Willows (but have wanted to read it for a while anyway) but limited myself to that. I am very tempted to return to some childhood favourites though.

  2. This sounds wonderful. I do think that as young girls and adolescents, we are much more influenced by the books we read, and this diminishes somewhat as we become adults. Books help so much in identity formation.

    • bookbii says:

      It is a lovely book Valorie, and I think you’re right that we are highly influenced by the books we read as children because they have such an impact on our imaginative lives.

  3. I’ll be buying this on my next trip to a bookshop. I’m interested by your idea of trying to find a way to read deeper. I tend to succumb to the lure of the new and often find myself incapable of discussing a book I read six months ago as it’s left little or no impression. Looking forward to seeing what you come up with.

    • bookbii says:

      Succumbing to the lure of the new, what a perfect way to put it. I, too, have so many books I could tell you little about later on, and can remember very little about. Part of the reason I started blogging was to help with my absorption. I am still thinking it through, but I think in general I need to stop being a magpie and chasing after the next shiny new book (though they are so appealing). I’m very glad I read this one though. Will be very interested in your views if you do pick it up.

    • I’ve hankered after this one for a while – so thanks for the reminder. I too have fallen into the trap of trying to read ALL the books and feel like I often seem to be racing to try and meet a deadline or get to the next one instead of fully appreciating – and getting absorbed by – the one I’m reading… not sure what the answer is but will be very interested if you find some solutions.

      • bookbii says:

        Thanks Poppy. It’s well worth reading. I’m not sure what the answer is either, as you say it feels like a race with no possible end and whilst I enjoy most of the books I read, it feels increasingly like they have no impact on me. Yet House of Mirth, that one even on a single read has burned something into my memory that I doubt I’ll ever lose. So perhaps it is a quality thing, I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m looking at my bulging bookshelves and thinking I need to do something drastic. Hmm. I need to think about it some more.

      • I too have bulging shelves and feel like I need to to find a way of reading and appreciating key ones but letting others go to a good home… especially now I’m writing more I have to make sure I ‘guard’ my reading time to use it effectively… it’s trying to find a regime that gives momentum but without overshadowing … not an easy one but reading quite a few bloggers/reviewers/readers having same dilemmas…

  4. Pingback: An attempt at deeper reading | biisbooks

  5. SimplyMe says:

    I loved this book. Thanks so much for the review of it, Bi. Ellis says that she cannot say how to be a heroine, yet I think she does in the concluding pages. She says we write our lives, albeit with the caveat that external forces can influence the trajectory (hence, her comment on her mother’s capacity to improvise). The key seems to be how we perceive our lives, e.g. Ellis’ framework of saying we write our lives.

  6. Nicki Piano says:

    Coming to this post rather late (I discovered your blog a few months ago and have been catching up!), I remember hearing about this book a couple of years ago and it definitely sounds one to be read. Sorry, I was always Cathy (although now I wonder why I ever fell for Heathcliff), but the two books that have stood out for me recently were also The Outrun and The Essex Serpent! I seem to be two years behind everyone else, so probably won’t reread Wuthering Heights again but will certainly look out for this one.

  7. bookbii says:

    Thanks Nicki 🙂 interestingly, this book became something of a pivot point in my reading journey and shortly after I read this I really committed to reading deeper rather than wider. Consequently I’m about 100 years behind everyone else now, but I’m happier for it! Heathcliffe is definitely a bad lad; it’s interesting how our views can change over the years and what perhaps resonated with us at one point in our lives becomes something entirely different when we re-read it later. I hope you get back to Wuthering Heights eventually, though perhaps via a whole load of other books first.

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