Review: How to be a Heroine, Samantha Ellis

The third book on my Summer Reading List.

How to be a Heroine

On a pilgrimage to Wuthering Heights, Samantha Ellis found herself arguing with her best friend about which heroine was best: Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. She was all for wild, passionate Cathy; but her friend found Cathy silly, a snob, while courageous Jane makes her own way.

And that’s when Samantha realised that all her life she’d been trying to be Cathy when she should have been trying to be Jane.

So she decided to look again at her heroines – the girls, women, books that had shaped her ideas of the world and how to live. Some of them stood up to the scrutiny (she will always love Lizzy Bennet); some of them most decidedly did not (turns out Katy Carr from What Katy Did isn’t a carefree rebel, she’s a drip). There were revelations (the real heroine of Gone with the Wind? It’s Melanie), joyous reunions (Anne of Green Gables), poignant memories (Sylvia Plath) and tearful goodbyes (Lucy Honeychurch). And then there was Jilly Cooper…

How To Be A Heroine is Samantha’s funny, touching, inspiring exploration of the role of heroines, and our favourite books, in all our lives – and how they change over time, for better or worse, just as we do.

I have to admit that I devoured this book, fervently clutching it to my chest on train journeys to and from London like some kind of sacred text. And in many ways, I truly believe that it is. Ellis uses the word pilgrimage herself to describe her journey to Wuthering Heights, because she know how important this is. How the women we worship can build and shape us like literary gods.

Reading about Ellis’ childhood diet of classical literature was like looking into a window of my past, and all of the books and characters to have carved my own life: there was Austen and the Brontës, Anne of Green GablesWhat Katy Did and Gone With the Wind complete with tear-stained pages. There too was Wuthering Heights, studied at A level, poured over and annotated within an inch of its life, and still never despised. I have a whole host of ready recommendations now as well: Forster and Lace and many more besides. Texts I’d never got round to reading and have now bumped to the top of my list because of How to be a Heroine.

I love how Ellis weaves her own life story and experiences through her discovery, re-discovery and reliance upon the heroines of the books she reads. And she’s right when she says that ‘maybe we read heroines for what we need from them at the time’. Reading is such a personal and subjective thing, what one person can take from a character at a certain time in their life is most probably entirely different from what somebody else takes. Ellis certainly picks up on certain aspects of characters and authors differently than I have. It’s not easy to hear her criticise Jo and Beth of Little Women, forever my favourite didactic literary creations, nor is it easy to read her making digs at Jane Austen wrapping up Lizzy Bennet’s story so neatly with a marriage, when I have always adored anything Austen without limit. But Ellis is certainly within her right to revisit and reconsider the canon, and she makes many a valid point whilst doing it.

I think what I’m trying to say with this rambly review is that, consciously or unconsciously, my life has been shaped by the characters populating my favourite books. And I guess that, in part, I have become the woman I am today because of the women I read about growing up. From Lizzy I learnt that being witty and intelligent can be your greatest weapon in the world, and from Katy I learnt patience. I nourished my own literary hopes alongside Anne’s and Jo’s, and although I always hated flighty, dramatic Cathy, her cousin Jane taught me that women could still be powerful when they are quiet and shy. We are not birds, remember, and no net shall ensnare us.

This book is one for the girls, and it’s one with a fabulously feminist agenda. It was a lovely couple of days of nostalgia and empowerment, and realising yet again that words have a power to guide and inspire us. I guess it’s our responsibility then, to write the next generation of heroines for the next generation of heroines. Believe me when I’m say I’m trying.

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