How to be a Heroine
Chatto & Windus (2015)
Samantha Ellis’ How to be a Heroine (wonderfully subtitled Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much) is part memoir, part literary criticism. The journalist and playwright charts her relationship with heroines as she grew up, linking them to her own life and her family’s past. She discusses fairytales, classics and modern classics with characters ranging from The Little Mermaid to Elizabeth Bennett and Esther Greenwood. I was delighted to see the Fossil sisters, of Ballet Shoes, discussed. This was a favourite book of mine growing up. Pictured below is my rather tattered paperback copy, and a lovely special edition one of my sisters gave me as a birthday present.
It is an emotional read, as Ellis revisits and reexamines her heroines. In the introduction she speaks about herself and her friend’s disagreement over which Bronte heroine was their favourite – Cathy or Jane. This leads Ellis to return to some of her beloved heroines and examine what drew her to them in the first place. In some cases, returning to these books as a feminist is problematic, something many readers have experienced. Ellis explores how we can reconcile these issues with our lingering love for these characters. I agreed with many of her readings, and shared her disappointment when Jo March’s literary ambitions were quashed.
‘Though I’m beginning to think all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need from them at the time.’
In considering her life in light of her journey through books, Ellis shows how different characters have helped or inspired her. It is a wonderful demonstration of the power of reading and how heroines can help us be the heroine of our own story. (Ellis quotes Nora Ephron ‘Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.’) It is also a very inspiring book, as Ellis shows her own journey to becoming a writer, and her own struggle with the traditions of her faith. Many of Ellis’ heroines are also writers, and she examines what it is to be a woman and a writer, or a woman working in theatre. Ellis is honest and open about her life – about her heritage, her relationships, her seizures – and her writing is candid and readable.
How to be a Heroine shows the joy reading can bring, how characters can comfort us and give us strength. I thoroughly enjoyed the references to many books I have also loved, and several titles have been added to my reading list. This book is one voracious readers will enjoy, and it is definitely one I will be lending and gifting to friends.