From the desk of Jenny Haggerty:
Those who don’t enjoy reading may assume it’s a solitary activity, and they’d be partly correct because page-turning (physical or virtual) is usually done alone. But we literature lovers crave community as much as any social animal. It’s why we join book clubs and haunt web sites like Goodreads, BookLikes, and of course Austenprose. We love to connect with other readers to share passions, recount experiences, and exchange opinions about books. And reading about reading is an irresistible meta-pleasure that’s almost as fun as getting lost in a novel. For all these reasons Samantha Ellis’s, How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much piqued my interest.
Her book opens on the Yorkshire Moors with Ellis and her best friend arguing about which Brontë heroine they’d rather be, Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. Ellis made what to her was the obvious choice: passionate, gorgeous Cathy. Cathy had been her role model since first reading Wuthering Heights at twelve, and Jane had always seemed too stoic, virtuous, and, well, plain to her. But Ellis’s friend shocked her by disagreeing. Jane Eyre is independent, her friend pointed out. Jane doesn’t suffer fools and she sticks to her principals. Her friend thought Cathy looked silly–always weeping and wailing, and marrying a rich boy because she’s a snob even though she claims to love Heathcliff. “Why not just not marry the wrong man?” Ellis’s friend asked her.
That question sent shockwaves through Ellis’s longtime worldview and started her on a reading quest. Ellis always pictured herself like Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, “in training to be a heroine” by reading to find out what kind of woman she might want to be. But what if she had modeled her life on the wrong heroines? If she had been deluded about Cathy, could she have been mistaken about her other literary icons? Ellis decided to challenge her old views by re-reading every book that had been important to her and reevaluating all her choices.
In the book’s eleven chapters Ellis scrutinizes all her favorite literary heroines and considers how they influenced her, starting with her earliest book loves, like the little Mermaid, and continuing on to the stories that captivated her in young adulthood. It’s a personal and passionate quest, so along the way, readers learn a lot about Ellis herself and about the turbulent history of her uprooted Jewish-Iraqi family, who fled the Middle East for England but still retain many traditions from their former life. A postscript contains a recipe for Iraqi Jewish marzipan called masafan, an homage to Nora Ephron’s “Heartburn”, and an extensive bibliography of every work she read for her project.
Ellis investigates many more heroines than are named in her chapter titles: The Little Mermaid, Anne of Green Gables, Lizzy Bennet, Scarlett O’Hara, Franny Glass, Esther Greenwood, Lucy Honeychurch, The Dolls (from the Valley), Cathy Earnshaw, Flora Poste, and Scheherazade. In the Anne of Green Gables chapter, for instance, Ellis wrote about imaginative Anne Shirley (who first inspired Ellis to be a writer), but also about the life and troubled marriage of author L. M. Montgomery, which shed light on the bland, even dispiriting, choices Montgomery made for Anne’s fictional adulthood. In the same chapter Ellis also considers Louisa May Alcott and her books featuring Jo March (another fictional author Ellis admired), Pollyanna (whose optimism seemed brainless compared to Anne Shirley’s spunk), Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Princess (Sara Crewe’s dislocation reminded Ellis of her family’s forced exile) and the movies “When Harry Met Sally” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.
Ellis is both a playwright and a journalist, and obviously, a woman who takes stories seriously. Though her scope is wide her insights about the heroines are penetrating and thought-provoking, making this an intellectually rich, emotionally moving book. Part of why it’s so compelling is how well Ellis connects her own experiences to those of her heroines. When Ellis was twelve and her friends were relating to Judy Blume’s characters, it was Lizzie Bennet she felt a kinship with. Growing up in an expatriate traditional culture in which marriage was a woman’s primary goal, Ellis completely sympathized with the plight of the Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice.
As I went through How to be a Heroine I couldn’t help thinking about the ways I’ve been influenced by my own literary heroines (for the record I always preferred Jane Eyre to Cathy.) That made reading this book like having a heartfelt conversation about life and favorite novels with an avid, well-read best friend. In the end, Ellis’s verdict on her early book loves is mixed; some heroines no longer seemed worthy of emulation. My verdict on her book, however, is absolutely positive; I loved it.
5 out of 5 Stars
How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much, by Samantha Ellis
Trade paperback & eBook (272) pages
Cover image courtesy of Vintage Books © 2015; text Jenny Haggerty © 2015, Austenprose.com
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