While debating literature’s greatest heroines with her best friend, thirtysomething playwright Samantha Ellis has a revelation—her whole life, she’s been trying to be Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights when she should have been trying to be Jane Eyre.
With this discovery, she embarks on a retrospective look at the literary ladies—the characters and the writers—whom she has loved since childhood. From early obsessions with the March sisters to her later idolization of Sylvia Plath, Ellis evaluates how her heroines stack up today. And, just as she excavates the stories of her favorite characters, Ellis also shares a frank, often humorous account of her own life growing up in a tight-knit Iraqi Jewish community in London. Here a life-long reader explores how heroines shape all our lives.
In September 2017, I was in Dublin on my first real holiday with my boyfriend and, as any good bookworm would do, I dragged him to all the good bookstores I read about. We came across How To Be a Heroine in The Gutter Bookshop, and it had a staff recommendation attached to it that started with “part memoir, part literary criticism” and ended with “a book for book lovers”. That, the cover, and the fact that I got a really nice feminist vibe from it made this book pretty much irresistible to me. I did wonder when I would actually get around to reading it, though, and I feared it would be one of those books that would just sit on my shelves gathering dust, since I don’t read a lot of non-fiction – or any non-fiction at all, really. But then I read another memoir at the start of this year: Talking As Fast As I Can by Lauren Graham, about her life pre, post and during Gilmore Girls. I absolutely loved the book, and it only made me more excited to read more non-fiction.
Of course, it then took several more months.
I finally picked up How To Be A Heroine half way through June and after the first chapter I already knew: this was the perfect book for me. Granted, I haven’t read all of the books Ellis talks about. Heck, I probably haven’t even read half of them. I was a bit bummed when the ending of Northanger Abbey was revealed, but I’ve genuinely already forgotten again, so who cares? And I wasn’t ever going to read Gone With the Wind anyway. At first, I considered skipping the chapters on books I hadn’t read, but I’m very happy I didn’t do that. Even though I hadn’t read all of the books, and was sometimes a little confused because of this, the message was still just as strong. It wasn’t about the plot anyway – it was all about how the book is interpreted and what it did and meant to Ellis (and others).
Ellis talks about her childhood, her teens, her years at university and beyond – and she relates all of that through the books she read back then. I was particularly impressed by the way she managed to connect important moments from her life to the books that she was reading at the time and how they influenced her decisions. I don’t have that ability – and I’ve read a lot of books during my childhood (and beyond). It was fascinating to read about.
The book started off with a bang, with The Little Mermaid being the topic (and title) of the first chapter. The Little Mermaid was the very first Disney film I ever saw, I think, and it was the first videotape my family ever bought. Of course, Ellis (mainly) talks about the written fairy tale in its different iterations (Perrault, the Grimm brothers, etc.), which I have to admit I haven’t read. She goes on to talk about other fairy tales as well, looking at them through a femnist lens she didn’t have yet when she was a child. This interested me immensely, since I wrote my MA thesis on feminism and fairy tale retellings, in particular Cinderella, and came to the conclusion that patriarchal structures are so deeply embedded in fairy tales that it is near impossible to write a satisfying, modern retelling (with, you know, women being equal and all that).
Ellis’ feminist analyses of these fairy tales and her displeasure regarding some of them told me she and I were going to get along just fine and I was right. It was an absolute pleasure to watch her dissect so many different kinds of heroines. One of the highlights for me was the chapter on Esther Greenwood from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which I read for the first time only a few months ago after which I immediately read Ariel because I was deeply intrigued by Plath. Ellis looked at Esther and The Bell Jar in ways I hadn’t yet discovered and I loved reading her thoughts.
My favourite chapter was the one on Cathy Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights) and Jane Eyre, though. I, too, have had discussions with my best friend about Cathy, Heathcliff and the terrible, life-destructing force between them. To be clear: I adore Wuthering Heights. It is my favourite book of all time (along with Harry Potter, duh) and I desperately want to reread it again this winter. But I don’t think I ever regarded the book as very romantic. It’s all very tragic and melodramatic, isn’t it? Nevertheless, I love the story. The atmosphere, the horrific characters – I adore it.
That’s why I was very curious to find out what Ellis, a fellow fan, would have to say about it and I wasn’t disappointed. Her analyses of both Cathy and Jane are so on point that I just kept grinning and nodding like a weirdo. It’s a good thing I tend to read in the seclusion of my own home. I was so excited that I also texted several passages to my friends, just because I wanted to share them.
I could go on talking about How To Be A Heroine for quite a lot longer, I fear, but I think I’ve made my enthusiasm pretty clear. This was the perfect book for me. There was even a recipe at the end of it! How much more perfect can it get for Books Baking and Blogging? The recipe was for masafan, an Iraqi Jewish type of marzipan. I made it yesterday (it’s in the pictures) and it’s all gone now. It was heroically good, indeed.
This book (and the masafan) will probably stay with me for quite some time yet. I really hope any of you other female (or male!) bookworms will pick it up, too, because it is an absolute gem.