Was your first love Gilbert Blythe? Did you want to climb trees with Katy Carr, pirouette with Posy, or fly planes with Petrova? If so, then this is the book for you. How To Be A Heroine is about all these characters, and many more; from Margaret Mitchell’s vivacious Scarlet and kind-hearted, intuitive Melly, to Franny and Zooey, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, Cathy Earnshaw and the indomitable Lizzie Bennet. In her new memoir, the playwright Samantha Ellis – the sort of reader who grew up devouring books in one sitting – revisits the girls and women of fiction past, evaluating their hopes, dreams and the paths their lives eventually took.
Through this, she weaves her own story of going from idealistic teenager to mature, experienced woman, and details how these fictional heroines helped her understand and escape her occasionally stifling childhood as part of the close-knit Iraqi Jewish community. It’s a whirlwind tour, taking us from Wuthering Heights to Jane Eyre right the way through to Valley of the Dolls and Lace. And there are iconic locations including Tara, Pemberley and Green Gables.
It’s not always flattering. Though most of her favourites – certainly the ones that always struck a chord with me – were crafted a good century ago, Ellis takes a no holds barred approach, examining whether they should indeed be viewed as feminist role models. That Katy of What Katy Did was pious, a rebellious girl reined in by the expectations of society may well be the case on a more considered reading of Susan Coolidge’s trilogy, but I’d nonetheless like to remember her escapades fondly. So Scarlet O’ Hara may have made her way in the world by following a man’s rules and cynically employing her charms. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
But while I didn’t always agree with Ellis’ conclusions – I’d contend that my precious fictional heroines should not be held to modern standards, since merely by crafting them their mostly female authors were going against the grain – it was a joy to read. Well written, and engaging on her own story, Ellis analyses books often dismissed as childish or light in an intelligent but never pretentious manner.
I was a bookworm as a child, and practically everything I learnt about life came from fiction. Authors like Noel Streatfeild, Louisa May Alcott, and Jane Austen made other worlds and lifetimes seem so utterly thrilling. I grew up wishing to be as talented as a Fossil sister, comparing my own family of four sisters to the Little Women, and dreaming of Gilbert Blythe and Prince Edward Island. If you did too, then this is the book for you, for it’s a genuine pleasure to meet them again after so many years apart.