Sunday, 26 January 2014

Non-fiction Review: How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

How to Be a Heroine: Or, what I've learned from reading too much.
Samantha Ellis
Chatto and Windus

'But there were perils to loving Mr Darcy. I wish I could tell my twelve-year-old self that not all arrogant men are secretly lovely; some are just arrogant.'

I purchased this book on a complete whim after reading a review in the Literary Review. As it turns out, it was probably the best whim I've had in some time - this book is made of awesome.

On a pilgrimage to Wuthering Heights, Ellis found herself in debate with her best friend on the ever contentious Jane Eyre vs Cathy Earnshaw question (I vote Jane, by the way). Realising that Cathy probably isn't all she cracked up to be, Ellis decided to re-read the books she grew up with and look again at her heroines. This book is part autobiography, part reading history and part literary analysis with a feminist bent. 

How to Be a Heroine is a reading memoir which oscillates between a focus on books and a focus on Ellis's life. It is such an interesting look at how our attitudes towards our heroines change as our own lives change. There are books she re-reads and finds that the character she always thought was the heroine was actually not, and books where the heroine is not actually a heroine in any sense of the word. These revelations were revealed amid anecdotes from her life and memories of those first experiences with the Cathy's, Jane's, Lizzie's and Scarlett's of the literary world. 

The range of texts referred to in this book is absolutely huge. Thankfully there is a bibliography organised by chapter to make it easier to add (everything) to my wish list*. Out of this range I was surprised to read about how many female authors created female characters who were also writers. That in itself is not surprising - we all do write what we know - but it is the number of female writers who made their characters retire their pens when a marriageable male came on the scene that did surprise me. Jo March corks up her inkstand in Little Women (though Alcott apparently rectified this gross indecency in Jo's Boys) and Anne Shirley from L.M. Montgomery's series of novels becomes a wife and stops writing. I'm a strong believer in not reading novels out of their own context but I was a little shocked to have those hazy memories of strong, bookish women dashed a little.

Reading How to Be a Heroine has made me want to do my own re-read of the books that made me who I am today. I would love to explore how my own relationships with my heroines have changed and whether I do still cheer for the underdog or the shy, quiet one, or the middle child (Freud would have a field day). I think it is time to raid my shelves and become reacquainted with the books that influenced my own character - Heidi, I'm heading to you first.

How to Be a Heroine is an utterly delightful, insightful and eye-opening read. Reading books about books always reinvigorates my love of literature and this has done exactly that, albeit in a very different way. This book has made me want to assess my own reading history and the relationships I had with fictional characters and see how much has changed. I think it could be a very startling and refreshing experience.

Who do you vote for in the Cathy vs Jane debate? Have you ever re-read an old favourite and been shocked by what you've found?

*I've been following the #readwomen2014 campaign on twitter and I think this book is a perfect place to look for reading recommendations. It certainly made my wish list and re-read list double in size in a matter of hours. 



  1. I am such a sucker for reading memoirs! I'll definitely need to check this one out, though I really do fear for my TBR pile :)

  2. It's not true that Anne Shirley gives up writing after she married. The main focus is on her as a wife and mother, and later her children, but she carries on the writing on the side - her son Walter is teased because "his mother writes lies for the magazines." I don't think writing was a vocation for Anne as it was for the likes of Jo March, or L. M. Montgomery's own character Emily, but it comes as an extension of her vivid imagination. I do think it's a shame that Anne disappears into the background once she's got her happily-ever-after. Her writing's really only mentioned in passing.

  3. Oh man, this just looks so good!
    I was always disappointed with Jo March for giving up writing and it doesn't get any better when you continue the series, she ends up extremely stereotypically motherly, and not at all headstrong and Jo-like.

  4. I have this already in the to read list and it doesn't harm that cover is good looking either. I think the way how we re-value our book characters over time is one of the more interesting ones out there.

  5. "...part autobiography, part reading history and part literary analysis with a feminist bent"? That sounds like the best!

    I'm not much of a re-reader. Actually, that's an under-statement because I never re-read but still! I am curious to read some of my childhood favourites and see how I feel about them now. I adored The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe when I was growing up and I've put the series on my Classics Club list to prompt me to try them again. We'll see if I still love Lucy now that I'm allegedly a grown up!

    And I haven't read Wuthering Heights in years but I'm definitely in the Jane camp.

  6. Ah I saw this is the book shop the other day and debated for ages! I wish I had got it now!

  7. Wow, this sounds so good! I love memoirs and have found that I can often relate best to people who love to read. I'm not big on re-reading, partly because I feel like there are too many books and too little time but also because I'd hate to love a book less on a second look!

  8. Great write-up! Writing is a talent, and it must not be wasted. As with everything that we had been entrusted, we should

    let it grow and share it with the world.>self

    improvement tips


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