Samantha Ellis, How To Be a Heroine (2015)
I remember well the day a friend casually said, upon seeing some book lying around at my place (I think it was The Hobbit), “I don’t read fiction.” Now, I understood of course that there were different tastes in the fictional realm, and that Tolkien was not everyone’s cup of tea. But to not read fiction at all? Just to write it off as boring and a waste of time? I knew there must be people like that out there, but they were usually more distant from me, belonging to foreign tribes of the soul, not friends that I would invite into my inner sanctum. I realized with dismay that I would have to cross a great divide to really understand such a person.
What a relief, then to open the pages of How To Be a Heroine and meet someone who decidedly belongs to my tribe. Samantha Ellis, a British playwright and journalist, reflects on her own life in terms of the books that defined and shaped her as she grew up, and particularly in terms of the heroines who showed her different ways to be a girl and then a woman. At a point in midlife when she is questioning where she is, how she got there and where she is going, rereading her favorites turns out to be more than just an exercise in nostalgia. We learn that fictional worlds don’t remain static, but can transform and show us new sides of ourselves as we gain experience and knowledge. Sometimes the results are disappointing, sometimes illuminating, but always fascinating in their revelation of the eternal enchantment of fiction.
As the child of Iraqi Jewish refugee parents, raised within an insular ethnic community, one could question what Ellis would find to relate to in the heroines of classic English literature: Elizabeth Bennett, Lucy Honeychurch, Anne of Green Gables. Happily, she shows us that in such much-loved and long-lasting works of fiction are to be found universal human concerns, which shine beneath the trappings of time and culture. To take but one example, the “marriage plot” is no less powerful in her own family, which expects her to marry a nice Iraqi Jew and keeps a tier of her Bat Mitzvah cake in the freezer for that day, than in Jane Austen’s society.
No literary snob, Ellis shows that there’s also wisdom to be gleaned from less elevated fare, such as The Valley of the Dolls, Lace, and the novels of Jilly Cooper. How has the very idea of what it means to be a woman changed over the last two hundred years? What can we learn from the trials and struggles of these characters, and of their writers? How have they fought to be recognized as human beings, as creators, as people with rights and feelings of their own? Written with passion and verve, How To Be a Heroine is a marvelous personal exploration of these questions, articulate, lucid, and never pretentious.
If I were to meet Samantha Ellis in person, we wouldn’t agree about everything. I would question her selection of the homicidal maniac Heathcliff as a romantic ideal, and she would wonder how I could find Beth March in Little Women anything other than disgustingly insipid. But we would definitely agree about one thing: reading fiction is one way, perhaps the most important way, that we have learned to create the story of our own lives. If you, too, look to books as touchstones of your life, and particularly to those inhabited by feisty, creative, and courageous heroines, then you will surely want to have the joy of revisiting them through this excellent consideration of all they have to offer.