How to be a Heroine: Or what I’ve learned from reading too much

heroinecoverI’m a bit at a loss as to what to say about this book. In a weird way I hated it. Who is this Samantha Ellis person and how dare she take an idea I had never really had, but feel like I should have because it’s brilliant, and then run with it to produce something bloody wonderful? It’s really just too bad. But seriously – I can’t imagine any woman, of any age, who enjoys reading not loving this.

Part literary criticism, part memoir, the book starts with the author debating literature with her best friend, and coming to the slightly sickening revelation that all her life she’s wanted to be Cathy Earnshaw, when really she should have been trying to be Jane Eyre. (No idea how she ever wanted to be Cathy. I was named after Cathy Earnshaw, and so I should have wanted to be like her. Until I read the book myself and realised that although I loved the book I kind of hated Cathy and thought Heathcliff was a sadistic lunatic. The whole thing was neurotic, not erotic #TeamHareton).

Ellis grew up in a tight knit Iraqi Jewish community, and read voraciously looking for – not exactly friends, or reflections of herself – but alternative, aspirational versions of herself, new blueprints for behaviours. Realising she’s made a poor choice of heroine sparks her decision to reread her favourite books of the past and reappraise the heroines that shaped her as she grew. Along the way, she comes to the realisation that “all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need from them at the time”. And it is lovely to visit old friends along with her – Anne Shirley is probably my first heroine, although she dwindled into her adulthood. Emily Starr never failed me however, and it’s through this book I learned just how autobiographical the Emily books were for LM Montgomery. Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Gone with the Wind, and the many wonderful books of Judy Blume are just some of the old favourites revisited here, and it’s wildly enjoyable to go back and hang out with old friends with her.

A lot of the charm of this book is tied to the nostalgia factor. It’s much harder to enjoy lengthy thoughts and analysis on books you have never read, and further more based on what you are reading about them will never, ever choose to read. About a third of the book falls into this category for me, so perhaps your enjoyment of this book is directly proportional to what you have read yourself. It is also somewhat problematic to read judgements of characters so heavily focused on their relationships with men, when all of the biography included in the book shows just how profoundly Ellis herself is effected by the marriage plot. She says that she is panicking because her life isn’t progressing smoothly towards a happy ending, although her younger self took to books as a way of escaping the happy ending her family had planned out for her.

These are minor quibbles though, from a book that reaffirms how we all have the power to become the heroine of our own lives. “All my heroines, yes, even the Little Mermaid, even poor dull listless Sleeping Beauty, have given me this sense of possibility. They made me feel I wasn’t forced to live out the story my family wanted for me, that I wasn’t doomed to plod forward to a fate predetermined by God, that I didn’t need to be defined by my seizures, or trapped in fictions of my own making, or shaped by other people’s stories. That I wanted to write my own life.” This is a shelf-help book that will help you become the reader, and the person, you always wanted to be. Go read it. Now.

I know why the caged bird sings – A Doll’s House

In the period before writing A Doll’s House Henrik Ibsen expressed his concern over “these women of the modern age, mistreated as daughters, as sisters, as wives, not educated in accordance with their talents, debarred from following their real mission, deprived of their inheritance, embittered in mind – these are the ones who supply the mothers for the next generation. What will result from this?” The introduction to my version of the play (Oxford World’s Classics) also says that he believed that men and women were different creatures, with completely different consciences, and “he pointed to the inevitable confusion over matters of right and wrong that inescapably follows when a woman is judged by man’s law, and when in consequence her natural instincts are brought into conflict with the notions of authority she has grown up with”. The play which emerged from his musings on the subject provoked heated sociological debates and ascribed didactic qualities to Ibsen as a playwright. A Doll’s House follows Nora and Torvald Helmer as they prepare for Christmas, with the reappearance of an old acquaintance (Mrs Linde) and Nora’s secret debt to Mr. Krogstad due to an illicit loan starting a quick chain of events that see Nora walking out on her family in the final scene. Thoughts about Nora’s departure from her doll’s house became the pivot around which 1890’s conversation revolved – so much so that dinner invitations often requested that the play was not mentioned. Leaving aside that the ‘shocking’ ending of the play is simply not so shocking to the modern audience, reading the play I was struck by how many clues to this ‘shock’ ending were lying around the stage even in Act 1. Granted, Ibsen did use melodramatic form and present what appears to be a perfect couple in Act 1, both of which work to subvert the naturalistic element of his drama; however the road to what is to come is signposted clearly in the marked dichotomy evolved between the couples words and their actions. I first read A Doll’s House as a teenager, and to be honest it made little impression on me, although I remember being shocked at how shocking the play was deemed to be on first performance. What a difference a decade makes – after rereading as part of A Year of Feminist Classics I can see the performative nature of gender roles and a dichotomy between words in actions shining through from the very beginning of the action.

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