APRIL 7, 2015
SAMANTHA ELLIS’s How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much begins with a field trip — one important enough for her to call it a pilgrimage: Ellis and her best friend Emma visit the English village in the Yorkshire Moors that was home to the Brontë sisters, Emily, who wrote Wuthering Heights, and Charlotte, the author of Jane Eyre.
Emma believes Jane, of Jane Eyre, is the better of the two heroines. Ellis has always been a Cathy partisan. Cathy is ardent and headstrong, and she stands for “transcendent love, operatic love,” the kind of love that Ellis dreams of finding for herself as a young woman. But those dreams are harder to achieve for Ellis than they are for most young romantics. Raised in a close-knit community of Iraqi Jews in London, Ellis is the only daughter in a family that places a premium on virtuous behavior, and plans to arrange her marriage after she graduates from college.
But if Ellis is fundamentally obedient, she has wild soul, and her reading list reflects the latter rather than the former. No surprise, then, that Wuthering Heights has always been a favorite. Ellis admits she still rereads this most crushingly romantic novel every year before her birthday, often “in a hot bath, with a glass of red wine.” As a girl, she wanted to be Cathy Earnshaw, the utterly impractical heroine whose wild-eyed, abandoned affair with Heathcliff has taught generations of women all the wrong lessons about love.
I was as susceptible as the next girl to 19th-century novels about torrid romance, but, like Ellis’s friend Emma, I was in the Jane camp. I’d never thought of the choice as starkly as Ellis, who declares that you either love one or the other, Cathy or Jane. “Hardly anyone likes both novels,” she says. For her part, Ellis was annoyed by Jane’s “placid preternatural calm” and thought her a “prude without the guts to flout convention” because she wouldn’t become the mistress of the man she loved. But on the trip to the Yorkshire Moors, she finds herself wondering whether she’d actually chosen wrong. “She is independent, and brave, and clever, and she does stay true to herself,” she acknowledges of Jane. The deal is sealed for her when the sun comes out, which Ellis calls “very Jane weather […]. It would have rained for Cathy.”
A teenager when I made my own Brontë pilgrimage, my visit was similarly bubble-bursting. In my case, my mother, who took me to the Parsonage Museum, was determined to demonstrate that the life of a Victorian woman writer was anything but romantic, and to dissuade me of the ill-conceived notion that tragedy equals beauty. “Sure, we all cry when we read Wuthering Heights,” I remember her saying, in the wake of a particularly bad boyfriend decision in high school. “But that doesn’t mean we actually need to live it out.”
Her plan worked: the landscape of the Yorkshire Moors seemed unremittingly bleak; come to find out that the Brontë sisters were all tubercular; the three sisters had endless chores to do (their brother Branwell did not, as my mother pointed out), and only each other to talk to. By the time we left the steely skied moors, I was convinced that strong gusting winds and the fiery temperament of Cathy do not a good life make.
It is exactly this sort of myth-busting that Samantha Ellis makes her mission in How to Be a Heroine. She decides to investigate the true nature of the literary protagonists she has loved: “If I’d been wrong about Cathy, had I been wrong about all my other heroines too?” she writes. “Once I’d asked that terrifying question, I knew I’d have to meet all my heroines again, every last one.”
Ellis organizes her book by female character — a chapter for each — a diverse bunch, spanning across the eras. To the degree that the chapters are chronological, that has less to do with the writers in history, than with how they fit in to the stages of Ellis’s life. It’s a little jarring to spin from J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey to the poetry of Sylvia Plath, but the experience makes sense, when you consider your own childhood bookshelves. One obvious consequence of Ellis’s structure is that the characters have widely differing experiences as women. Some are responding to feminism; others have never heard the word.
But this seems to have little effect on Ellis’s ability to relate to each heroine, which is one of the more charming aspects of her book. She falls deeply in love with each of her heroines and ably conjures her absorption in their stories. It’s easy to imagine her as a young girl, one hand gripping a book and the other the banister as she walks down the staircase, having half-heard her mother call her for dinner. I imagine she will inspire many readers to go back and see whether their own favorites stand up to time. Chances are some will and some won’t. “I don’t think anyone is ‘born to be a heroine,’” she writes. “It takes effort, valor, and a willingness to investigate your own heart. So here I am, showing willing.”
And she means it. She is willing. Like Anna Quindlen’s 1998 How Reading Changed My Life and Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s book Ruined by Reading, Ellis has written a love letter to the world of books. Writing about reading seems innately insular. It’s hard to imagine much of a plotline or narrative. But Ellis finds a way to draw us into the experience of reading about reading.
For starters, everything about Ellis herself is dramatic. She grew up hearing stories of love and destruction in Baghdad. An Iraqi Jewish endearment, fudwa, means “I would die for you,” and Ellis jokes that in “a five-minute phone call about yogurt, my grandmother can offer to die for me ten or fifteen times.” In her adult life, Ellis tells stories of seeking out drama through love affairs and overseas adventures — always, of course, inspired to do so by books.
Then there are the stories themselves: like Quindlen and Schwartz, Ellis makes a case for the transformative power of novels. But, for her, books are more than just a source of pleasure. They act as mentors and career advisors. Even if they do not always yield the best advice, Ellis draws a direct line from the experience of her literary heroines to her own life. They guide her not only in her search for romance and personal fulfillment, but in her commitment to becoming a playwright and creating strong female characters of her own.
As she tells it in How to Be a Heroine, rereading helps Ellis reframe her autobiography. These books allow her rethink the traditional ideas of womanhood she grew up with — even eventually to rebuff her parents’ efforts to arrange her marriage. It’s Wuthering Heights that inspires a star-crossed love affair; and that novel’s terrible end that causes Ellis to recognize that her own tortured relationship isn’t worth her while. Jane Eyre helps with that, too: Jane’s decision to leave Rochester, the man she loves, seems bold to Ellis. She quotes what she calls Jane’s “fearless manifesto”: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” It turns out that Jane can feel things deeply and stand up for herself at the same time. Ellis is sold — on Jane, if not on Rochester.
Speaking of whom: Ellis jokes that she is playing a version of the British drinking game “Snog, Marry, Avoid” with her characters (the word “snog” being a rather graceless British-ism meaning a kiss). Top of the list of snog-worthy is Heathcliff, of course; her new respect for Jane notwithstanding, she’d still avoid the hero of Jane Eyre.
But while the boy-talk makes for good romping literary fun, not all of Ellis’s lessons are in the romantic realm. She says that she went to Cambridge because of Sylvia Plath, and that Esther Greenwood, the mostly autobiographical heroine of Plath’s The Bell Jar, got her through those difficult years. When Ellis started having unexplained seizures in college, which her doctors could neither understand nor treat, she writes, “I had something to comfort me that [Esther Greenwood] never had; unlike her, I had The Bell Jar.” This period of her life represents more than just a medical crisis. Ellis actually saw it as a rite of passage, her equivalent of Esther/Plath’s breakdown. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, Ellis says that both she and Esther were wrong to believe that suffering is worthwhile in and of itself.
Lucy Honeychurch, the protagonist of E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, is another of her favorites. Some readers (ahem) may have previously taken this book as further evidence of the merit in being swept up by beauty and romance. Ellis admits that this was how she first read it, too, when she was 20. But on a subsequent reading, she took a different message from the novel — that it’s about the importance of doing what you love: “I’m beginning to think all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need from them at the time,” she writes. “What I needed from Lucy Honeychurch then was an idea about becoming an artist and living an artist’s life. It was because of her that I started writing plays.” In Ellis’s reading, Lucy not only almost marries the wrong man, but, more to the point, almost swerves into the wrong life. But she rescues herself, turning away from tradition and expectation, and toward sensation and experience.
How to Be a Heroine is at its most interesting when Ellis grapples with those female characters whom she finds decidedly unheroic. She believes so profoundly in the transformational power of reading that even when she finds a book’s message to be abhorrent, she still feels compelled to do battle with the work to find something redemptive within. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is one such story. Ellis returns to her “battered, crayon-scribbled, pink book” to find herself horrified: “I can’t quite believe that I was so keen on a story about a mermaid who gives up her voice for legs to get a man.”
For me, as for the author, this take on The Little Mermaid immediately calls to mind ’70s feminist retellings of fairy tales. Indeed, Ellis goes back and takes a look at books such as the poet Ann Sexton’s Transformations, in which she rewrote 17 of the Brothers Grimm stories, which gets her wondering whether The Little Mermaid could be rewritten, too.
And then she realizes … it already has been. By Disney. When Ellis asks her goddaughter why she likes the story so much, she gets the indignant reply, “It’s a happy ending! They get married!” So Ellis sits down with her to watch the Disney version — and, in a lovely and self-deprecating moment, finds herself moved and inspired. “I can’t help thinking my life would be different if I’d known Disney’s Little Mermaid, not Andersen’s,” she writes.
But in spite of herself, Ellis is drawn to the depressing original. However, what she finds compelling about the story is not the mermaid’s quest to win a prince; it is the underlying narrative of a woman caught between two worlds. The account of a mermaid wrenched away from her ocean home has great power for Ellis, who grew up in England hearing about an Iraq that she would never be able to know. No longer a mermaid, not quite human, the heroine of The Little Mermaid can never quite fit in.
Like so many of the stories that Ellis rediscovers, Andersen’s fairy tale only seems to be about a heroine longing for her prince to rescue her. In fact, it’s about more. It’s about identity — about the power of reading to shape us in fundamental ways, sometimes so fundamental that we do not even know it’s happening at the time. Perhaps only when we go back and reacquaint ourselves with our favorite characters will we realize how much they influenced the people we have become.
Miranda Kennedy is a journalist and the author of the reported memoir Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India. She lives in Washington, DC, where she is writing a book about religious belief in America.