Originally posted May 1, 2015
Which would you rather be: Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw? Your answer can say a lot about you, aside from revealing your Team Charlotte or Team Emily leanings in the world of Brontëana. On the face of it, picking Jane makes you sharp and independent, and siding with Cathy betrays your fierce romantic streak. Samantha Ellis, a British playwright and journalist, opens with that in her literary memoir How to Be a Heroine, or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much. She played this unassuming “would you rather” game with her best friend and unwittingly went down a bookish road that began with revisiting the greats and ended up revealing whole new layers to some of Ellis’s favorite literary ladies.
More than literary criticism, How to Be a Heroine is about a word nerd’s journey from girlhood onward. Raised by Jewish Iraqi refugees in England, Ellis blends her personal coming-of-age story between witty commentary and in-depth analysis of her favorite literary girls and women. Beginning with the Little Mermaid and Anne Shirley, and moving to Esther Greenwood and Franny Glass, Ellis shows how re-reading her favorite girl characters allows her to parse her own lived girlhood scripts and reveal entire new truths about her womanhood.
“Because I started reading again the books that had meant so much to me, I remembered how I’d felt as a four-year-old wishing I was the Little Mermaid, or at twenty, wanting to be Lucy Honeychurch,” Ellis writes in the introduction. “It was hard to confront my mistakes, and I had to ask myself difficult questions. But I discovered that I did have an arc and a journey after all. I wasn’t just reading about my heroines, I was reading the story of my life.”
Ellis approaches her literary life map with a keen sense of feminist criticism, and the message is a strong push for a revision of how girlhood is presented to readers. She learned young, like Toni Morrison’s Pecola Breedlove, to envy the likes of Sleeping Beauty for their blue eyes and blonde hair, begrudging her own heritage and brand of beauty in the mix. On the other side, her adult reading of Pride and Prejudice shows that men can be into smart girls like Lizzy Bennett, even if they don’t seem attractive at first glance across a dance hall. L. M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott gave Ellis and the rest of us strong girl characters who defied dashing love interests for the better of their writing and intellectual journeys. And Sylvia Plath and Susanna Kaysen gave us all-too-real girl analogs for how to deal when life throws an invisible weight on your shoulders.
On the whole, the book is a smooth read and an excellent run-through of half a lifetime of reading femininity. Ellis doesn’t cover girl heroines alone, but all her subjects reveal quite a lot about what it means to be born a female and—as Simone de Beauvoir would put it—to become a woman. I for one am achingly jealous of the ingenuity behind How to Be a Heroine, but I feel like all of this is better coming from Ellis than from me. Because now I have one more heroine—Ellis herself—to raise my consciousness further, to be my guiding light into peeling away the improvised layers of life one by one, again and again.
“I don’t know where I’m going next, and for the first time in forever, I don’t want to,” writes Ellis on the final leaf. “I want my life to be picaresque. Fantastical. I want to say yes and.”