How To Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis
My rating: 5/5 cats
this is a wonderful book. it’s 3/4 memoir, 1/4 lit crit/feminist studies, all laid out in this charming, self-reflective way that’s not agenda-laden; just one woman revisiting the heroines that shaped her life along her reading journey, and reevaluating them as an adult to see if her admiration of them has held up. in many cases, it has not.
i was a little apprehensive at first, reading the table of contents:
The Little Mermaid
Anne of Green Gables
The Dolls (from the Valley)
of those characters listed, i have only read five. FIVE!!! it’s like i have never read a book in my life! fortunately, she doesn’t limit herself to what she displays in this TOC, and in the back matter, there are SEVEN PAGES of texts she mentions throughout the book, ranging from Twilight to Just Kids to Marjorie Morningstar to Tess of the d’Urbervilles. and fortunately, i HAD read a lot of the books in that list, but there were some that i had never even heard of, which i think can be explained by her growing up in london, where things like Lace and Consequences are more commonly read. oh, but be warned—she goes into great detail about these books, and doesn’t shy away from talking about their endings or reveals. in fact, it was fortunate that i had just finished watching buffy the vampire slayer the week before i read this, because she also talks about that last episode. bullet = dodged.
ellis conceived of this project after a friendly argument she had with her friend emma over their irreconcilable differences in their personal allegiance to jane eyre vs. catherine earnshaw, which is one of those arguments that women who read have been having forever. because it’s one or the other, always. me, i am a catherine girl. always have been, always will be. and so was ellis.
…Emma argued that Jane was independent, she knew who she was, she didn’t suffer fools and she stuck to her principles. ‘And Cathy’s just silly.’ Ignoring my howls of fury, she continued, ‘She’s always weeping and wailing, and she says she loves Heathcliff but she marries the rich boy because she’s a snob, and that makes everyone unhappy.’
I defended Cathy. She’s passionate and headstrong—and gorgeous. ‘You can’t like her just because she’s pretty,’ said Emma. All right, but Cathy doesn’t mean to marry the wrong man. She’s pushed into it. And she regrets it, doesn’t she? Emma asked, ‘Why not just not marry the wrong man?’
which is a fair point, and one the author takes to heart, spurring her on into this decision to reread all the books she’d read during her formative years—the books that had inspired her, shaped her, made her into the woman she became. and her conclusion was:
My whole life, I’d been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane.
which is, again, a fair point. but i stay true to my catherine-love. for me, i have never read books as anything other than entertainment or as an appreciation for an author’s craft. i have loved characters, but i have never tried to apply the stories to my own life. i certainly didn’t want to BE catherine—she was a short-tempered bitch (AHEM!), but her story has more of that good novelistic meat; more pumping blood and passion than jane eyre. she’s horrible, yeah, but every last character in that book is horrible (in the old testament parts, not the second generation). i loved her fire, and i responded to her wildness, because it was relatable. i never felt particularly repressed growing up, so Jane Eyre was less appealing to me, and somehow more farfetched and gothic, with all that bertha and gypsy stuff. (although bertha is still the best thing about that book by far. pumping blood and meat and all.)
but unlike meeeee, ellis does change her affiliation a little, and comes to appreciate jane as a character more than she had on her first reading:
I wondered why I’d written Jane off. She is independent, and brave, and clever, and she really does stay true to herself. And while Cathy ends up a wandering ghost, Jane ends up happily married. The brilliant sunshine was very Jane weather, I thought; pleasant, clear and rational. It would have rained for Cathy, there would have been thunder and lightning. And (said a small, but firm Jane voice) we would have shivered and eaten soggy sandwiches hunched under the hoods of our waterproofs.
this is also a good place to mention how much i love the author’s voice in all of this. i really want this woman to be my friend—i love the way she talks about books, and i love how passionate she is about her favorite characters. even though i have never felt as emotionally attached to characters in books as she clearly does, it’s just delightful to read lit crit by someone who is. it’s so personal, and passages like this:
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 had a crush on the coolest boy at Hebrew school. He smouldered (as far as a twelve-year-old could).
As a teenager I thought the best love was unrequited, so I preferred Scarlett/Ashley to Scarlett/Rhett. The dream of love was fine, but I wasn’t so ready for the real thing.
There was a time when, unable to see what a tool Ashley is, I thought impossible love was the best kind. But I hope I’m braver about love now, and I’m tempted to make a rule that any heroine who spends a whole novel in love with someone who can’t or won’t love her back is not truly a heroine. Because unrequited love is delusional, thankless, and boring.
just made me smile, even though i am still an unrequited love enthusiast.
and this anecdote makes me think we coulda been besties coming up in our youth:
I was still a good Iraqi Jewish girl. In that hectic first week, very late one night, a boy passed out and hit his head. There was blood everywhere. The medical students took charge. Lectures hadn’t started yet, so they knew as much about medicine as I did, but I didn’t have the nous to do what they did, administering water and painkillers, making up a bed for him on someone else’s floor, putting him in the recovery position so he wouldn’t choke. I was shocked. I’d never been drunk before. It was only because of Plath that I even recognized ‘that strong, silted-up force that makes one move through air like swimming.’ Everyone else was so confident and capable. I was frozen in his doorway, the room full of blood and vomit like a crime scene. Then all at once I knew what to do. I got the bucket of cleaning products my mother had packed—enough bleach and antibacterial spray to deep-clean a hospital—and set to work. I cleaned the blood off the walls. I stripped the bed and scrubbed the headboard. I mopped the floor, and cleaned the mop, and washed out the bucket. I boil-washed the sheets. Dawn found me sitting in the hot, empty laundry, waiting for the dryer to finish its cycle. I was so totally my mother’s daughter. When in doubt, clean.
because while i was not a good iraqi jewish girl in college, i was definitely always the practical one, squandering my maternal impulses on my besotted friends and i LOVED order and cleanliness and doing all sorts of stoned cooking and tidying for my less ambitiously stoned pals. so, again—relatable.
the Jane Eyre/Wuthering Heights face-off continues throughout the book, and she makes many excellent points:
But is the love in Wuthering Heights really that great? It obliterates the people who experience it. Cathy says it best: ‘I am Heathcliff.’
And their love is impossible. Even if miscommunication, heinousness and bad luck hadn’t kept them apart, the idea of Heathcliff and Cathy getting married and settling down in some cozy cottage, growing old together, does not compute. This is not one of those romance novels where a kind, daring heroine sees the kernel of good in an edgy, dark-hearted hero and redeems him…Cathy is as moody and savage as Heathcliff, and she couldn’t save him if she tried. She doesn’t want to. She doesn’t want to be kind and sweet and good: she dreams that she goes to heaven and hates it so much that she cries until the angels throw her down to the moors where she belongs. Cathy and Heathcliff’s love is too raw and rarefied to exist in the real world, and they know it; they can only be together as restless ghosts…their love is just not realistic. It is the kind of love, in fact, that could only be written by someone who had never been in love.
It’s hard to root for a man who rages about saying things like ‘I have no pity! I have no pity! The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails.’ It’s savage stuff, but it’s also just so…can I say it?…melodramatic.
But here’s the thing: Wuthering Heights isn’t really about Heathcliff as a hero, or Cathy as a heroine. Heathcliff himself cautions against ‘picturing in me a hero.’ It’s about love. Transcendent love, operatic love, excessive, abandoned love. It’s unreasonable, this love. It is angsty and probably immature. But tornado love is more appealing than postmodern love.
there’s nothing incorrect there, but for her—reading these books is about the characters, while for me, it has always been about the story. Wuthering Heights is one of the most melodramatic stories of destructive love ever written—we are in full agreement there. it just never occurred to me to think of either of them as heroic. for me they are outgrowths of the wildness of their natural surroundings, and it’s just glorious reading a human manifestation of all those beautiful, destructive things nature does:
it’s romantic, but it’s not the kind of romance you want in your life, just in your books.
and although she comes around on jane:
…she becomes a proper heroine when, her marriage ruined by the discovery of Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, she refuses to stay and be his mistress.
This didn’t always strike me as heroic. I used to think she was cowardly and skittish, a prude without the guts to flout convention. I thought she was the one betraying her heart. Why bang on about passion if you’re not going to defy society?
i am still there with my hands on my hips saying “yeah, WHY???” because that’s the kind of story i wanna read.
and as much as i can appreciate this nuance:
I’ve always resented what I saw as Jane’s placid preternatural calm but now it seems like enviable self-possession.
self-possession is not a quality that makes for an engrossing book, in my eyes (The Remains of the Day excluded. engrossing, but also frustrating.)
but i will say one thing about this book, it definitely made me want to reread The Bell Jar with adult eyes. i read that book when you’re supposed to, in that fragile 15-year-old period, and i dismissed it as unfashionable. i loved her poems, but—hell—i had tori amos—who needed plath after that? i know, typical, right?? but i have always been partial to redheads, and i always felt that one of my favorite songs of hers, mother, was really just a reversal of plath’s daddy, although, listening to it now, i have no idea why i thought that. must have been the military imagery, and the whole parental distancing motif. but!! in an interesting parallel to this book, it turns out i still really like tori amos! the opening piano in this song KILLS ME!
but back to plath.
Realising how wrong I was about Tess and Celie makes me think it’s time to go back to Plath. I rejected her at the end of that sad first year. I put her books away. I was sick of suffering. I thought Plath was navel-gazing, luxuriating in her own misery. I didn’t want to do that any more.
and i had a similar experience with The Bell Jar. it just seemed indulgent, and i never understood what all the fuss was over that book—why it was so revered. as she notes, there were more modern and potent examples of that howling self-destructiveness available to girls coming up in our time:
Angst was everywhere. That same year, Girl, Interrupted came out, a memoir set in the mental hospital Plath went to. In 1994 came Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, with the author on the cover, hair tousled, pouting sulkily, fenced in by barbed wire made of pills. Courtney Love’s band Hole released Live Through This that year too, just after her husband Kurt Cobain had killed himself, and I was stunned by her anguished performances and her train-wreck interviews. These women wore their suffering like fairy princesses wore tiaras. The were beautiful and sad and angry and liberated. Who wouldn’t want to be them?
and while i was never a big hole fan, courtney love as a symbol of tattered-girl survival shrieking fuck you misery was undeniably attractive and hard to look away from.
but reading about her adult reappraisal of The Bell Jar makes me think i might appreciate it more if i, too, were to revisit it. i want to read the book she reads here. her adult interpretation redeems it for me, secondhand, and i want to see for myself. as she says,
It’s embarrassing to admit how wildly I misread A Room with a View when I was 20. Though I’m beginning to think all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need from them at the time.
which, swap out the word “heroines” for the more general “books” for me, and i’m right there with her. i adore how attached she has gotten to the women in these books. it makes me feel a little flawed for not reading books the same way as she does—as applications to her ownself, although if i did, i certainly wouldn’t feel the way i feel about Wuthering Heights, and i wouldn’t want to give that up.
and honestly, it seems a little exhausting to read “her” way—to always be on the lookout for lessons
I don’t want to give up my heroines. The idea makes me fee bereft. For a few days I consider it. I imagine a life without heroines. I even read a Lee Child novel with a tough title, Killing Floor, as a sort of palate-cleanser, thinking it will be the most male book I’ve ever read. But there’s a heroine in it too, a small-town cop whose supposed strength is constantly undercut by her dependence on the hero; nevertheless, I find myself trying to work out what I can learn from her, and realize I’m doing it again. Maybe I’m too addicted to heroines to stop. But is this addiction damaging? If I don’t give up my heroines, will it mean I can’t become a heroine myself?
it just feels a little limiting to me, to wait to be inspired by a character in a book, as though novels are intended to be a manual for living, because characters are just that—they are contrivances—cogs in the machine; something that moves the plot forward. which is not a particularly magical or romantic way to look at books, i know, but that’s always been my reading style. sure, there are characters that i have found endearing and all, but i have never been like “that is how i shall be! thank you, bella swan!”
but ellis’ passion for this kind of ultimate heroine is still charming, to me.
what is NOT charming is how goodreads just cut me off for TOO LONG!!! i will continue in my comments space and HHMPH!!!
she also makes me want to read Gone with the Wind. i have never read the book or seen the movie, nor ever wanted to—it’s a story i felt i knew nonetheless, just from being a human in the world, hearing it referenced in other works. but everything she says about it here (and again—she goes into A LOT of detail, including what she thinks happens after the book’s end) makes it sound appealing to me in a way that it never had before. and i think that’s exciting—to catch someone else’s enthusiasm for a book. that’s kind of the best thing about goodreads, isn’t it? reading someone’s review of a book that you wouldn’t have otherwise considered reading yourself? that right there erases all the bullshit this site provides—all the fights and the trolls and the sockpuppets.
and in another moment of timeliness, this tiny little aside also made me smile, in light of some recent unpleasantness i experienced on this very site:
I also know things about Salinger, things I wish I didn’t. I know he behaved questionably to women, drank his own urine and breakfasted on frozen peas. Emma says I shouldn’t know all this prurient stuff. It gets in the way. Emma is right.
emma is so freaking wise.
and ellis is wise, too, by not neglecting to discuss the films and other adaptations made from these novels, and noting how they differ from the books and how that changes the perception of the heroine. this is most notable when talking to her niece about the little mermaid; a story that changes significantly from book to screen and makes the situation much less icky to those who have only seen the disney version.
i also love her frustration with the marriage plot, and her almost-failure to find a happy spinster in her readings—one who is a full and vibrant woman who doesn’t need a wedding to realize her potential. and this just cracked me up, her reaction to reactions of To the Lighthouse:
I’m so glad to have finally found a happy fictional spinster that I go on about it, at great length, to a friend of mine…But he laughs. ‘It’s phallic,” he says. ‘Have you never seen a lighthouse?’ I make such an extravagantly Middle Eastern gesture of outrage that I knock half our lunch off the table. Later, one of my book group stalwarts, one of the most intelligent and witty single women I know, startles me by saying ‘It’s not a phallus, but a dildo, and Lily can use it to pleasure herself.’ At least this is a feminist Freudian reading but still, I’m outraged. Who knew all my friends were Mr. Mybugs? I’d like to bring Flora in to back me up. Because I don’t think it’s a phallus or a dildo. I can’t believe I’m even typing that sentence. A lighthouse is a symbol of self-sufficiency. Like the lighthouse keepers who live there, not needing anything from the mainland, Lily has become self-sufficient. And like the lighthouse beam that stops shipwrecks, she saves lives; she has saved her own life.
i love her outrage. i really wish i could get as emotionally worked up over books as she does.
but i gotta say—this robot-hearted reader loved THIS book and i would read a hundred more chapters of it if she were to write them. keep reading, samantha ellis—you make everything lovelier.
i leave you with this last quotation, which ALMOST makes me understand the appeal of austen. almost.
Mr Darcy really changes. When Lizzy rejects him, he shows what kind of man he is by the way he responds. He isn’t sceptical and angry and rude like Mr. Collins. He takes Lizzy’s criticisms on board and tried hard to be nicer to her, which is amazingly unresentful, as she’s just rejected him. He also saves her family’s reputation; rejection doesn’t make him bitter. And he doesn’t stop loving Lizzy because she’s said no to him. He still cares about her and wants to help her. He is doing his best to change into the kind of man she might want, but he isn’t hoping for a reward for saving Lydia’s reputation; he’s doing it because it’s the right thing to do. And he’s so good in a crisis! When Lizzie tells him Lydia has run away he says how sorry he is then heads straight for London and quickly sorts things out with the minimum of fuss. That’s a hero.
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