How to be a Heroine : Or, what I’ve learned from reading too much by Samantha Ellis reviewed for the Bookbag.
“How to be a Heroine is a pleasant and addictive read. Playwright Samantha Ellis looks back at her childhood as a voracious reader and remembers the characters that influenced her. These are as diverse as Sylvia Plath, Little Women and Scheherazade.
Each chapter is titled after a heroine (Anne of Green Gables, the Dolls from the Valley), in which Ellis focuses on that particular heroine and lets her thoughts seemingly drift to other characters. Some of the heroines who inspired her are young women who write, like Anne of Green Gables or Jo March. Often their writing career ends abruptly and Ellis looks for the reasons behind this. For instance, LM Montgomery, who wrote the Anne of Green Gables books, had a disappointing marriage with a man who resented her success and Ellis wonders whether this could be the reason why Anne stopped writing after getting married. This habit of standing up for her heroines, defending them against unfair treatment from their creators, makes Ellis a formidable and endearing narrator. It also shows us how characters in literature escape the confines of their books and belong to the readers rather than to their creators.
Ellis, with the experience of adulthood, revisits earlier allegiances and sometimes changes her mind about them. For instance, she had always admired Cathy in Wuthering Heights but after re-reading the book, decides she is snobbish and too dramatic. Is Jane Eyre, with her calm intelligence, a better role model?
Ellis’s style is clear and frequently amusing. At one point, she wonders what Lizzie Bennett from Pride and Prejudice would have made of the Twilight series. She also looks at her heroines in the setting of their times; while Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice navigates the rules of Regency society, the women in Shakespeare refuse to play the game and instead break the rules.
Ellis allows her life to shine through until she becomes as familiar as one of the heroines. It is an interesting life; the daughter of Iraqi Jewish immigrants, she is expected to marry a man from the small pool of Iraqi Jews, a fate she rebels against. She becomes a playwright after going to Cambridge and trying out different career paths that distract her from her vocation.
These glimpses into the author’s life are fascinating. In the chapter about the women in The Valley of the Dolls, she describes her time working as an editor for a vanity press, proof-reading novels from deluded writers in which the characters change sex midway through. The description of the office and of her colleagues is precise and vivid and the publishing house comes to life in a few lines. The young Ellis’s fears are also relatable to: if these bad writers are convinced they are good, how can she be sure that she herself can write? Luckily, she has now more than answered that question.”