“My whole life, I’d been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane.”
How To Be A Heroine (Or, what I’ve learned from reading too much) by playwright and writer Samantha Ellis is a delight. It’s a memoir-slash-accessible-literary-criticism, slash-your-next-read. Ellis was inspired to revisit and reexamine her library after a trip to the haunting Brontë country of Yorkshire with a friend. An argument ensued about whether the calm and virtuous Jane Eyre or Wuthering Height’s passionate and reckless Cathy Earnshaw was the better heroine. Ellis, older and wiser than the girl who consumed the classic tale of thwarted passion and wandering-the-moors soulmates, realized she may have gotten it wrong regarding Team Cathy and should have perhaps nailed her colours to a more sensible mast. This self-doubt sets in motion a journey through the western canon and the female protagonists that captured the reading imaginations. Turns out that Lizzy Bennet is still fabulous, Anne Shirley beats Sara’s passive A Little Princess hands down, Scarlett O’Hara might not be as likeable a bitch as we previously thought, and the original Sleeping Beauty is actually a bit of a feminist nightmare.
The best parts of How To Be A Heroine however are when Ellis delves into her family history; her mother was an Iraqi jew who had to flee persecution in Baghdad across the mountains of Kurdistan. That escape attempt failed and she and her family were imprisoned. She eventually reached London, fell in love with Ellis’ father and started a family there. This ‘storybook life’ had all happened by the time she reached 22 and its legacy casts a sometimes sad shadow on Ellis’ childhood. Growing up with a grandfather who never recovered from the treatment he received in his home country, she sees how serious and helpful imagination can be, but also how it can be redundant at certain times. And that’s the lesson How To Be A Heroine rams home. Being a sprightly can-do heroine is all well and good, but sometimes it’s the women who face their problems head on that are the really inspiring ones. Long live Jane.
Buy How To Be A Heroine here.
Jeanne Sutton @jeannedesutun