Fiction which writes our own inner scripts, and how we choose to live
Samantha Ellis is a British playwright whose family background is Jewish Iraqi. Her heritage has informed her writing and a search for her own identity which both acknowledges cultural and historical roots and seeks to escape from it by forging her own unique contribution, free from the expectations of that close-knit culture.
In this wonderful book, “How To Be A Heroine : Or What I’ve Leaned From Reading Too Much” , which must delight any voracious reader, and most specifically, any voracious female reader, she explores, with wit, humour, intelligence and creativity, not to mention a fine style, a trawl through literary creations who shaped her, whom she adored, was annoyed by, betrayed by, inspired by.
We all need role models to aspire to, or, as Ellis suggests, to help form ourselves, or partially model ourselves on. Intriguingly in this book, she suggests the models for many of us may be in literature, where we receive ideas of how to live, who we might be
The genesis of the book came from a passionately argued conversation with a friend. Tempestuous and dramatic, in search of a great passionate love, Ellis realised she had internalised Cathy from Wuthering Heights as a role model, whilst her friend argued for the cool, rational and realistic Jane Eyre, for her integrity and refusal to be anyone’s victim.
This sets Ellis on a wonderful journey from the classics of children’s literature, through to great and modern classic writing, and she demonstrates her eclectic, unsnobby reading tastes by even finding some positive lessons to learn from the heroines of Jilly Cooper and Jacqueline Susann! The dynamic she tussles with, over and over, is love, and work – and the validation (or lack of it) for female creativity, the female artist. There is both a personal story going on here, and a wider story about how literature helps us shape our place in the world. Her final literary heroine is Scheherazade, from 1001 nights, who offers inspiration both in her transformation over her relationship and as a storyteller, as an artist :
No writer is writing me a better journey. No writer is guiding me through my misunderstandings and muddles and wrong turns to reach my happy ending. And then I realise I am the writer. I don’t mean because I write. I mean because we all write our own lives. Scheherazade’s greatest piece of storytelling is not the stories she tells, but the story she lives
Ellis combines serious intent, with wonderful wit, panache, and whilst taking her journey seriously, has great droll fun at her own expense – and that of her heroines.
Finally rethinking her relationship to Cathy Earnshaw and Jane Eyre, she says, thinking of the Haworth moor hike with a friend which started the journey of this book :
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
The book contains a useful index and a bibliography of all the texts.
I found this a wonderful, layered book, about many things – the writer herself; the creative impulse; the growth of child into adult; literature, and the joys of fiction; changing attitudes to fiction, and its value; the changing attitudes towards women, as reflected in fiction, especially women’s attitudes to themselves and their aspirations; the different ways in which we might analyse literature, from a pre-and post-feminist perspective. Not to mention the enduring subtext by which we still so often define ourselves in relationship with men, the tug between love and work, the perceptions of marriage and motherhood.
I recommend this book enthusiastically, and will no doubt revisit the texts I know, and explore the ones I don’t
As a post-script: Part of the enjoyment of this book is the imaginative argument the reader may have with the author about the MISSED heroines, as each reader perhaps considers `and which literary characters influenced ME?’ The one I wanted to thrust upon Ellis, who crossly loved and was also hugely angered by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Princess, was the much more feisty, proto-Pantheistic Mary from Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Definitely one of MY early heroines!
Along the way, her books and writers examined, range far and wide from Marilyn French, The Women’s Room, Lucy Honeychurch in E.M.Forster’s A Room With a View, Hardy’s Tess, Austen’s Lizzie Bennett, Louise May Alcott’s March girls, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Princess, Hans Anderson’s Little Mermaid, The Sleeping Beauty, Jane Eyre, Nancy in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, Flora Poste in Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm, Scarlett and Melanie from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, Salinger’s Frannie. Jilly Cooper’s bonk busters, Erica Jong, Germaine Greer, Lily Briscoe and Mrs Ramsay from Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.
And more. Many more. She is nothing if not broad church in her potential heroines!