Romantic quest for literary life models
How to be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much
By Samantha Ellis Chatto & Windus, 272pp, $34.99 (HB) SAMANTHA Ellis’s book has a fairly simple premise, outlined in the first chapter: the English playwright and journalist thinks it may be time to explore her fascination for literary heroines, to see whether her habit of using them as role models has become redundant.
This journey is begun on the moors beyond Haworth, the Brontes’ home village, when the author’s best friend points out Jane Eyre may be a better role model than Catherine Earnshaw, the cruel and passionate lover of Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. This declaration takes Ellis by surprise, leading to an epiphany that causes her to write this book. “My whole life, I’d been trying to be Cathy when I should have been trying to be Jane.”
When she goes back to London, she decides she will re-read all her old books to see what she can see. Was it worth trying to be Scarlett O’Hara, Esther Greenwood or Franny Glass?
Each chapter is constructed similarly: a book and its heroine are introduced — ranging from those mentioned above, through the Little Mermaid, past Anne of Green Gables (and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s lesser-known but feistier creation, Emily of New Moon), Elizabeth Bennet and Lucy Honeychurch, all the way to Scheherazade — and the book’s place in Ellis’s reading life is established.
It’s a fun idea; Ellis explores the life and times of each woman or girl, evaluates her worth as a role model, and dismisses, reifies or re-imagines her, reshaping her to fit the life of a woman in 21st-century London. Ellis writes good, lively prose in describing her development as a reader; she comes from an Iraqi Jewish family, exiled to London, and her account of the tension between the life of her family and the life of the city has real energy.
But the problem with How to be a Heroine is it is based on something of an untruth: the author’s feigned ignorance of an obvious fact, that women in books were not written as heroines — not written to instruct us how to behave — but because their authors invented them as vehicles for their own voices. In this way Ellis’s excellent material must always be bent out of shape or truncated to accommodate the central conceit, which is as follows: the women or girls in these books aren’t behaving as role models ought, thus, what was I doing, thinking literary heroines were my teachers?
Literature is about complexity. It is complexity. It shows us how contradictory our lives
March 22-23, 2014 are; it is the antithesis of polemic. Ellis knows this, but pretends she has forgotten it, and she pretends we have too. She loses our trust as readers as she hauls us through her list of heroines. She notes their inconsistencies, their ambiguous behaviour, and concludes, surprising us not at all, that they are indeed inconsistent and ambiguous.
There is a certain vigour in the prose when she shows us the way ahead; telling us a woman can’t look to her literary heroines but may take instruction from a certain theatrical or improvisational principle, the principle of yes, and. To quote Ellis: “When one performer makes an offer, the other must accept it ( yes) and offer something of their own ( and).”
This seems a reasonable and creative way to approach life, but it is hard to believe 245 pages were needed to grasp this. A more interesting book might have started at this point of yes, and, where the waters ahead are utterly uncharted. But this is an account of a journey already taken, full of ersatz discovery.
The description of Ellis’s beloved books tells us more than it intends. Here they are, forming a pile by the author’s bed, “battered and tearstained, their jackets scuffed, spines cracked, margins scrawled in; some had flowers pressed between the pages”. This description tells us not just that the author is an incorrigible romantic but that she is an “incorrigible romantic”. It sounds almost computer-generated — isn’t this how everyone describes books belonging to women? — and exemplifies exactly the sort of thinking that traps so many heterosexual women; the sort of thinking that makes it impossible for us to be anything but privileged automatons who eat too much chocolate when unhappy, drink white wine with our girlfriends, cry in romantic movies and press flowers in tear-spattered copies of our favourite books. Victims, in short; victims of a narrative that is ultimately driven by capitalism, dull and unworthy of great literature, which cares not whether we are men or women and cares only that we have a brain. Ellis may have set out to refute these cliches but, in fact, by repeating them she simply reinforces them.
There is also a slight feeling of the commission about this apparently spontaneously written book, resulting in what is a fairly ordinary piece of journalism. In seeking to subvert it only imitates. It does and says nothing new, relying on the tropes of the newspaper column for its revelations and amusements. I care what Ellis has to say about her life and reading through her art, but in the end I am not interested in this kind of memoir. It would be much better to read Wuthering Heights. Tegan Bennett Daylight is a fiction writer, teacher and critic.
Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles in the 1934 film of