Ro­man­tic quest for lit­er­ary life mod­els

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Te­gan Ben­nett Day­light

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

Jane Eyre

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