How to be a Heroine

I’ve just finished reading How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, and my head is so full of it that there’s no point even attempting to blog about anything else. Or, indeed, to do what I ought to be doing and work on my edits for To Have and to Hold – that June publication date which seemed such a long way away is fast approaching, in publishing terms at least.

Ellis’ memoir is of a woman in her thirties reflecting on the books she’s read, from earliest childhood onwards, and on the heroines of these books who have all contributed to making her the person she is. It’s a fabulous idea, and before I started reading it I had to overcome my jealous resentment that someone else had the idea first. Now I’ve finished it I’m having to restrain myself from turning stalker, finding Samantha Ellis, and begging her to be my new best friend. She articulates so brilliantly the feeling I have always had  – that characters from the books I’ve read and loved are real people in my life, with just as much influence as actual friends.

The reviewer on the Domestic Sluttery website was surprised to learn that she wasn’t the only person who’d loved the Emily of New Moon books, L.M. Montgomery’s lesser-known and less conventional heroine. I’d always thought the same, but apparently there’s a whole generation of bookish girls who grew up in the eighties and nineties reading about Emily’s attempts to resist fitting in and to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. Like Ellis, I’m sure that the seeds of my own desire to be a writer were sewn when I read these books.

One of the things I found most interesting was how Ellis’ perceptions of the heroines have changed as she’s re-read the books. Applying her adult feminist sensibilities often leaves her horrified – at, for example, Katy Carr in What Katy Did, or even the March sisters in Little  Women. This kind of literary criticism is right up my street- analysing not just the text itself, but its social and historical context, and the author’s own personal circumstances. When I was doing my English degree in the late nineties and early noughties, the critical theory most in vogue was post-structuralist, with Roland Barthes, declaring ‘the author is dead’, as its poster boy. I just couldn’t get my head round that; for me the author and the context was integral to the book itself, and I couldn’t see how you could hope to understand one without the other.

It’s not as simplistic as that, though. The relationship between reader and character is symbiotic; their story helps to form us, but we also bring our own experiences to bear on them, meaning that a book can be read in entirely different ways depending on your own situation when you read it. As a young teenager I loved Gone With the Wind, and was so wrapped up in the story of Rhett and Scarlett that the fairly horrific portrayal of slavery as a necessary function of a civilised society basically passed me by. It was only when reading To Kill a Mockingbird a few years later that realisation dawned. Not my finest hour, and Gone With the Wind is one of the few books I loved aged 13 which I haven’t re-read as an adult because I still feel an insidious shame that, emotionally speaking, this book placed me on the wrong side of the civil war.

Ellis quotes a former boss who told her, when she was in her early twenties, that she might enjoy white wine, milk chocolate and Shakespeare’s tragedies now, but when she was properly grown up she would love red wine, dark chocolate and the comedies. At thirty-two and fifty-one weeks I still prefer white wine and milk chocolate (although, in extremis, will take them both however they come), but I’ve definitely shifted from a predilection for gothic tragedies to an appreciation of social comedies, typified by my loyalties shifting from Bronte to Austen. Partly I feel it’s because I have more of an appreciation of how difficult life can be and want to shield myself from that by reading something uplifting, but paradoxically it is perhaps also because I have grown to realise that there is usually a lighter side to the darkest situation, and that finding this perspective is the key to retaining our sanity.

One of Ellis’ criticisms of the books she re-reads is that they have a horrible tendency to end with marriage as a full stop, as though that is the ultimate goal for women. Or, in the few cases where the heroine’s story continues to be told after marriage,Ellis sees her as diminished by it, for example Anne Shirley in the later Green Gables books. Ellis explores novels where a woman can remain single, independent and a heroine, and finds them sadly few and far between. Since having my daughter, I’m hungry for books with heroines who are mothers, and who are struggling to combine their role as a parent with their sense of self and individuality. Not easy. There are loads of books in the ‘mum lit’ genre, but they often seem either to focus exclusively on the woman’s role as a mother, sending her off for a facial or manicure in the middle of it as a sop to the idea of her having an independent life, or the children scarcely seem to impinge at all, and you’re left with the feeling that the heroine must have a team of round the clock carers to protect her from the exigencies of day-to-day parenting. Jennifer Weiner manages it in Little Earthquakes and Certain Girls. Lisa Jewell does it in After the Party, showing Jem, the heroine of her first novel, Ralph’s Party, having made a difficult transition from single, carefree girl-about-town to a harassed mother-of-two trying to combine work, childcare and her partner’s desire for a sex life. If Ralph’s Party presents an idealised picture of life as a twenty-something Londoner, then After the Party should probably be prescribed as a contraceptive.

Ellis’ book has sent me headfirst into a lake of introspection, pondering on the heroines who have formed me, and it’s also made me desperate to re-read some of my favourites from my current life perspective. And to look forward with huge excitement to seeing what my daughter makes of these heroines in a few years time, and how they shape her journey into womanhood. And in the shorter term, to compose as list of my top ten literary heroines to go with my my Desert Island Books lists. Who would yours be?


  1. Really enjoyed this Helen, sadly I’ve forgotten so many of the books I’ve read so re-reading them would probably be a voyage of discovery


    • Definitely a voyage worth going on! My terrible memory means that I can happily read and re-read, even whodunnits, as chances are I will totally have forgotten whodunnit!


    • I’ve cunningly managed to engineer a situation where I can spend a lot of time reading and call it work! Writers need to read a lot…doing an English degree had a similar function!


  2. If life is mostly portrayed in books/films as ending happily ever after the moment we marry/settle down, then it’s no wonder many women find they face identity and relationship issues after this point. We need more books starring women in their 30’s, 40’s and beyond. Get writing please! ;)


    • I’m on it! The tagline in my head for my next book, To Have and to Hold, is ‘what happens after happy ever after, when forever starts to feel like a very long time indeed’!


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