How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis
Published by Chatto & Windus
2nd January 2014
On a pilgrimage to Wuthering Heights, Samantha Ellis found herself arguing with her best friend about which heroine was best: Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. She was all for wild, free, passionate Cathy, but her friend found Cathy silly, a snob who betrays Heathcliff for Edgar and makes them all unhappy - while courageous Jane makes her own way.
And that's when Samantha realised that all her life she'd been trying to be Cathy when should have been trying to be Jane.
So she decided to look again at her heroines - the girls, women, books that had shaped her ideas of the world and how to life. Some of them stood up to the scrutiny (she will always love Lizzy Bennet); some of them most decidedly did not (turns out Katy Carr from What Katy Did isn't a carefree rebel, she's a drip). There were revelations (the real heroine of Gone with the Wind? It's Melanie), joyous reunions (Anne of Green Gables), poignant memories (Sylvia Plath) and tearful goodbyes (Lucy Honeychurch). And then there was Jilly Cooper...
How to be a Heroine is a funny, touching, inspiring exploration of the role of heroines, and our favourite books, in all our lives - and how they change over time, for better or worse, just as we do.
A couple of summers ago, I was on the Yorkshire moors, arguing (over the wuthering) with my best friend about whether we'd be Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw.
I thought Cathy. Obviously Cathy. The point of this walk (this pilgrimage) was to see the ruins of the farmhouse that inspired Wuthering Heights, which loomed at us promisingly from the top. We'd both, without consulting each other, worn lace-edged T-shirts in honour of the occasion, and after stopping off for supplies in Haworth, here we were at last, and it was just as I'd imagined: all rain-green moorland, spiky heather, a turbulent waterfall and signs beguilingly translated into Japanese (the Brontës are big in Japan).
It was supposed to be Emily Brontës favourite walk. She was an ineterate walker, always out, in all weathers. Once, she found a merlin hawk in an abandoned nest and brought him home. She named him Hero. Or possibly Nero. No one can read her handwriting. She painted a watercolour of him, and in her poem, 'The Caged Bird', she imagined him longing for 'Earth's breezy hills and heaven's blue sea'. And in fact he did escape, while she was away studying in Brussels, and when she got back she could find no trace of him.
I hoped we might see a hawk. But I was excited just to be there, on the moor Emily had walked, the moor Cathy spends whole days out on, and haunts after her death. I was just about managing to stop myself from yelling out to Heathcliff that it was me, Cathy, coming home.
So stoic, virtuous, plain Jane was very much not on my mind. But Emma argued that Jane was independent, she knew who she was, she didn't suffer fools and she stuck to her principles. 'And Cathy's just silly.' Ignoring my howls of fury, she continued, 'She's always weeping and wailing, and she says she loves Heathcliff but she marries the rich boy because she's a snob, and that makes everyone unhappy.'
How to be a Heroine is an interesting concept. Author Samantha Ellis takes the books she loved throughout her youth, and sets to re-reading them in order to see just how the central, female, characters have ultimately shaped her life. It certainly got me wondering about the books I've read over the years, and that if upon re-reading them I would still feel the same way about them. Part of me thinks this would be an appealing challenge, but then another part of me wonders about whether my possible changing opinion of some of them would dishearten me.
Ellis looks at central characters from both the classics - Jane Eyre and Ballet Shoes to much more modern women in Riders and Franny and Zooey and discusses their virtues and merits alongside their flaws. I have never read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and after reading some of the extracts in this book, I still have no interest in doing so. I fear I would be increasingly frustrated with it. Some I do want to read though, E. M. Forster's A Room with a View has been on my shelf for a very long time, and I want to learn more about the artistic Lucy Honeychurch; I also want to re-read Stella Gibbon's classic Cold Comfort Farm with it's heroine Flora Poste.
Do I delve deep enough into the characters of the books that I read. I know many people try to imagine characters by who would play them in a film, but I can't do that, I simply read, and enjoy the prose for what it is. Is this the way to do it, or should I be questioning the characters, their traits and morals, and by doing so, would it have changed who I've become? A debate for another time maybe?!