How to Be a Heroine

How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned From Reading Too Much by Samantha Ellis, Vintage Books/Random House, 272 pages

What would happen at a cocktail party attended by literature’s great heroines? Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara would try to teach Lizzy Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) to flirt, Franny Glass (Franny and Zooey) would do a soft shoe, and Mildred Lathbury (Excellent Women) would accidentally gets tipsy on sherry. Lizzy would laugh at Scarlett, who wouldn’t seem to mind.

Samantha Ellis’ vision of the most fabulous imaginary bash ever follows her close study of each heroine above, along with many others. In How to Be a Heroine, which is part literary criticism, part memoir, she revisits characters from her life as a reader in order to reassess her initial readings (or, she speculates, misreadings) and to reflect upon her own arc — her moments as some sort of a heroine.

Ellis, a playwright, was born in London, the daughter of Jewish Iraqis forced to leave Baghdad amid violent persecution. For her, the story of the Little Mermaid doesn’t involve enchantment or the open sea but “displacement and separation and loss” — a sense that you can’t go home again. Ellis’ family cannot return to Iraq; the Little Mermaid cannot return to the sea because she has sold her beautiful voice for legs. How Ellis breaks down the problematic aspects of this and other narratives is one of the book’s top pleasures. The mermaid “gives up her voice for legs to get a man,” she writes, later adding, “You don’t have to be Naomi Wolf to have issues with this.”

As Ellis grows up, her imagination, autonomy, expectations, and ambitions evolve, right alongside those of the leading ladies in her well-worn stack of books. She contends with choices and challenges — whether to leave home to attend a university, how to live with her sudden “rococo” seizures, who to be and who to become — while she reads about the bravery of Lucy Honeychurch (A Room With a View) and the suffering of Esther Greenwood (The Bell Jar), and the many other qualities that give the best heroines their nuance and strength.

Romance of course plays a key role, prompting quips that would delight Dorothy Parker: “Tornado love,” Ellis writes, referring to Wuthering Heights, “is more appealing than postmodern love.” The author asserts that “unrequited love is delusional, thankless, and boring,” and is therefore inclined to strip female characters of their heroine status if they waste any time and energy on it.

She gives particular heed to the age-old marriage plot, in which misunderstandings and complications arise, get resolved, and are forgiven and forgotten in time for a walk down the aisle. Ellis’ own marriage plot was all but written for her before she could have read it: She was to marry a Jewish boy her parents had approved. As her sense of self develops, she starts to seek heroines who “struggled to evade the same fate I was struggling to evade.” Nora (A Doll’s House), Lily Briscoe (To the Lighthouse), Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple: These are women who find — through action rather than in daydreams — fulfillment outside of romantic love and courtship. Not everything must end in a wedding.

Or with a death. Ellis will probably never forgive Charles Dickens for what happens to Nancy Sykes. She spent one summer rewriting Oliver Twist “so that girls came out [on] top” — including its new protagonist, Olivia Twist.

Books about reading, and personal discoveries achieved through reading, seem to have proliferated in the past few years, often sprinkled with “my” or “I” or “me” in the title or subtitle. This can get risky when the author is less dynamic than the characters about whom he or she writes, or when the “I” starts to get in the way. Happily, neither is the case in How to Be a Heroine, whose author is witty, candid, and (most important) a thoughtful, eagle-eyed reader. It is a testament to her talent that she would hold her own at that cocktail party. She might even extemporize, to a rapt audience, on the glories of writing, secretly hoping to get Jo March (Little Women) and Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables) to pick up their pens again.

Ellis’ textual perceptions offer her own readers much to consider, regardless of their familiarity with the specific books she revisits. You need not have read the novels Ellis parses, although you may have to budget for a visit to Collected Works once you reach the end. The bibliography might as well be a shopping list. One caveat: Not all of the works are canonical. Some have been pigeonholed as fluff for as long as they’ve been around, and their reconsideration and newfound appreciation are welcome. Nonetheless, readers who prefer their lit crit without references to Meg Ryan movies — who prefer to keep their highbrow high and their “lowbrow” invisible — may wish to seek scholarship elsewhere.

Of the many ways to judge a book, the physical state of a reader’s copy is almost as superficial as it gets. It ranks just above cover art. Yet worn pages, scribbles in the margins, and food stains attest to the joy of repeat visits, to the urgency of sharing in the thoughts and actions of seemingly kindred spirits. Ellis notes this as she pores over her “frenziedly annotated” copy of Sylvia Plath’s collected journals and her wine- and bathwater-tinted copy of Wuthering Heights. For this reader, by that measure and others, How to Be a Heroine is a smash.

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