Book Review: How to be a Heroine – Samantha Ellis

I’m going to be completely honest and confess that I picked up How to be a Heroine based on the title (I am always looking to be the heroine of my own story, naturally) and the book cover, which as you can see, features the spines of some of my most beloved books.

Samantha Ellis was a new name to me, but was instantly fascinating. From a culturally unusual background (Iraqi Jewish) and brought up in an insular community in London, Ellis attended Cambridge University and was a voracious reader who went on to become a playwright. I knew from the introduction – when she and her best friend make the trip up to Haworth and wander the moors thinking about the Brontës – that I’d found a kindred spirit.

After pronouncing to her best friend that being a Cathy Earnshaw was better than being a Jane Eyre and being met with astonishment, Ellis decides to revisit all her favourite heroines, from early childhood to adulthood, to see if her perception of them was correct and whether they’ve changed for her as she gets older. This results in a book that is part memoir, part feminist literary criticism.

First off, I absolutely loved the concept of the book. I am someone who has always treasured books that left a strong impression on me and I completely buy into the idea that we can be made up of little bits of people who’ve meant something at different points in our lives – whether they’re fictional or not. Ellis read a lot of books I did growing up, so I was often very familiar with the books she described. By taking well-known, well-loved stories (some of which have been discussed here) Ellis has ensured that the book is accessible to all sorts of readers, from all kinds of backgrounds. Her appraisal of the novels she examines is both fondly nostalgic and sharp-eyed; Ellis doesn’t allow a childhood love of something to blind her to its faults but neither does she scrap something that perhaps doesn’t bear scrutiny as well as it did, but had clearly been important to her.

I enjoyed the literary criticism aspect of the book. As a former literature student, I know that there can be something really satisfying looking at all the ways a piece of text can influence. Though truthfully I’m not sure I could be as brave Ellis in examining my faithful favourites as closely as she did (I almost had to close my eyes when she examined Little Women, as I still love it so much). I also found the memoir aspect to be really interesting. Like me, Ellis was a relentlessly well-behaved child, with a slightly over-active imagination that occasionally leads to trouble. Like me, she was drawn to the theatre and its unbeatable energy. I found reading her reflections on her own adolescence, early adulthood and how she ended up where she is really interesting. I also heartily applaud Ellis’ frankness about her doubt as to whether there will ever be ‘the one’; a man she’ll be with forever and if that’s even necessary.

How to be a Heroine was a funny, interesting and intelligent trip through one woman’s bookshelf and I’m determined to seek out Ellis’ plays to hear more of her writing.


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