Book review: How To Be A Heroine by Samantha Ellis

Samantha Ellis doesn't spare the romantic heroes in the novels of her youth. Picture: Contributed
Samantha Ellis doesn't spare the romantic heroes in the novels of her youth. Picture: Contributed
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AT FIRST glance, How To Be A Heroine looks like another of those slick, sarcastic, girl-power books exhorting women to stop ripping off their pubic hair and start feeling fabulous. But the content is far meatier than its packaging suggests.

How To Be A Heroine (Or, what I’ve learned from reading too much) by Samantha Ellis

Chatto & Windus, £16.99

The author is playwright and journalist Samantha Ellis, a Londoner and the daughter of Iraqi-Jewish refugees whose oft-recounted tales left her with lingering homesickness for a country she’s never visited. She grew up during the 1980s and 90s, among extended family whose greatest aspiration was that she should marry.

An argument with her best friend during a visit to Brontë country – she champions Cathy Earnshaw, her friend, Jane Eyre – leads Ellis to revisit the most important books of her life. “I had read to find out what kind of woman I might want to be, lived through my heroines, and rehearsed lives I might live,” she tells us. Years on she finds some of these characters remain robust, some she has wildly misunderstood, and some now horrify, leading her to explore a new cast of literary role models.

So she is shocked, on rereading Marjorie Morningstar, to discover its snide, misogynist heart. She finally understands that The Bell Jar’s message is not: “Suffering maketh the woman.” And she is delighted to find that Shirley Conran’s Lace is less bonkbuster, more career woman’s handbook.

Ellis deftly moves between past and present, describing what was happening in her young life when she first read about Anne of Green Gables, Lizzie Bennet and Scarlett O’Hara, but also her reaction on returning to these texts. Each chapter explores a theme, be it falling in love, contemplating marriage, or giving yourself permission to be an artist.

Of course, you rarely have a heroine without a hero, and Ellis looks equally hard at the dangers of falling for the man on the page. About Mr Darcy, she says: “I wish I could tell my 12-year-old self that not all arrogant men are secretly lovely; some are just arrogant.” Revisiting Gone With The Wind, she writes: “There was a time when, unable to see what a tool Ashley is, I thought impossible love was the best kind. But I hope I’m braver about love now, and I’m tempted to make a rule that any heroine who spends a novel in love with someone who can’t or won’t love her back is not truly a heroine.”

This warm, witty memoir is perfect if you’re the kind of woman for whom the Louisa May Alcott quote, “She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain” reverberates. Which is ironic, because Little Women comes in for a hilarious slagging.

At the end of the day this is a life-affirming feminist text, but one delivered with such dexterity and sly humour that it never feels like a polemic or a prescription, making it well worth your time.