Monday 28 April 2014

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

Cathy Earnshaw or Jane Eyre? 
Petrova or Posy? 
Scarlett or Melanie? 
Lace or Valley of the Dolls? 
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, passionate Cathy; but her friend found Cathy silly, a snob, 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 she 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 live. 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 Samantha's 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.

How To Be A Heroine (Or, what I've learned from reading too much) by Samantha Ellis was published by Chatto & Windus on 2 January 2014.

Samantha Ellis grew up in London, she's the daughter of Iraqi-Jewish refugees and for her, the 80s and 90s consisted of listening to her parents wistful memories of their homeland, being made aware that she would have to find a husband who was acceptable ..... and reading books.  Ellis had many literary heroines; from Anne of Green Gables to Sylvia Plath, through to Cathy Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights.

These heroines remained with her into adulthood, each one of them having a special meaning and evoking memories of the time in her life when she read about them.  When she and her best friend visit Haworth, the birthplace of the Bronte sisters, they find themselves arguing about who was the best heroine; Jane Eyre or Cathy?  Feeling disheartened by the fact that she had spent her life trying to be like Cathy, Samantha Ellis went back to her heroines.  She read their stories again, with older, more experienced eyes and How To Be A Heroine is the result of her re-reading.

This is a witty, warm and very reflective read. Most of us will have some childhood literary heroines, those characters who have accompanied through life and never changed. Going back and revisiting those heroines was a brave thing to do, nobody wants to find that they were wrong, and our icons are actually just as flawed, if not more, than we are ourselves.

Samantha Ellis tells her own story throughout this book, and how her reading influenced some of her decisions and some of her dreams. Her family are interesting, her own life is quite eventful and her warm and wry style of writing holds the attention throughout.

It's interesting to read about how Ellis' attitudes towards her heroines changed over time and how they influenced her at the time of reading.  I love the way that she gets so annoyed with authors at times, not holding back from criticising Louisa May Alcott, Dickens and even Shakespeare at times. Berating Shakespeare for killing Juliet and getting so angry about Jo's fate in Little Women.

A totally entertaining and insightful book that will make the reader want to dash to the shelf of much loved books and read them all over again.

Thanks to the publisher Chatto & Windus (Random House) who sent my copy for review.


grew up in the Iraqi Jewish community in London, and I'm a writer. 
My book, How To Be A Heroine, is out now, published by Chatto & Windus. 
My play, Anatomical Venus, will be produced by Goat and Monkey Theatre in October.
Previous plays include Cling To Me Like Ivy, Patching Havoc, and Sugar and Snow—and short plays for The Miniaturists and for Agent 160. 
I've been a MacDowell Colony Fellow, in residence at Metal, and on attachment at Soho, the Birmingham Rep, Hampstead and at the Unicorn. I also script-edit for Heyday Films.
I'm part of the Dog House writers' group with Robin Booth, Nick Harrop, Matthew Morrison and Ben Musgrave.

Twitter @SamanthaEllis27

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1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed your review. Like you, I loved the mixture of personal and literary criticism in this book and how the characters became so real for her. I got so absorbed I began to look on Samantha Ellis as a heroine and wrote about it on my blog