Samantha Ellis’ How to Be a Heroine begins with a friendly debate: would you rather be Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw? I’ve certainly had similar debates with friends, although ours were more likely to be about heroines from Jane Austen’s work than from the Bronte sisters. For Ellis, however, this friendly debate sets her off on a quest to revisit all of her favorite heroines, and question why they resonated with her at different points in her life. Each chapter focuses on a different heroine or book, but will often include brief tangents or references to other books she was reading at that point in her life. And the best part of it all just might be the bibliography at the end, listing all the works mentioned in the book. If you’re looking to buy yourself a Galentine’s Day treat, I highly recommend looking for a copy of How to Be a Heroine, newly released in the US this month by Knopf.
Ellis does an excellent job of weaving in her own life story among the stories of these heroines. She shares anecdotes about her life growing up in the Iraqi Jewish community in London, and explains how that experience affected her connections to some of these books. Ellis includes enough plot detail that I can still follow her points without knowing all of the individual books she is discussing. But make no mistake – it was very fun that I knew most of the stories she was referencing, even if I only knew some of them from their TV adaptations (I never did manage to read past the second Anne of Green Gables book). How to Be a Heroine made me feel like I was sitting with a friend and gossiping about our favorite books, and I loved it. I frequently found myself smiling or laughing out loud as I read it.
The other thing about reading How to Be a Heroine was that I frequently found myself wondering who some of the heroines would be if I were the one writing this. Who did my ten-year-old self identify with, and what made them so resonant for me at that point? I also wasn’t lying about the bibliography – Ellis talked about a lot of books I knew, or knew of, but she also talked about things I’d never even heard of. There were some books, especially things from the twentieth century, that I am hoping to go back and read. If we’re going to be completely honest, I should probably just pull up my Goodreads account and add the whole bibliography.
I also found myself wanting to go back and reread some of the classics she discussed, like Jane Eyre, to see what my impressions of them would be now that I’m older. There’s something different about reading a book on your own, versus reading it for your high school English class. I experienced this last fall when I reread Their Eyes Were Watching God for the first time since high school and realized just how much more powerful it was than I had understood when I was younger (read that full post here). If I reread some other books now, who might be my heroine? Who might I realize was no longer such a good role model, as Ellis does with Cathy Earnshaw? How to Be a Heroine is exciting because it’s not just about the love of books, but it’s also about how books can affect us, and how our own self-image can affect which books we are drawn to.
So let’s hear it, Geekettes. Who are some of your heroines? I’ll start us off. My list would include: Sara Crewe (A Little Princess), Princess Amy (The Ordinary Princess), Alanna of Trebond (Song of the Lioness quartet), Hermione Granger (Harry Potter series), and Lizzie Bennet (Pride and Prejudice). Who’s on your list of heroines?