How to be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much by Samantha Ellis
After an argument over which Brontë sister (Charlotte or Emily) wrote the best novels, Samantha Ellis decides to revisit all the novels she read in which she found the heroines from her younger days. Approaching them as an adult she asks who has the better heroines, and to what are they teaching girls to aspire? It transpires the answer is mainly marriage and motherhood. “All the heroines’ stories seemed to end in death or marriage.”
As a child she read fairytales, in which the heroines are usually passive princesses waiting to be rescued by a man. In these stories mothers are evil, jealous harridans, and mature women are bitter, ugly old crones. Angela Carter delightfully subverts these themes in her re-imagining of the tales in The Bloody Chamber, which Ellis read with glee.
She intersperses the literary critiques with anecdotes from her family history, outlining her feelings of displacement and her struggles to fit in. She notes that the stories from her childhood were no longer satisfactory as she grew up. Whereas she identified with the feisty heroines, many of whom were creative types, she was horrified to find that Anne of Green Gables and Jo March (Little Women) both give up their writing when they eventually get married to devote themselves to ‘family life’. Instead she found herself attracted to Shakespeare’s characters, who resisted their families and broke society’s rules.
Her undergraduate reading reintroduced the notion of female passivity and that suffering had value – all the heroines did it, and it ennobled them. From Clarissa by Samuel Richardson to Miss Julie by August Strindberg or Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, all these noble women suffered terribly for their dignity, and it doesn’t go unnoticed that all these beatific portraits are written by men. Once again she turned to theatre and its inherent vitality. She loved her theatrical heroines and their environment in which there was a lot of superficiality, but also “people who were open about their ambitions, ready to live with thin skins and open hearts”.
It seems that Ellis has fallen out of love with Cathy, and has changed her mind about her heroine. “Back then, I wanted my heroines to show me new ways to be, like heedless, selfish Cathy. I didn’t want heroines who mirrored my own anxieties too accurately. But maybe I’ve changed. Or at least: maybe I’m changing.” She concludes that our tastes change as we grow older, which is natural and perfectly acceptable. “I’m beginning to think all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need from them at the time.”
Maybe we read to learn things; maybe we read to escape; maybe we read to find new characters and role models; maybe we just read. And if our reasons to do so, and the characters we admire change from time to time, that seems perfectly understandable too.