Guest Post: How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

Guest blogger Ricki Wovsaniker is frequently irritated by the aspects of life that prevent her from reading her book. Connect with her on her website and facebook.

Have you read this book? If you have not yet read this book, you must. I am speaking to you, specifically, the Land of Lost Books community. This book was written just for us.

This is a memoir in books. Samantha Ellis, a British playwright with Iranian Jewish roots, has always considered Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights to be her number one favorite heroine, the one after whom she wants to model her life and her love. Until her best friend and reading buddy since she was a girl points out that Cathy Earnshaw… is maybe not the best person to emulate? And maybe she should be seeking to emulate Jane Eyre instead?

So Samantha Ellis sets out on a mission to re-read her favorite heroines, and decide whether the lessons she learned from them when she was younger still hold up. We, the readers, go on this trip with her, learning about her life, always through the lens of the books she loved.

At first I was a bit ashamed of all the books I’ve never read, or that I’ve read, but only in a school setting. I must confess that I’ve never read Wuthering Heights. I read Jane Eyre in high school, and had trouble getting through it, though I did end up liking it. I’ve never read The Bell Jar. I have degrees in English and Gender & Women’s Studies, and I’ve managed to never read The Bell Jar. I don’t know how.

But Ellis doesn’t only read – and doesn’t only write about – the classics. She gives equal weight to the space in her head that heroines from books like Valley of the Dolls that she does to the more curriculum-friendly titles. It’s about what she’s absorbed from these books, the models of a worthwhile life that they’ve set before her, and how to be the heroine in that life. Instead of leaving the book feeling guilty, I left the book feeling charged up. I want to read all these books now! Especially Cold Comfort Farm, which sounds right up my alley.

The thing I loved best about this book is the seriousness with which it takes the place of story in our lives. So often you hear the “So what? It’s just a book/movie/tv show. It’s not real.” But I have long contended that humans live in stories just as much as spiders live in webs and fish live in schools. This book makes much the same assumption – that of course Samantha Ellis would live in the stories she read, of course they would be road maps for life. To live her best life, Ellis analyzes those stories, figures out what she was absorbing from them, and makes active decisions about which models are best and how to live them.

And for all the literary analysis, this book reads like the late-night conversation you have with the woman you know is going to be your best friend. It’s hard for me to recognize, even now, that I don’t actually know Samantha Ellis. I haven’t shared a bottle of wine or a pot of tea with her; I haven’t scrambled over English moors with her. I’ve just read her book. And it was fabulous.

Which books/heroines shaped your worldview and your vision of yourself? And would you like to talk about them with me over a pot of tea?

9 Responses

  1. As a girl (and still today) I loved Kit Tyler from The Witch of Blackbird Pond. She’s stubborn, opinionated and full of herself, but also capable of great kindness and bravery. She was a fish out of water that learned to appreciate that there was more to the world than her own pond. Definitely a heroine ahead of her times!

  2. Is it cliche to say Anne of Green Gables? If so, I don’t care! She’s my kindred spirit now and forever! Love live Anne and yes, of course, let’s have tea, Ricki!

  3. Although more tragic figure than heroine, I’d say Edna from The Awakening has stuck with me more than any other character I’ve ever read in any book. It absolutely affected my world view and as far as last scenes go, its one of two that are as vivid to me now as when I read it (grapes of wrath being the other). It’s amazing that the book was published 116 years ago and its themes still resonate so profoundly (to me) today.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Wow – the longevity of a book is amazing to think about. I’ll be interested in checking out The Awakening (and you could always write a Land of Lost Books post about it! 🙂

  4. I loved Anne, but I don’t think I was ever nearly as like her as I thought I was. I also identified with Elizabeth from Sweet Valley, which I think may itself be a problem in my psyche. But I’ll never regret the deep and abiding love I have for Lizzie Bennet.

    1. ELIZABETH FROM SWEET VALLEY HIGH! I used to get so mad at the troublemaker Jessica! (Not to mention that I just got up with them on Wikipedia and I tell you that Sweet Valley sure changed since I was last there!

  5. You know what, I thought of Elizabeth Wakefield from sweet valley high too!! I was genuinely too old to read those books but my god I loved them. other heroines of books I read MANY times: Emily from Montgomery’s Emily series, Kate from In Real Life I’m Just Kate, and Shelley from Judy Blume’s Theuvkiest Girl. Everyday girls getting thrown into extraordinary circumstances. I never get tired of it.

  6. First – Ricki, what a wonderful, awesome review. You had already recommended this book to me before, but goodness, this review makes me want to get it now, this minute, why am I not reading it already?!?
    I think the first book character I identified with was the princess in the children’s book Morgan Mine. The girl who loved to run wild, was independent and head strong, and had to learn the value of patience 😉
    I also connected strongly with Nancy Drew (who doesn’t want to travel the world with her besties solving mysteries?)
    When I was in 8th grade I read Gone With the Wind, and as unlikable a character as Scarlett might be, I completely connected with her get sh*t done attitude when push came to shove. Was she selfish? Conniving? Yes. But she was strong, resourceful, and passionate too.

Share your thoughts! Unless you're a spambot.