There’s no shortage of heroes/heroines in my life. (Shameless plug: In fact, I have a special blog series dedicated to some of my literary heroes/heroines. Check out my Literary Hero page!) But I don’t think I’ve ever stopped and thought about my different heroines and what they meant to me when they came into my life. In How To Be A Heroine, Samantha Ellis decides to revisit some of her favorite books from childhood to see what she liked about the heroines and whether or not she still admired them.
When I first started reading this memoir, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to follow most of Ellis’ points and musings because I was unfamiliar with a majority of the novels in here. Sometimes (but not very often) I feel a sense of shame when I think about all of the books that I’ve never read, despite these books being considered some of the greatest novels of all time. Ellis talks about books by the Bronte sisters, Jane Austin, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Margaret Mitchell and many, many other novelists. Of all the books mentioned in here (around 100 or so), I’ve read 3 or 4. But Ellis likely anticipated there being readers who were not as well read as she was or who read some, but not all of the novels mentioned. She gives quick synopses of each book, before launching into her analysis. And her passion for reading and literature resonates throughout the entire memoir, so it made me want to pick up a copy of Wuthering Heights or Anne of Green Gables to better understand what all the fuss was about.
This memoir is peppered with great points and significant insights. But there are two really great points that stood out to me. The first comes in the chapter about A Room With A View and Lucy Honeychurch:
“Though I’m beginning to think all readings are provisional, and that maybe we need heroines for what we need from at the time.”
This was something that dawned on me in the beginning of the memoir, when it became clear that Ellis didn’t hold the same positive views about many of her childhood heroines. In several sections, she talks about how certain characters nestled in her heart when she was younger and in some cases inspired her to be a better person. But as she went back and reread the books, she realized that a lot of the characters were either bland or downright horrible people. She still found heroines in the story, but she realized that just because there is a female lead character, doesn’t automatically make them the true heroine of the story.
The second point, and I’d argue the most important point, appears near the end. Her last heroine, Scheherazade, comes from One Thousand and One Nights or Arabian Nights. While, Ellis respects many of the heroines in the memoir, she seems to admire Scheherazade above everyone else, because she taught Ellis one of the greatest lessons about being a heroine:
“I felt let down when I could see the writer too much at work on a character because it reminded me forcefully that of course I don’t have a writer working on my story, guiding me to safety, bending the laws of reality for me, bringing me a hero to rescue me or transporting me to a better journey. No writer is writing me a better journey…And then I realise I am the writer. I don’t mean because I write. I mean because we all write our own lives. Scheherazade’s greatest piece of storytelling is not the stories she tells, but the story she lives. The best transformation in the Nights is Scheherazade transforming herself from vizier’s cosseted daughter to queen, mother, storyteller and savior.”
This was an uplifting way to end the memoir. It’s fun to read a fluffy princess or damsel in distress story occasionally, but the stories that stick with us more often than not, contain characters that decide to live a life according to their own plans. They don’t wait around for someone to slay the dragon. They get on their horse and do it themselves.
The only major complaint I have about this book is that she focused almost exclusively on works by American or European authors. And I’m not really sure if that’s a fair criticism since she was born and raised in England, so of course what she read in school would focus mostly on English authors. But still, I wish she explored heroines in works by African-American/African authors or Asian authors or Middle Eastern authors, etc.. But I don’t think this takes away from the points she made throughout the book.
How To Be A Heroine is both a fun and heart-warming read. I didn’t get to mention it in my review, but there are some good points in here on writing and character creation. Everyone can take away some point, whether big or small, from this memoir. I was a tad disappointed by the lack of POC authors. But the beauty of this memoir is that it can be replicated. I know I would like to go back to some of my favorite books and characters to see if my appreciation for them is still intact!