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I’ve been told I read too much. Mostly by people who don’t read enough or at all, as far as I can tell.
Maybe it’s true. I have been known to find more pleasure in the pages of a book, to feel the sting of fictional emotions more strongly than reality. But, as Samantha Ellis proves in her biblio-memoir, How to be a Heroine Or, What I’ve Learned From Reading Too Much, I’m not the only one.
Ellis wrote her book in response to a discussion with her friend in which Ellis staunchly defended Cathy Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights) while her friend insisted that she should have been emulating Jane Eyre. As a result, Ellis decided to revisit the heroines she had grown up loving and to see if, as an adult, they elicited the same reaction.
This is a book by a reader, written for readers. Specifically female readers. She touches on all the heroines the well-read lady should know, from Elizabeth Bennet (Pride & Prejudice) to Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With The Wind) to the Little Mermaid and Scheherazade, and many more besides. Well-read person that I am, I have at least heard of all of those mentioned, if not read them all.
As much as I loved this book, I don’t know if I always enjoyed having some of my favorite books being “critiqued” on the quality of feminist content. After all, many of these books were written during a time when women weren’t encouraged to do much, especially not become writers. It can be difficult to judge 19th century writers by 21st century standards.
And I certainly didn’t always agree with Ellis’s assessments. For instance, in revisiting Jane Eyre, Ellis asks if the only way for Jane and Rochester to be equal is for Rochester to have suffered his injuries, being brought low by them. Personally, Jane and Rochester are completely equal throughout the novel, but Rochester is too arrogant to admit it. His injuries aren’t about bringing Rochester to Jane’s “level” but about forcing him to admit what has always been true.
Despite the “madwoman in the attic” point of view of many feminist literary scholars, I’ve always found Jane Eyre to be one of the most feminist novels of the time period. Here we have a heroine without money, without family, without standing, yet she refuses to settle for less than she feels herself to be worth. She won’t settle for being Rochester’s mistress. She won’t settle for marrying without love. Despite the negative consequences she may face, Jane always puts herself first, in the best way possible. This is probably why I count Jane Eyre as my favorite book.
During college, Ellis was diagnosed with having a seizure disorder. Having myself spent an effort trying to find a heroine that resembles me in more than temperament, I recognized Ellis struggle with trying to mold herself into the image she thought she was supposed to fit.
The truth is, as Ellis seems to conclude, that we find in our heroines what we need at the time, and each time we revisit them, our views change based on our own life experiences and expectations. The words on the page never change, but the way we read them does. I doubt I would have the same reaction to the Sweet Valley High and Babysitter’s Club series now that I did 20 years ago when I first read them.
The most lasting impression Ellis’s book left on me was the desire to revisit and re-read some of my favorite heroines, and to introduce myself to some new ones. I’ve never felt any interest in reading Anne of Green Gables, and still feel that way. I’ve never been a fan of Scarlett O’Hara, and other than an attempt in middle school, have never actually read Gone With The Wind. My sole exposure to Scarlett was through the 1939 movie, and her “fiddle dee dee” Southernality never sat well with me. However, Ellis’s opinions have made me willing to reconsider and explore the story from a new perspective.
If you grew up reading Austen, Alcott, Brontë, or Brontë, you won’t go wrong picking up this tome. Ellis will challenge what you remember reading, give you pause, and make you rethink everything you thought you knew. And, if you’re like me, you’ll soon be running to your bookshelf for another go.