Long-term followers of EmilyBooks may remember the ‘Next Big Thing’ post, which went up just over a year ago. It’s a slightly daft ‘meme’, but also a sweet idea, in which you are tagged by someone to write a few words about your book, and then you tag someone at the end of it, so in theory the meme lives forever. Dawkins, I’m sure, couldn’t be more thrilled.
I tagged Samantha Ellis, playwright, journalist … and now author of the newly published How to be a Heroine. No doubt you have seen some of the rave reviews that have filled the papers over the past couple of weeks. What can I say? I had it pegged as the next big thing back in 2012.
Of course I was enchanted by How to be a Heroine when I first heard of Ellis’s idea. Briefly, it is a memoir of reading – a look back over her life through the books she’s read, and, most importantly, her various literary heroines.
It’s a book which speaks to any true book worm, for however many times you’ve been told never to think of characters as free agents but only as the author’s creation, however much lit crit you apply to various novels, transforming scenes and plots into psychoanalytical arguments or autobiographical projections, labelling them post-colonial, post-structuralist, or post-anything else, if you really love reading novels, for every author you love, no doubt there is a character who inspires you.
I love Jane Gardam for Filth, for Betty and of course for little Jessica Vye. I love Vita Sackville-West for Lady Slane. I love Penelope Fitzgerald for Nenna and her daughters Tilda and Martha, and for Selwyn and Lisa. I love Forster for Mrs Moore, I love Woolf for Clarissa Dalloway, I love Penelope Lively for Claudia Hampton, Henry James for Isabel Archer, George Eliot for Dorothea Brooke and Mirah Lapidoth. And there are all my earlier heroes and heroines: Susan Cooper for Will Stanton, Ursula le Guin for Ged aka Sparrowhawk, AA Milne for Piglet, Francis Hodgson Burnett for Mary Lennox, Philip Pullman for Lyra … even Eric Carle for his caterpillar with such a voracious appetite.
Ellis has done the very clever thing of tying her reading life to her real life. She tells us the story of these two lives, showing how she turned from one fictional heroine to another, as she grew up. She learned some vital life-lessons on the way: Anne of Green Gables taught her the power of imagination, Scarlett O’Hara taught her how to flirt, Franny Glass taught her to order whatever she wants in a smart restaurant, and the women from Lace taught her how to have a career.
Now Ellis re-reads all these books and sees them in a rather different thirty-something-year-old light. This double reading is very effective – firstly we see what drew such loyalty from Ellis at a particular stage of her life, and secondly we are given a more nuanced understanding of these novels and their heroines. With hindsight, Ellis can understand why she loved the Little Mermaid so much when she was little:
It’s because, like me, she’s caught between two worlds.
Ellis grew up in an Iraqi-Jewish community, always being told of the exotic wonders of Baghdad, yet knowing she’d never go to this place her parents called home. This magical Kingdom Under the Sea had been given up in favour of secular London, where the mermaid and Ellis are outsiders. Ellis, a feminist, can also see the problems with the plot of a woman giving up her voice to try to get her prince. Taking heart from the mermaid’s sisters rising up from the sea, she wonders if it could be read:
As a cautionary tale for women saying: Don’t give up your voice! Don’t make sacrifices for unworthy men!
As Ellis re-reads all these novels, many of her childhood heroines fail her more adult criteria. Marjorie Morningstar, who fostered her love of the theatre, is a particular let-down, as is Jo March, and even Flora Poste. (I have to admit to feeling a pang of sympathy for poor dropped Flora, who apparently comes across as rather ‘smug’. Poor Flora, perhaps a little smug, but surely we can forgive her, given her expert cool, calm and collected dealing with her nightmare relatives?)
What becomes clear is that reading is misreading, as English Dons would happily agree. As Ellis puts it:
I’m beginning to think that all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need for them at the time.
The novel that has really brought this shift in misreadings home to me is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. When first reading it as a fourteen-year-old, I identified wholly with the young, inexperienced, nervous narrator, out of her depth in this terrifying house, with dreadful Mrs Danvers and the ghostly presence of Rebecca, who seemed completely terrible. She gets everything wrong, being clumsy, dressing badly, failing to manage the staff or make any friends, and yet she perseveres, and just when you think it’s game over, Max de Winter confides in her and while they lose the house, at least they have each other. Read again in my late twenties, it was a completely different book. The young narrator couldn’t have been more irritating, pathetic and useless. I wanted to slap her and tell her to stand up to Mrs Danvers, the old cow, and wear whatever the hell she wants. Rebecca herself is transformed to an enigmatic powerful woman, someone who has managed to pursue her own independence in spite of being married to a belligerent spoilt man.
A few years’ life experience transforms a novel – and, by extension, a heroine – as Ellis finds, again and again. And yet, thankfully How to be a Heroine isn’t really a telling-off sort of a book. While Ellis finds fault with many of her heroines and takes their authors to task for giving them such flaws, she respects the power of her original misreadings and their influence on her life. They may not be the right heroines for now, but they were for then, and so we forgive them as part of life’s steep learning curve. Indeed, a sure sign of forgiveness is that they are all invited to a wonderful party at the end:
The Little Mermaid is in the bath, with her tail still on, singing because she never did give up her soaring voice. Anne Shirley and Jo March are having a furious argument about plot versus character, gesticulating with ink-stained hands. Scarlett is in the living room, her skirts taking up half the space, trying to show Lizzy how to bat her eyelashes. Lizzy is laughing her head off but Scarlett has acquired a sense of humour, and doesn’t mind a bit. Melanie is talking books with Esther Greenwood, who has brought her baby and also the proofs of her first poetry collection. Franny and Zooey have rolled back the rug and are doing a soft shoe shuffle in rhinestone hats. Lucy Honeychurch is hammering out some Beethoven …
She crams them all in to her flat, all of them having a glorious time. It reminds me of my bookshelf parties: all the characters chatting to their neighbours while no-one’s looking. Lady Slane, Eddie Feathers, and Richard from Offshore are best friends by now, and The Go-Between’s little Leo is having great fun running around Brideshead.
How to be a Heroine is a wonderful chance to revisit many favourite novels and say a quick hello to their heroines. It also left me with an exciting reading list on which I hope to meet some new heroines: top of which is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. Rather brilliantly, Sylvia Townsend Warner told Virginia Woolf that modern witches flew on vacuum cleaners not broomsticks!
This is a celebration of the companionship reading brings, and the comfort and guidance that provides. I was left feeling happily reassured that whatever one goes through in real life, a reader will always have a bank of fictional heroines to whom she can turn.
And believe me, reader, it works. Stuck with a tricky work situation last week, I found myself, without really knowing why, spending a morning re-reading the whole of Mrs Dalloway. When lunch-time came around, in spite of the slight guilt that sprang from admitting that instead of tackling said work problem, I’d buried my nose in a book, I felt ready to take on anything. I’ll buy the flowers myself, the party will be a success, and nothing is more important than the power of empathy, I muttered to myself as I strode out into the world, feeling tremendous. We all need our heroines. The joy of fictional ones is that they will always be at your beck and call.
It seems that Daphne and I share a common heroine of the Very Hungry Caterpillar. I do hope she understands that her own metamorphosis into a butterfly is only metaphorical.