Posts Tagged ‘Hans Christian Andersen’

How to be a Heroine

January 13, 2014

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.

How to be a Heroine by Samantha EllisI 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.

The Little MermaidNow 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.

RebeccaThe 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.

mrs dallowayAnd 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.

Daphne and the cress


Voiceless – like the little mermaid

November 29, 2010

I spent the weekend without a voice.

Not in a poetic way – I wasn’t speechless in the face of unimaginable beauty, or horror. And it wasn’t political either – I didn’t lose my right to free speech.

I simply lost the physical ability to speak. Whenever I opened my mouth to say something, all that came out were whispers and occasional croaky rasps.

Losing one’s voice is a very frustrating ailment. Communication is reduced to a series of whispers interrupted by bellowing ‘what?’s from the person one is attempting to address. Waitresses and shop assistants yield nothing but puzzled, somewhat put-out looks. And text messages suddenly seem like sublime nectar, a means of speaking without a voice, and swiftly become long, elaborate ramblings, which must seem akin to gobbledygook to the naive recipient.

Over the weekend, as communication with the outside world became more and more difficult, and I found my willingness to persevere dwindling – cancelling going to parties, calling in sick for work – I found my internal monologue growing deafeningly loud.


All this unspeakable dross got so loud that I felt as though a woodpecker on acid was living in between my ears.

Unbelievably frustrated and on the verge of losing my sanity, I decided that there must be someone who could sympathise. Rather than boring my friends with croaky moans, I turned my attention to books and wondered if I’d ever read about anyone losing their voice.

And so I thought of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. The little mermaid gives her beautiful voice to the sea witch as payment for a potion that will give her legs, which she needs to be able to live with a handsome prince. The mermaid fell in love with the prince when she rescued him from a storm, and now she wants him to fall in love with her, so that they’ll live together happily ever after.

But part of the deal with her new-gained legs is that they cause the mermaid enormous pain – ‘each time her foot touched the floor it seemed as if she trod on sharp knives’. At night she bathes her feet in seawater, as it eases the pain of her ‘burning’ feet. But the mermaid doesn’t mind the pain; she bears it to be near the prince, knowing that if he marries her, then she will be able to live a full human life, and that when she dies her soul will be immortal. But the prince falls in love with a princess, who he believes rescued him from the storm. And the sea witch has warned the mermaid that if he marries someone else, then on the morning after his wedding day, the mermaid will die, becoming no more than foam on the crest of waves.

Now the mermaid is definitely in more of a pickle than I am. Being laid up in bed for a couple of days is really not much to complain about compared to feeling acute pain in every step and watching the person you love fall in love with someone else, and knowing that it will kill you.

But what really strikes me about the story is how the little mermaid suffers without her voice. When the sea witch demands it as payment, the mermaid asks her what she will have left. The witch replies, ‘Your beautiful form, your graceful walk, and your expressive eyes; surely with these you can enchain a man’s heart.’

Well, no. The mermaid’s beauty, her graceful movements and her eyes aren’t enough to win the prince. She is unable to tell him that it was she was who rescued him from the storm. She is unable to talk to him, to tell him quite how much she loves him, how much she has given up to be with him. The little mermaid has become human, but without that most human of attributes – a voice, the ability to speak, to communicate.

And, without my voice for the past couple of days, I really have felt strangely sub-human. I am ignored, overlooked, unheard. Unable to say anything, people assume I am incredibly stupid. If they deign to talk to me at all, it is slowly and clearly, as though they’re addressing an idiot. No wonder that ‘voice’ finds its way into phrases that express such human concerns. The voice of a people, to voice a concern … yes, a voice is an essentially human quality. I want mine back!

When I called in (or, actually, texted in) sick for work, someone suggested that the ghosts of my tonsils had come back to haunt my poor throat after their traumatic removal last March. Gosh, that would be really unlucky. Who’d have known that their spirit would remain, causing pain and discomfort, despite their physical removal?

And this seemed to resonate again with The Little Mermaid. When the mermaid drinks the potion that will give her legs, the pain is described as ‘it seemed as if a two-edged sword went through her delicate body’. Ouch. I know tonsillitis doesn’t affect one’s whole body, but the feeling is strangely akin to having a ‘two-edged sword’ at least in one’s throat. It really is a kind of sharp cutting feeling, just as though a knife were sawing away in there. And that feeling of acute, sword-like tonsillitis returned for two weeks after the horrid little things were removed.

Really, perhaps tonsil-removal was Hans Christian’s inspiration. Something is removed from a throat, immense sword-like sharp pain is suffered, all in order to capture the heart of a prince. (I can’t imagine a prince being allowed to marry someone with recurring tonsillitis.)

If only I’d read the story so closely before having my tonsils removed, then I’d have realised its true message. Just as the mermaid fails in her mission to seduce the prince, essentially because she has lost her voice, or her tonsils; tonsils, apparently, will continue to be an utter pain even when they’ve been removed.

But it does seem a bit rum that the mermaid never thought to write anything down for the prince. Because writing, thankfully, is one place that not being able to speak doesn’t matter one little bit.