Posts Tagged ‘Samantha Ellis’

The Daunt Books Festival

March 31, 2015

The good news is that Vita is sleeping much better at night. This means that we had some friends round the other evening and I managed to have a conversation – a real conversation in which I was able to process what my friends had to say and then respond, perhaps not in a particularly nuanced fashion, but it was certainly better than staring mutely as their words drifted past while my head was filled instead with a mixture of Vita’s delightful antics and a neurotic exhausted obsession with the possibility of sleep. This means that in the morning I am able to speak before knocking back a cup of tea. This means I can get to places on time, rather than half an hour late. This means that the unreal static haze that had descended over everything has lifted. This means wonder.

This means, however, that she sleeps less during the day. I had got used to the luxury of her naps (which at their best went on for four whole hours, but even at their worst lasted for a solid hour), but now these have shrunk to half hour glimpses of freedom, in which I just have time to get the boring stuff like laundry done before she reawakens. So my reading has never been so fragmented and scarce. And the writing – pah – the most I can manage is to respond to an email. It seems as though the written word is like the slim wild grasses which cling to acres of dusty sand dunes. A sparse promise of the pastures that await … though I needn’t wait for long as Vita’s grannies are going to start looking after her a little bit every week.

So my apologies for the long absence of a blog post. These will become regular again just as soon as life with Vita settles down a bit.

In the meantime, I thought perhaps you might like an insider’s account of The Daunt Books Festival, which happened on the 19th and 20th March – two very long days in which Vita and her grannies became intimately acquainted …

This is a very long blog post to make up for the surrounding lack thereof. So please feel free to take a break half-way through and consume it in two chunks.

Daunt Festival 2015 pic

I have been working steadily on The Daunt Books Festival since August, with a little gap around Vita’s birth, and then sudden bursts of activity when needs be, such as when writing the programmes (a sign of my not being on the best of forms was that we got the first thousand printed with 2014 on the front instead of 2015) and the flurry of last-minute organisation in the week of the festival itself. Suddenly, after a million emails, it was the night before, and I was in the bookshop, and it felt like being a child on Christmas Eve. We hung up copious amounts of yellow bunting, arranged daffodils and made everything look pretty. Perhaps it was less fun for the men who put out all the very heavy chairs, and I have to say cleaning the loos is never my favourite job, but there was something rather satisfying about the sparkle at the end. I hurried home to a late supper of fish fingers and felt terribly excited.

Alex Clark, Samantha Ellis and Anne Sebba

Then there was the terrific thrill the next morning as people began to arrive and I had the thought ‘this is happening, this is actually happening’ again and again. We had unbelievably delicious treats from Honey & Co for the first event ‘Choosing your Heroines’ with Samantha Ellis (whose very charming book How to be a Heroine you can read about here) and Anne Sebba – biographer of many real-life heroines, chaired by the awe-inspiringly clever critic Alex Clark. It was a wonderful opener, and I’m honoured to say you can read more about it on the TLS blog here.

Tim Dee and William Fiennes

Afterwards, we had Tim Dee and William Fiennes (with Monocle Café macaroons) talking eloquently about nature and birds, and also very fascinatingly about language. I loved the way they talked about ‘human nature’ in particular. It was especially impressive as William Fiennes had had a baby just two weeks ago! And there he was having a very clever conversation with no trouble at all…

Rachel Cooke and Virginia Nicholson

Next up were Virginia Nicholson and Rachel Cooke discussing women of the fifties with the aid of Ginger Pig sausage rolls. It was completely brilliant and they managed not to be derailed by hecklers – one lady in the audience stood up and rather laid into them for talking about a woman’s life as though it were an interesting specimen of the time rather than a poor soul suffering emotional abuse. It got quite hairy and dissent threatened to spread, but the duo dealt with it admirably and the talk continued, with everyone staying on their toes rather than slumping too far into the comfort of 1950s nostalgia, which was I think for the best.

By this point, I was struggling to sit upright as so much milk had collected into my Vita-less breasts. So I left Brett to commandeer the musical interlude – some talented Royal Academy students performing their own quite amazing interpretation of Alice in Wonderland – while I hid in the basement, apron on, pump out, squeezing the squeaky thing away and filling up a couple of bottles of the good stuff much to the amusement, interest and perhaps faint disgust of my fellow booksellers. Time too to gobble a sandwich and, though I am ashamed to admit my gluttony, another half a sausage roll, before listening to Michael Rosen, translator Anthea Bell and chair Julia Eccleshare discussing Erich Kastner and other German children’s classics.

Then the evening events. First Owen Jones electrified the room with Owen Hatherley. I think everyone was taken aback by how young they both were, and how clever and right on and so very left-wing that some of the audience got rather hot under the collar. Alas I had to miss a chunk of this while I was downstairs pumping again, but the bit I saw had such an atmosphere, you felt almost as though you were on the edge of a revolution. While this crowd then queued up for forty-five minutes for Owen Jones to sign their books and shake their hands, an almost entirely new crowd flooded in for Lady Antonia Fraser talking to Valerie Grove about her childhood. It was a lovely talk, and blimey the tone couldn’t have been more different – it was very funny to listen to her clipped accent discussing her wartime childhood after Owen Jones’ more colloquial polemic about our political future.

We had a bit of a clear up and managed to leave by ten thirty, and I returned home to a night of rather interrupted sleep as Vita seemed hungrier than ever and rather keen to nestle close after our day apart.

**** This might be where you’d like to take a break and return to part two another time. ****

Emily's festival walking book club

The next morning and I was reminded of the horror of commuting via Highbury & Islington during rush hour, and how horrid everyone is on the tube when you aren’t pregnant or carrying a baby. I arrived rather frazzled but was put in a much better mood as the gang assembled for a special Emily’s Walking Book Club around Regent’s Park (thanks to Emma for the lovely photos). I hadn’t realised the solar eclipse was to happen a quarter of an hour before we started but it was so cloudy nothing much happened anyway. It was bitingly cold, but we were sustained by delicious biscuits from La Fromagerie. We discussed Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (more on that here) and it struck me that maybe Comyns’ unique, unnervingly dismissive tone which is so thunderstrikingly powerful is the sad reason that she’s so overlooked. If she had written it more seriously, more chest-puffing-outily, more arrogantly and self-importantly, then perhaps the establishment would sit up and listen rather than brush it to one side. The irony is, of course, that its brilliance lies in its understatement. Not unlike the great Penelope Fitzgerald.

I returned, rather rosy cheeked, to the bookshop where I bumped into a dear friend who’s moved to San Francisco. He said he thought he’d drop in as he was in the area and couldn’t believe that there was my pic in the window saying sold out right next to Michael Palin who was also sold out. I neglected to explain to him that there were rather fewer spaces for the walking book club than for Michael Palin, and for a moment felt very grand indeed.

short stories signing

The two lunchtime talks were ‘In Praise of Short Stories’ (with Rococo hot chocolate) and ‘Russians in Paris’ (with La Fromagerie Bakewell tarts) – both excellent, indeed so good that it made me think next year perhaps we should ditch the 45 minute lunchtime limit and stretch them out as I could have sat there all afternoon listening and felt a bit cross when they had to stop. I adored listening to Tessa Hadley (who, wonderfully, had spent the whole of the previous day at the festival and – great literary trivia here – is Tim Dee’s cousin), the very charming Colin Barrett and talented new writer Julianne Pachico read their work. Their event was chaired by Laura Macaulay, who runs the publishing side of things at Daunt and is a great friend, and was a most excellent chair.

For ‘Russians in Paris’ we had the very bright young translator Bryan Karetnyk and the ebullient Peter Pomerantsev talking to brainbox Nick Lezard about Russian émigré writers of the 1920s who ended up in Paris, specifically Gazdanov (see here) and Teffi. It was a fascinating glimpse of this scene, about which I knew very little. Peter Pomerantsev was very funny, and was very embarrassed when he realised he’d been calling Bryan ‘Boris’ for half of the talk.

Then, what joy, the husband brought in Vita so I could have a little cuddle and – more importantly – be thoroughly drained by her rather than the squeaky, less effective, pump. So I missed most of the musical interlude, which was a wind trio performing some fun pieces starring Daunt’s very own Toby Thatcher. It was both heaven and hell to see Vita, and I felt a little glum as I said goodbye to her again, but was cheered by the sudden influx of children for our Robert Muchamore teen event, and most of all by interviewer Philip Womack’s beautiful dog, who was terribly sweet and behaved beautifully while Philip interviewed him (Muchamore, not the dog, who is a girl anyway) admirably. It was amazing to see all the children on the edge of their seats, so excited to meet this icon, and excitedly donning wristbands and grabbing stickers as he signed their books afterwards.

Spies in Fact and fiction

Then for ‘Spies in Fact and Fiction’ – one of my favourite events – as historian Christopher Andrew and thriller writer Charles Cumming talked to James Naughtie. What an amazing man James Naughtie is. He arrived a little early and sat down rather exhaustedly. It had been a long day he said. Tell me about it, I thought, remembering little Vita flapping her arms and wailing every two hours during the very short night, before he confessed to having been up at three to do the Today programme. He wins. He also managed to get the panel to be terrifically indiscreet and let slip a few secrets … which I oughtn’t repeat here though I was lurking near a journalist from The Times, who assiduously scribbled everything down. Everyone said what a brilliant combination of speakers it was, and told me how clever I’d been to put them together. Not nearly as clever as the chaps on stage, I thought, but nevertheless I felt very pleased that it had worked so well.

Then the finale! Brett (who is the wonderful manager of Daunt’s, and indeed started the bookshop with James Daunt) managed to interview Michael Palin, while dealing with all the sound stuff too. He also made a fuss over me and I got some beautiful roses which made me feel very special indeed. It was a fantastic finale. Brett steered the conversation over very literary ground, so we heard all about Michael Palin’s admiration for Hemingway, what he reads when he travels, and how he goes about capturing places both on paper and on film, rather than his Python years. What came across perhaps above and beyond anything else is that Michael Palin has got to be the nicest man on the planet.

And then, just like that, it was over. I folded up the bunting. The chairs went back to the basement, the tables were repositioned, books laid out, wine glasses collected … and whereas last year at the end I felt terribly sad that it was all over for a whole year, this year, the delight of going home to darling little Vita sweetened the pill.

If you’d like to read still more about the festival, Alice at OfBooks has written about it here, and here it is on Life is a Festival too.

I hope you have a lovely, chocolate-filled and literary Easter, and Emilybooks will be back, less sporadically, soon after.

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Emilybooks of the Year

December 17, 2014

The thing about sleeping in 3-4 hour chunks is that time bends into something altogether new. So when I say it’s been an age since I last posted here, I mean an age in a peculiarly nebulous sense. It has been an amount of time of which I can’t really conceive. Life before Vita – what was that?

I had hoped to be writing here a little more regularly, but little Vita has proved to be rather a lot to take on and doing everything one-handed means it all takes twice as long. We’ve also moved house, and any writing time I’ve managed to carve out has been siphoned into a couple of journalism commissions which sprung up and couldn’t be refused. There’s one for the Spectator, which you can read here. And the other one is still in the pipeline, so watch this space…

But wow it’s Christmas next week, which is thoroughly disorienting. Not only is it the first Christmas after Vita and therefore, as I explained, it has approached in a strange new way, it is also the first time for years that I’ve not been working in the bookshop during what is always a madly busy, derangedly exciting time. So I thought I must stir myself from my semi-comatose state at least enough to be able to write my EmilyBooks of the Year – for that has become a Christmas tradition from which I would hate to part. So I hope you enjoy the round-up below. The links go back to my original reviews of them, in case you’d like a little more info on the various books.

Looking back on what I’ve read this year has proved both enjoyable and revealing. I think everyone ought to do it, as an exercise in self-reflection. If so, I’d love to hear how you get on and any of your picks for books of the year.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns2014 introduced me to rather a large clutch of what I might fondly term ‘EmilyBooks’ – the oft-overlooked but brilliant novels that I adore reading. I picked many of these for the Walking Book Club, so thinking back to them now yields very happy memories of chatting away on Hampstead Heath. The Home-Maker and Fidelity, two Persephone Books, were both extraordinary. Both are set in small-town America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both are about women who step beyond their allotted place – going out to earn the family’s living, or having an affair with a married man. Both books are good on how society struggles to handle these misfits, and how the misfits are strong enough to survive. (Incidentally, we were honoured to have a week of the excellent Persephone Post – the Persephone Books daily blog – inspired in part by Vita!) Other brilliant old novels discovered this year include Angela Carter’s Wise Children, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (but only read it if you are ready for something seriously harrowing), William Trevor’s Love and Summer, Elaine Dundy’s excellent The Dud Avocado (a MUST if you are going to Paris) and – perhaps my two favourites – Meg Wolitzer’s brilliantly funny and very clever The Wife, and Barbara Comyns’ disarmingly simply told and terribly affecting Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. This last will definitely be a future walking book club book – it is tremendous!

The Letter for the KingI was pleased (and not surprised) to see how many of my books of 2014 are published by Pushkin Press. Those of you who’ve not yet discovered this terrific independent publisher, which specialises in bringing the best European fiction to our shores, should do so NOW. Red Love by Maxim Leo is a fascinating family memoir – I’d say it’s up there with The Hare with Amber Eyes for the way he manages to get the bigger picture of history through the filter of his immediate family. It’s all about the GDR and how the author’s two grandfathers – one a Nazi and the other a freedom fighter – could both come to believe so fervently in the new regime. There was also Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, strange and brilliant, and Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, also strange and brilliant. Both have an eerie, dreamlike feel to them, and thinking back on the now it’s this special atmosphere of the books that has really stuck with me, rather than the ins and outs of the plots. A special mention should go to Pushkin’s children’s book The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. I started reading this as soon as I went on maternity leave, thinking that it would be the ideal gripping piece of escapism for my exhausted brain. It was, and I spent a heavenly few days on the sofa with it. In fact I enjoyed it so much that the husband wanted to read it as soon as I had finished. And then I went into labour. And rather a lot of that strange first day of labour, before we could go into hospital, was spent with me rolling around on a big pilates ball while the husband read the book and I kept asking him irritating questions about where he’d got up to, only he wasn’t allowed to be annoyed with me because I was in labour. Ha! Truth be told, I think having such a good distraction for a book was the only thing that kept him sane, so thank you Pushkin!

Where Angels Fear to TreadJourney by Moonlight is just one of several books I read that are set in Italy, as our blissful two month sojourn in Lucca called for a great deal of geographically appropriate literature. Looking back on it now, I still can’t really believe we got away with it – two months of eating ice cream and lazing around, reading, writing, sketching, sleeping … I wonder if Vita, who was wriggling around in utero, might grow to love these books too? Certainly I’m sure she will share her mother’s love of pasta.

Thinking of pasta, there was The Leopard, with its infamous macaroni pie, a wonderful novel, which I loved discussing on a walking book club at the Perch Hill Feast. There was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence – obviously good, because everything by her is good, but perhaps not quite as good as her others. Christ Stopped at Eboli – a classic piece of anthropological observation, which made Southern Italy in the 1930s seem like another world entirely. There was Portrait of a Lady, which was good but something about James’ coldness, and the nastiness of it all, made it seem rather sour. Best of all the Italy books was the double-Forster hit of A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread – it was such a treat to have an excuse to revisit them.

H is for HawkI loved re-reading various classics this year, as well as the Henry James and the EM Forsters, there was Brideshead Revisited – so much more enjoyable to read for pleasure rather than studying it for A Level – and Jane Eyre, every bit as good as I remembered, and also Pride and Prejudice. This last was wonderful, and the other thing we did when I went into labour was watch the boxset of the BBC adaptation – a great way to pass quite a lot of time!

There was a substantial chunk of non-fiction: The Examined Life, which was the perfect January book – ideal for a bit of sober self-examination. How to be a Heroine – a paean to many brilliant novels, written so charmingly that you end up feeling that Samantha Ellis is a bit of a heroine herself. The Rings of Saturn, which was a rare instance of a book being both heavy-going and brilliant – I kept wanting to say thank you Sebald, for stretching my brain in so many of these bizarre directions. And, finally, two wonderful memoirs: The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg – astonishing insight into Germany during the war, written by an English woman who’d married a German – and H is for Hawk, which I adored so much that I nearly called my daughter Mabel in homage to the hawk. I was very happy to see that this won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

How to be Both by Ali SmithI also enjoyed some new novels: the wonderful Chop Chop by Simon Wroe, who I should say is a friend, and I should also say has just been shortlisted for the Costa Prize – hurrah!!! And also Homecoming by Susie Steiner, which I started off thinking would be all about sheep farming, but actually it’s about families and change. And there was, of course, the supreme treat from Ali Smith: How to be Both. How I adored this book. Smith has a way of writing that makes modern fiction seem so exciting and makes me feel lucky to be a reader.

Last but not least, comes a book which is particularly special to me: Park Notes by Sarah Pickstone. Not only is this a beautiful book about women writers finding inspiration in Regent’s Park, but it also features my first ever piece of work to be published in a book!

I hope this little round up might provide some inspiration for Christmas reading, or indeed shopping. Once we get to 2015, Emilybooks will be back for real, and so will the walking book club – our next meeting is on 25th January to discuss Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Vita’s rather excited about it!

Park notes

Homecoming

July 21, 2014

All the heat has meant this week has been one of battling with exhaustion and feeling quite ghastly. Various low points have included sitting in a cold bath while commanding the bemused husband to make me a bucketload of pasta, spending half-an-hour hanging around in the bank just to take advantage of their air-conditioning, and falling asleep in the middle of a conversation. In fact the first time I felt normal all week was yesterday evening when, after managing to get thirteen hours sleep (twelve overnight plus another one in the afternoon!), I went for a swim in the peaceful haven of Hampstead Ladies’ Pond and at last felt reduced to a normal temperature.

Jane EyreLuckily, I have had a feast of good reading to keep me company while sweltering through the sultry weather. Next weekend I am off to Deer Shed Festival, up in the beautiful wilds of Yorkshire, where I will be interviewing Samantha Ellis – author of How to be a Heroine, which I wrote about here; Susie Steiner – author of Homecoming, which I will write about below; and doing a walking book club on Jane Eyre, which I suspect I will write about next week. Three terrific books to read or re-read – really I can’t complain! (A little aside to URGE you to re-read Jane Eyre, or indeed read it for the first time. It is completely brilliant, even better than remembered. And then you could come along to the festival and come on the walk … and then together we can imagine Jane striding away from Thornfield Hall and coming across Mr Rochester on his horse, while trudging through a landscape not so different, although of course ours won’t be treacherously icy. Go on, dig out your old copy, and begin it again, I promise you won’t regret it!)

HomecomingHomecoming is also set in Yorkshire, and while the landscape might be as wild and beautiful as Bronte’s, the concerns are very different. The Hartle family are struggling to make ends meet on their farm. There is a great deal about farming, which for a born-and-bred Londoner like me was surprisingly fascinating. Now I feel I know a little about things like ‘lifting the beet’, ‘lambing’ and the importance of not stacking hay too tightly. Joe loves the farming life:

The ground giving up its treasure to him: it was a beautiful thing. He pictures the soil and the layers – the substrata – brown then red, then glaring orange, reaching down to the earth’s core where it was hot. And him on the surface, gathering its riches up – drilling goodness and filtering it into trucks. This was what a man was meant for.

Ann is more pragmatic, and it is she who has to make the grim trips to the accountant, who tells her money is so tight they will barely make it through to lambing. On the way back, she stops at a petrol station and ‘resists a Ginsters pasty, even though she’s ravenous. Better to save the money and make a sandwich back home.’

The book is structured around the farming year, with a new calendar month for each chapter. It gives a feel of the rhythm of the year, but moreover of its unstoppable movement forwards. It is a tough year for the Hartles: disaster follows disaster (I won’t go into details here for fear of spoilers) and there are many times when you wish a rash act or unfortunate consequence could somehow be undone, but to no avail. While farming is the context for most of these tragedies, really it is as much a novel about the different ways in which people face change, and the playing out of complicated family dynamics. And those are things to which we can all relate!

Joe and Ann have two sons, Max and Bartholomew. Max works the farm with Joe, and Joe would like to pass it on to him, only Max is, quite simply, too useless. Bartholomew has gone down south, where he has set up his own garden centre, though that isn’t without its own share of troubles. Bring the four of them under the same roof for Christmas and you get the hellish mess of resentment, jealousy, grudges, nagging and everything else that almost all families suffer at that time of year.

Then there are all the other characters – the wives and girlfriends, the friends and local busybodies, and the dreadful barmaid from Essex… It is a rich cast, but my personal favourite is the ingeniously dreamed up Primrose, Max’s wife. She is a very peculiar woman, who is terrible at forging emotional connections with people, even her husband. Instead, she spends her free time wiring and taking apart plugs and things, evidently feeling more comfortable with electrical connections than human ones. How I long to ask Susie Steiner where she found the inspiration for her!

Steiner cleverly moves the narrative perspective between her many characters, so you get a nuanced understanding of their varying points of view, the different demons with which they struggle. It is a powerful device for creating empathy, and by the end of the book you feel rather like you’ve been living under the Hartle roof, absorbing their various quirks and idiosyncrasies and feeling very fond of them in spite of their many faults. I suppose much as you might feel after spending some time with your own family.

Luckily, for all the changes that the Hartles face, Homecoming is a pleasingly reassuring novel. And it does this without falling into the trap of being too cosy. The outcomes are not the straightforwardly happy ones which the various characters would have wished for in an ideal world, but if Steiner is a realist, she is still an optimistic realist for the results are largely positive, albeit very different to what they might have hoped for.

I suppose this is the thing about change – and at the moment, I feel like I am faced by CHANGE in capital letters whenever I glance down at my growing bump. It is a terrifying thing in that it is unknowable. Suddenly your course has altered and you’re no longer entirely sure where it is you’re headed. Of course you might not end up exactly where you’d imagined and things might not work out just as you’d hope, but in Homecoming we feel relieved and reassured that they do at least work out somehow. Phew.

Anyway, I am very much looking forward to discussing Homecoming with Susie Steiner at Deer Shed Festival next weekend. Come and say hello if you’re there too!

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