Samantha Ellis’ ‘How to Be a Heroine’: A Life in Great Fictional Women

There’s a thriving subgenre of what one may call cozy literary criticism, where a writer, usually a woman, traces the outline of her life through the books that she has read. It is sometimes very charming — Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch comes to mind. At its worst, though, it can sort of disappear in the brain as all so much generic fluff, a perennial stopgap device from a variety of publishers. So it was a lovely surprise to find that Samantha Ellis’ How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned From Reading Too Much was a thoroughly enjoyable contribution to this canon.

how to be a heroinePartially, this is because Ellis has great taste, tracing the contours of her life through such heroines as Lucy Honeychurch (E.M. Forester’s A Room With a View), Anne Shirley (L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables), Sylvia Plath and her avatar Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar, and more. Ellis is an English writer of Iraqi-Jewish heritage, and her perspective on these classic stories — the repression and passion that inflames the characters’ lives— is particular to her background in a way that’s fascinating, but she’s also very good at writing about writing.

In early chapters, Ellis writes vividly about how Anne from L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Jo from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women taught her about how to be dreamy, and to imagine being a writer one day. She does interesting work linking the marriages and spinsterhood of Montgomery and Alcott, and how they affected the writers’ characters: Anne and Jo grow up, one eventually marrying Gilbert Blythe and becoming criminally boring, the other saying no to wonderful Laurie (in the greatest crime in female-lit history) and making a “funny match” with an older German professor. They’re two of the great disappointments in the lives of bookish girls, and Ellis does yeoman’s work in finding the portions in Montgomery and Alcott’s work where they give the characters the future they deserve. She cites Jo’s feminist awakening in latter Alcott book Jo’s Boys, where she is prone to making declarations like “That girl’s career shall not be hampered by a foolish boy’s fancy.”

Ariel from The Little Mermaid is a reason to discuss Angela Carter’s rewritings of fairy tales and the fantastic life story of Ellis’ mother, and also a reason to dive into Ellis’ background as an Iraqi-Jewish woman and her search for a princess that she could relate to; her pick was Queen Esther of Persia, the inspiration for Purin. Another Esther that figures into the narrative is Sylvia Plath’s depressed girl at the center of The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, whose story of suicide and rebirth is “a brilliant twist on the marriage plot. Instead of the heroine going through trials and being rewarded with a ring on her finger, she could be born as her real true self.” For Ellis, a search for who Esther was, after her rebirth, led to an obsession with Plath’s diaries and poetry, and “she articulated, more than any other writer, how the pressure to be perfect can break a girl.”

Ellis’ writing in this book is chatty and intimate, able to move through stories and references smoothly — citing more mind-blowing literary analysis of female roles like The Madwoman in the Attic — yet I don’t find that to be a setback, in this case. The classics that she chooses to write about, including Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, are the books we read as passionate young girls looking for clues on how to be in the world; shouldn’t the writing about these books be as immediate and as passionate as our feelings? How to Be a Heroine felt like a warm cup of tea and a good talk with my closest girlfriend, and it was a book that sparked my brain and made we want to talk about the girls that I’ve loved — Anne, Lucy, Jo — with the woman that I’ve become.