The School of Hardbacks
How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I've Learned from Reading Too Much
By Samantha Ellis (Chatto & Windus 272pp £16.99)
Samantha Ellis is a dramatist and bibliomaniac. Her mother, an Iraqi Jew, was persecuted and imprisoned before escaping from Baghdad and arriving in London, where she met and married Ellis's father. Growing up with stories of her family's heroic past, Ellis dreamed of having adventures of her own and of one day escaping from the small, contained north London Jewish community in which she was raised. As soon as she could read, she absorbed herself in the lives of other - fictional - heroines, whom she used as signposts to her freedom.
These figures were drawn from the usual syllabus for growing girls: A Little Princess, Little Women, Ballet Shoes, Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Prejudice, Gone with the Wind and Jilly Cooper's Riders. Ellis gleaned something from each of them: from Ballet Shoes she understood what stage fright felt like; from Gone with the Wind she learned that she didn't have to be a 'lady' in order to attract men like Rhett Butler, plus the importance of hand cream; from Shirley Conran's Lace she picked up tips about the world of work. She wanted her first boyfriend to behave like Heathcliff, but he was searching for God rather than foaming at the mouth with passion. She resolved her own religious issues through J D Salinger's Franny in Franny and Zooey ('the only religious thing you can do', Franny is told, 'is act'). She went to Cambridge to be like Sylvia Plath, but while she was there she decided to become a playwright rather than a poet. It was also at Cambridge that she began to have unexplained seizures during which her body gave way and she blacked out. Ellis has continued to live with these (no medication can help), making her own story unpredictable in terrifying ways.
How to Be a Heroine is an honest, warm and readable book about the plots we follow in order to make sense of our lives, the selves we adopt as we grow up and the selves we shed - like 'old whore petticoats', as Sylvia Plath put it - as we grow out of them. At its heart is an exploration of the way women read: diving in with abandon, losing ourselves in words, collapsing into characters, only ever half returning to real life. There are bits of us left behind in every book we have ever loved. Not without reason has novel reading long been considered a dangerous activity for wives and daughters - even Mary Wollstonecraft worried that women who loved fiction might cease to be rational beings and 'plump into actual vice'.
Ellis is less concerned with the impact of childhood reading than the shock of rereading in later life: returning in her mid-30s to the books that formed her, she sees them strikingly differently. She finds that Little Women is not the battle cry for imaginative freedom that she remembered; instead it is a female conduct manual containing a 'skewed moral universe in which burning your sister's life work is bad, but being angry about it is tantamount to murder' (she is referring to Amy putting Jo's novel in the fire and then falling through the ice when she goes skating). In a scene Ellis had overlooked as a child, she notes Marmee explaining to Jo that she too has a temper but she has learned to hide it: whenever she feels angry, her husband puts his finger to his lips. Having formerly loathed Amy, Ellis now finds that she might have learned something from her: Amy at least always got what she wanted, whether it was going to Europe with Aunt March or marrying the best boy in the book, while Jo ends up with the obscure and unsexy Professor Behr, and instead of writing novels she becomes matron of a boys' school (boys' school, note).
The true heroine of Anne of Green Gables, Ellis now sees, is not Anne, who found it easy being herself, but Aunt Marilla, who confesses that she 'would have given ... much to have possessed Anne's power of putting her feelings into words'. What makes L M Montgomery's books so satisfying is not Anne's discovery of a family who don't reject her, but Marilla's realisation that it is never too late to learn to love. Ellis also now recognises the value of Melanie in Gone with the Wind, particularly in the scene where, frail and ill, she points a gun at the Yankee intruder and then, when Scarlett has blown him to pieces, suggests that they empty his pockets of cash. She is right, of course. Melanie is a rock. But she is wrong, I fear, in her conviction that Rhett and Scarlett will get back together again.
Most of Ellis's childhood heroines prove disappointing, apart from Cold Comfort Farm's magnificently practical Flora Poste (until the last page, that is, when she is airlifted - literally - from rural life by a man in a plane who has perfect teeth), and Sarah Burton, the schoolteacher in Winifred Holtby's South Riding, who 'was born to be a spinster, and, by God, I'm going to spin'. The heroine of heroines, however, is Scheherazade, who saves her own life and the lives of all her 'sisters' through spinning over a thousand stories.
Ellis became a Scheherazade figure herself, writing plays and controlling her own endings, but it isn't until now that she realises her own story isn't being presided over by a protective author who will guide her to safety and 'bend the laws of reality' for her convenience. The only writer who can guide her through her life, she learns at the end of her marathon of rereading, is Samantha Ellis herself. How to Be a Heroine begins as a memoir about treating novels as self-help books and ends up as a self-help book, instructing the reader to 'improvise' rather than stick to the script. Wise, courageous and endlessly generous, Ellis is something of a heroine herself.
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Frances Wilson is the author of Literary Seductions: Compulsive Writers and Diverted Readers (Faber). She is currently writing a book about Thomas De Quincey.