Are you a Jane or a Cathy? Do you identify more with Emily Bronte’s wild, headstrong heroine Catherine Earnshaw, or Charlotte’s pragmatic protagonist, Miss Eyre? And, once you’ve decided, is that true of your life forever?
Journalist and playwright Samantha Ellis – whose plays include Cling to Me like Ivy and the quarter of short plays, Starlore for Beginners – always saw herself firmly in the Cathy camp, until a trip to Haworth led to her best friend asking her, was this was actually a healthy thing? Surely cool and collected Jane, who keeps her head and gets her man, is a better role model to aspire to than doomed, unhappy Cathy? Shaken by the question, Ellis decides to reread her favourite books, assessing how they have affected her and what her heroines taught her – and whether, in hindsight, she learned the right lessons. The result is an engaging stroll down a literary memory lane, peppered with anecdotes and insights from the writer’s own life, and a look at how those fictional females helped her carve out her identity: as a London-based Iraqi Jewish woman whose ambitions are at odds with the expectations of her community; and as an individual, a lover and an artist.
You don’t have to have read all the books Ellis revisits to enjoy this one: some you will rush to seek out, some you’ll be glad you avoided, but most people with even a passing knowledge of women’s literature will be familiar with most of the titles she discusses. As well as the Bronte classics, she covers a host of others: The Bell Jar, Pride and Prejudice, What Katy Did, Little Women, and Valley of the Dolls all get a mention. Her reading informed by her own racial and feminist identity, she’s not afraid to be critical, but she also knows that we can love something despite recognising that it is deeply problematic. She sees the flaws in many of the works she once loved, but realises that doesn’t negate the affection she felt (or still feels) for them, or the influence they had on her life, and she is able to look back on the affectations and naiveté of her younger self with a kindness we would all do well to adopt, while at the same time acknowledging the dramas of youth are often very funny from a distance. She finds herself surprised by some of the revelations thrown up by her rereading: she sees, for instance, that Jane Eyre is a far stronger and more self-assured character than she previously assumed, and that sometimes (as in her reappraisal of Gone With The Wind) the real heroine of a book turns out not to be the woman that she thought it was.
Ellis’ own backstory is fascinating, and she writes with a refreshing honesty about her family and childhood, about the challenges of being part of a displaced culture, of her struggle to be an artist and to learn how to be in a relationship as herself, rather than defining herself by the man she loves. Her authorial voice is warm, conversational – it’s easy to imagine this text as a friendly discussion, held late at night over a glass of wine, intimate and confessional, funny and wise. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to befriend the author, to haul out your dog-eared paperbacks for her inspection, to talk about your favourites in turn.
While she offers no definitive answers or advice, Ellis recognises the universality of literature – that even as a dark, curly haired Jewish girl in London you can care deeply about the adventures of a perky blonde American; you can get swept up in experiences a world away from the life you really live. But at the same time she stresses the importance of diversity; that maybe, as a dark haired Jewish girl, it would be nice to read about someone who looks like you; and how that frustration can be used positively by creating stories of your own.
She makes the point that, perhaps, she simply took from these characters what she needed at the time: that maybe it’s more sensible to be a Jane, but occasionally you are better served by channelling the passion of a Cathy. Sometimes the best decision is not the wisest one, but the one that is most necessary for you, and the only heroism you need is yours, even if you find it through the fictional voice of another. And although she filters her own tale through those of other people, in doing so with such honesty and openness, in her down-to-earth way, Ellis becomes as much a heroine as the women who inspired her.
How to be a Heroine is available from Vintage for £7.99