Review: How To Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

📚 📚 📚 📚 📚 / 5

Book Title: How To Be a Heroine, Or What I've Learned From Reading Too Much

Author: Samantha Ellis

Date Published: 02/01/2014

Publisher: Chatto & Windus

Number of Pages: 272


Part-memoir, part-essay, Samantha Ellis’s first book, ‘How to Be a Heroine’, is a heart-warming and charming exploration into how the women we read about guide, and change, the women we become. Exploring famous female literary characters; from Anne Shirley to Esther Greenwood, Ellis uses her analysis of these characters to examine her own life, and how they affected her growing up.

It’s a magnificent concept, and I knew I wanted to read this book as soon as I saw it on the shelves at the Brontë parsonage in Haworth. I haven’t read all of the books Ellis mentions, but it added an infinite number of new reads to by TBR list, including some now new favourites, such as 'Anne of Green Gables’ and ‘Franny and Zooey’. It also made me re-evaluate some of my old favourites, such as ‘Gone With the Wind’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’. For the purposes of this review, I am only going to talk about the extracts in which Ellis explores books I have read.

I’d like to begin by praising Samantha Ellis’s writing. It is personal, intensely vulnerable, and never, ever boring. This is a book I couldn’t put down. Reading this book feels like you might be sat having a conversation with the author, herself. It feels like you’re part of this super-secret, super-cool book club. It blows the idea of reading being a solitary hobby right out of the water, and makes you feel like you’re part of a community. It is not just a book about books, it is a literary exploration of modern feminism, and what it means to be a woman. It is witty, warm and intuitive. You can’t help but adopting her enthusiastic and infectious love for literature, and I’d like to think that Ellis taught me a lot more about how to read and examine the books on my own shelf.

‘How To Be a Heroine’ is as much a book about Ellis’s own life as it as about any of the characters she mentions. Therefore, her interpretations are understandably highly personal. And you don’t have to agree with everything she says to be able to enjoy it. I, for one, could never understand how anyone might read ‘Wuthering Heights’ as romantic, I still don’t think Heathcliff and Cathy share a smidgen of love between them, and I think Ellis doesn’t give nearly enough credit to Isabella Linton. But Ellis and I both read ‘Wuthering Heights’ at very much different ages and with very different circumstances in our lives. Ellis needed Cathy, I didn’t. And that is what this book is really about.

On the other hand, Ellis shined a really interesting light on some of my other favourite female-led books. I’ve always loved ‘The Bell Jar’, but, like Ellis, have also worried about it being romanticised as a ‘sad girl’ novel. Sylvia Plath is remembered mostly through the lens of the most negative years of her life, but Ellis shows the reader that there is much more to be interpreted in her writing; a lust for life, a desire to live unapologetically, and to remain hopeful. I loved her suggestion that Esther Greenwood had to be so nasty so that she could escape from the oppressive expectations of being a nice, young lady.

Ellis also made me seriously re-evaluate one of my all-time favourite novels; ‘Gone With the Wind’. She brought to attention many of Margaret Mitchell’s own beliefs, and failings, and how this hugely influenced her epic historical novel. Ellis’s research into her subjects, and their authors, is deep reaching, and colours her understanding of the books even more. It’s a truly comprehensive study.

As the title explains, the book explores what we should take from some of literature’s best-loved ladies, and what we should leave behind. It is about crafting your own story, and becoming the heroine of your own life. In other words; finding the extraordinary, in the ordinary.

Ellis explains; “I don’t think anyone is ‘born to be a heroine’. It takes effort, valour, and a willingness to investigate your won heart”. If that was her intention in writing this book, there is not a doubt in my heart that Ellis became the heroine of her very own book.

Last week, I was lucky enough to be able to meet Samantha Ellis, and listen to her talk about her new book; ‘Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life’. My review of Ellis's new book, and a giveaway, will be uploaded to the website soon! 

Read this if you liked: The Novel Cure, The Brontes: A Life in Letters, One For The Books

Have you read this book yet? Let me know below what you thought, and if you’ll be adding this book to your TBR list.