Any dedicated reader will be able to list at least one book that, at some point in her life, became part of her DNA. Books like these are past admiration or even love; they are simply part of the reason the reader is who she is. For Samantha Ellis, who spent years of her life trying to be Catherine Earnshaw, the foremost of these books is Wuthering Heights.
Ellis’ choice of such a headstrong and impulsive character belies her own capacity for insightful critical detachment. In her memoir of a lifetime of reading, How to Be a Heroine, Ellis analyzes her early impressions of the books that made her who she is, and explores the ways in which her adult reactions diverge from those initial impressions. Readers with their own analogues to Ellis’ relationship with Wuthering Heights will fondly recognize the ways in which novels we once knew become larger and more complex when we revisit them as adults.
Of course, the larger and more complex we ourselves become, the more the books grow with us, and fortunately for us, Ellis is an intelligent reader, capable of holding multiple contradictory ideas about one book at the same time. She can, for example, admire Anne Shirley, of the Anne of Green Gables series, for her empathy while lamenting that she ceases to be the most interesting person in the series after she marries Gilbert Blythe in book five. She can still derive a childlike delight from Anne’s whimsy, while also realizing that in too many books, “when bold, clever, creative girls… became women, something happened. They became less themselves.”
Ellis’ ability to be both unquestioningly loyal to what she loves while interrogating its message means her own book sits somewhere between literary criticism and book club reader’s guide. The latter description is by no means pejorative; if anything, it broadens the scope of Ellis’ book that she discusses characters as both literary vehicles and as if they were real people: she gushes that she “loves” Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, whom she refers to exclusively as “Lizzy”. She admires Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre for being independent and self-respecting, but also wonders, “Can a woman not be equal to her husband unless he’s wounded?” She finds space for her enjoyment of Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, along with Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s feminist reading of the former in their seminal work of criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic. Then she turns around and plays “Snog, Marry, Avoid” with Mr. Rochester, Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff, and Daphne DuMaurier’s Jem Merlyn.
Inevitably, Ellis’ changed perspectives on the formative heroines of her reading life spill over into real life. As a young Iraqi Jewish girl living in London, she relates the experience of feeling caught between two worlds, one of which is a familial homeland she has never seen and can never return to. Though her mother hopes that a young Samantha will grow up to make a good marriage, the author as an adult realizes the real reason she relates to the fairy tale The Little Mermaid is because she understands the mermaid’s feeling of belonging neither on land nor at sea.
Ellis also links her life to fiction when she discusses her recurring seizures, which have long been a source of pain and confusion for her, in the context of books about suffering women, such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Color Purple, and The Bell Jar. She learns to regard suffering as something that can be fought and conquered rather than as a fated state of being.
It’s in this connection between fiction and reality that How to Be a Heroine becomes truly meaningful. In closing her memoir with a chapter entitled “Scheherezade”, Ellis acknowledges that characters, especially female characters, only truly gain agency when they stop just being characters. They must become storytellers. Whether that means literally taking up the pen to write, as Jane Eyre did, or simply choosing to buck the standard narrative, like Thomas Hardy’s Tess boldly rising up to greet her captors after killing her husband, Ellis rejects the notion that life just happens to women.
At the same time, she eschews the need to know what comes next: she can be her own author without ever needing to steer herself towards a foregone conclusion. Her book will appeal to readers of a similar bent, who welcome the chance to question, learn, and grow simply for the pleasure of doing so.