I wanted to like How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis. From the blurb I read before starting the book, I knew that Ellis and I share favorite heroines in common (Lizzy Bennet! Esther Greenwood!). But I felt like the book fell flat for me in some undefinable way: the date who seems perfect on paper but just doesn’t click when you’re in a room together. I got annoyed, at some points, with her idea of what women should be and shouldn’t be. Beth March is dismissed as a wet blanket, too quiet, too submissive, too good. My beloved Fanny Price is similarly thrown aside as dreadfully dull.
I started wondering whether picking up the book had been a mistake when Ellis admitted that she had always wanted to be Cathy Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights. Cathy? Really? That was the first sign to me that Ellis and I weren’t on the same page or even in the same book or genre or library. Gradually, as I read, I realized more and more that this book and I were not a match. Ellis’s feminist interpretations emphasize the romantic plots while minimizing the growth of the characters, whether they are quiet or loud, beautiful or plain.
In a book that is supposed to be about relating to heroines, every time Ellis said she wanted to look like a heroine, focusing on the outward description rather than personality traits, I thought she rather missed the point. During the Scarlett O’Hara chapter, she mentions that she tried to starve herself so that she could have Scarlett’s 19 inch waist (an impossible feat). She wants long, blond hair like a Disney princess. I couldn’t relate to that, and, after a while, it was a bit annoying. The qualities she admires are similarly puzzling. She says at one point that she likes Lydia Bennet’s complete lack of shame after she ran away with Wickham and that she dislikes Lizzy’s judgment of Lydia. Why is it wrong for Lizzy to think that Lydia should have shown some remorse and humility? Lydia almost ruined her entire family’s reputation. Is the message that, if you do something wrong, you should just flaunt it regardless of the consequences, that it is better to learn nothing at all?
The book is all over the place. In the Lizzy Bennet chapter, she jumps from Pride and Prejudice to Shakespeare to Judy Blume to Jilly Cooper (whom, it seems, she talks about just so she can describe raunchy scenes. The discussion of Cooper’s books adds nothing at all to the chapter). She continues this pattern throughout the book. The chapters are unfocused, jumping from one heroine to the next, instead of specifically talking about what she learned from each of the chapter title characters and the novels they inhabit. it is a shame because Ellis does have some good insights into the novels she writes about.
Add to all of that a shaky understanding of author’s lives. Her conclusions about Jane Austen at the end of the Lizzy Bennet chapter felt wrong to me, like Ellis had only watched cheesy biopics of Austen’s life and had drawn all of the wrong conclusions. I knew less about some of the other authors she talked about than I did about Jane Austen, but, as a result of my misgivings about what she wrote about Austen, I was unwilling to continue to accept everything she wrote as true. It is difficult to read a book by someone when you aren’t entirely sure that you can trust their research or conclusions.
This book could have used some order, or, as a memoir, a narrative pulling the entire thing together. The best memoirs have a thread connecting all of the stories of the writer’s life. Ellis writes about her family being uprooted from Iraq and her body image issues and expectations for marriage and her first experiences with dating and boyfriends and love and about her formative years at Cambridge. However, she wrote a coming-of-age story without really defining her personal journey and what was at stake.
There were some interesting points, but the actual book did not meet my expectations based on the blurb I read. The title is How to Be a Heroine, but it doesn’t really tell the reader anything about that.