Every avid childhood reader remembers the heroes and the heroines that defined their young lives. They’re almost like close friends, those Lizzie Bennets and Lucy Pevensies and Harry Potters. They taught us how to laugh, to love, but perhaps most of all, how to be. How to be children and – to a great extent – how to be adults. How to be individuals, to be principled, to be strong.
But our heroes and heroines don’t just change us. To a large extent, we control them. We get out what we put in, and it’s hardly surprising that the best-loved books stay with readers throughout their lives, each time offering the reader something slightly different.
Heroes and heroines offer us a template for how to be – funny, brave, clever, whatever the author thinks is most important – but whether we, as readers, chose to accept these templates is a different matter altogether. This is perhaps particularly true of heroines, because the social roles imposed on women (mother, wife, daughter) are echoed in fiction, and reading anything published more than a few decades ago (and, regrettably, sometimes even just a few days ago) seems to offer women a pretty narrow scope of templates to accept. So there’s often a debate about whether we should give girls books like A Little Princess or Little Women, while offering boys Treasure Island is scarcely ever thought quite so problematic (presumably there’s no issue with giving girls Treasure Island, and no possibility of giving boys Little Women).
This carries through into our adult lives; the endless debate about whether authors like Austen and Gaskell are appropriate reading for modern women, or whether they’re just outmoded stories which aim to make women more comfortable with the inevitability of romance as the only storyline worth living.
Of course, as children we’re often less discerning; we just like stories, and whether they were written one hundred years ago or twenty minutes ago scarcely matters. If we like the characters, and we like the plot, we’re happy. We all have books we remember devouring as children. For me it was Harry Potter, Little Women, and the Narnia series. A little later it was Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. They’re all books I loved when I was younger, and they are all books that I have, at one point or another, returned to as an adult. And although I’ve always been pleased to rediscover that same enjoyment in all of them, I’ve also read them with a growing awareness of the morals and ideas that were buried beneath the fun plots and the brilliant characters (can I mention, once more, my disappointment at finding out that the Narnia series was allegorical? I felt like I’d been betrayed by my best friend).
Re-reading can be a joy, but it can also be an exercise in disappointment. Sometimes adult eyes pick up on things which bother the child, but which they lack the vocabulary to express. Reading Little Women I never understood why Jo’s marriage-plot bothered me so much, or why I liked Laurie better than the Professor. And why do Susan and Lucy never get to fight in the battle with the boys, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?
Samantha Ellis’ book, How To Be A Heroine: Or, What I Learned From Reading Too Much, captures this complicated process of re-reading perfectly. Ellis returns to the books that she loved throughout her childhood and young adulthood. She summarises briefly what each book meant to her at the time, making How To Be A Heroine part memoir, part literary criticism. Then she captures her feelings as an adult, re-reading each book and finding new (and sometimes disturbing) revelations with each.
Her focus is on the heroines: on the characters who taught her about womanhood and how/what women should be and do. She captures the disturbing feeling many women get re-reading their childhood favourites and realising, with the benefit of hindsight and feminism, that the things they read gave them a rather skewered view of femininity and the options available to women. One of my favourite lines is when she says, “I started to realise that when bold, clever, creative girls like Anne and Jo became women, something happened. They became less themselves” (Chapter II). She refers, of course, to these characters’ marriages and the subsequent abandonment of their ambitions to be writers.
Most of all, however, Ellis is aware of both the merits and the problems such heroines have. In all of the books that she re-reads, she celebrates the intelligence, energy, and passion that heroines exhibit, whilst simultaneously dissecting her own childhood responses to them. She seems to recognise that, as with all things, heroines aren’t perfect. They can still teach us things about being women, and being people, even if other things (desire for marriage, rejection of ambition, a penchant for lace and hoop skirts) are less relevant to us today.
The best thing about the book, however, is the way Ellis fills it with her own experiences, demonstrating the way we interact with our heroines. Relating her reading to her own life as the child of immigrant parents, she shows us the way that we find bits of ourselves in the books we read. So when she read Pride and Prejudice for the first time as a teenager, Ellis could relate to the pressure the Bennet sisters are put under to make marriage their one priority. Reading it as a single and successful woman several years later, she still loves the book, but for different reasons.
Ellis’ book is enjoyable to read because she understands the powerful impact reading has on our lives. She also understands the way that books can change, even sour, after several years on the shelf. Throughout her book she emphasises the fact that reading is personal, interactive. But although her experiences with certain books may be radically different as an adult, it’s clear that Ellis is still aware of what is worthwhile in every character and every story. She never suggests that these heroines should be rejected, because it’s clear that these books still have value. What matters most of all, it seems, is what the reader gets out of any book or story. Ellis’ book, with its focus on experiences of re-reading, suggests that perhaps the greatest hero or heroine of any story is, ultimately, the reader themselves.
Rating: 4 Stars
(I had to take away half a star because of Tom Lefroy. I’m sorry. I just had to.)