I remembered that How to Be a Heroine was good, but I’d forgotten how very good it is! It helps, of course, that a lot of Samantha Ellis’s heroines are the same as mine – Anne Shirley, Jo March, Katy Carr and Sara Crewe, to name just a few. Samantha Ellis opens with a story of ‘arguing (over the wuthering) with [her] best friend about whether [they]’d rather be Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw’. Nickie and I have had similar arguments. I specifically remember leaving an English class in Sixth Form arguing over whether Charles Bovary or Rodolphe Boulanger was the more desirable partner.
But I hope I’m braver about love now, and I’m tempted to make a rule that any heroine who spends a whole novel in love with someone who can’t or won’t love her back is not truly a heroine.How to Be a Herione, Samatha Ellis
Like Samatha Ellis, who begins How to Be a Heroine surprised by the negative qualities of her beloved Cathy, I think both Nickie and I have grown up out of our previous opinions and moved closer to some middle point between these two extremes. Charles Bovary’s ‘Nice Guy’ no longer seems harmless and therefore acceptable, and Rodolphe Boulanger’s wild passion needs tempering with some sympathy for people around him.
I don’t agree with everything Samantha Ellis says – I adore Anne’s House of Dreams and still love Little Women despite it’s Victorian preachiness. The fact that Jo and Anne give up writing doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers Samantha Ellis – maybe because she’s a writer and I’m not. Or, perhaps the differences come down to the fact that I’m 12 years younger. It doesn’t really matter, because agreeing with How to Be a Heroine isn’t the point. It’s fascinating just to see these character analysed in this loving and yet educated way. We do agree about Cousin Helen and her School of Pain, at least!
Next to my heroines, I felt undefined, formless; I had no narrative arc, no quest, no journey.How to Be a Heroine, Samantha Ellis
The twelve year difference means that some of my heroines weren’t touched on. There’s no sign of Mildred Hubble, clumsy and unlucky but determined; or Matilda, whose rises above her neglected childhood to take life into her own hands; or Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl at School who conquers her temper through community and responsibility. But even so, How to Be a Heroine got me thinking about all those beloved characters, wondering how I would see them if I resisted those books now – and how I might feel if I do so again another decade from now.
If all literary criticism was like this, I’d read a lot more of it!
The translucent, golden punch tastes velvety, voluptuous and not off-puttingly milky. Under its influence, I stage a party for my heroines in my imagination, and in my flat. It’s less like the glowering encounter I imagined between Cathy Earnshaw and Flora Poste, and more like the riotous bash in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Not everyone is going to like milk punch. So there are also dirty martinis, and bagels and baklava, and my mother’s masafan, Iraqi marzipan. The Little Mermaid is in the bath, with her tail still on, singing because she never did give up her soaring voice. Anne Shirley and Jo March are having a furious argument about plot versus character, gesticulating with ink-stained hands. Scarlett is in the living room, her skirts taking up half the space, trying to show Lizzy how to bat her eyelashes. Lizzy is laughing her head off ut Scarlett has acquired a sense of humour, and doesn’t mind a bit. Melanie is talking book with Esther Greenwood, who has brought her baby and also the proofs of her first poetry collection. Franny and Zooey have rolled back the rug and are doing a soft shoe shuffle in rhinestone hats. Lucy Honeychurch is hammering out some Beethoven (in this scenario I have a piano. A ground piano. Well, why not?) Marjorie Morningstar is gossiping about directors with Pauline and Posy Fossil. They’ve come straight from the shows they’re in, till in stage make-up and full of stories. Petrova, in a leather aviator jacket, goggles pushed back, a chic scarf knotted around her neck, is telling the thrilling story of her latest flight and how she fixed an engine fault in mid-air. Mira, in her paint-stained jeans and poncho, is listening, fascinated, asking a thousand questions. Mildred has been persuaded to drink a tiny glass of sherry, then another tiny glass, then another and now she and Lolly are doing a wild, strange dance in the hallway, stamping their feet, their hair flying wild and electric. Lolly’s cakes, in the shape of patriarchs she hates, are going down a treat. The Dolls from the Valley are telling Flora some truly scandalous and unrepeatable stories, and she is firmly advising them to get rid of their men and find worthier paramours. Celie is modelling trousers of her own design and taking orders from the Lace women; Judy is giving her a ten-point plan on how to expand her business to an international market. She is quite drunk but nevertheless the plan seems quite coherent, even if it is punctuated by her bellowing ‘More leopard print, more leopard print!’
Cathy looks tumultuous and on the edge of violent weeping and just as I think she’s going to storm out or trash my flat, Jane arrives, late, with an unexpected guest. Cathy turns in anticipation: is it Heathcliff? Once I would have joined her but now I’m glad it isn’t him. It’s a better surprise. It’s Emily’s hawk. Hero or Nero. Jane’s found him at last, and has him on her arm, perched on her glove; small for a bird of prey, he is dashing and patrician looking, brown and white, observing the room with dark, flinty eyes. When Cathy sees him, she looks at Jane and smiles.And in the kitchen is a heroine I probably should have had when I was four and sitting on my parents’ carpet, wishing it would fly. In the kitchen is Scheherazade.How to Be a Heroine, Samatha Ellis