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How to be a Heroine or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much

October 30, 2015

In her delightful memoir How to Be a Heroine or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much, playwright Samantha Ellis revisits the stories that shaped her development as a woman and a writer, paying homage to the those literary heroines who became her muses.

From Sleeping Beauty to Sylvia Plath, Ellis’ heroines were role models, each with a lesson Ellis wanted to learn. “I was reading the story of my life” she notes. “I [read] to find out what kind of woman I might want to be.”

Or not to be. As a little girl, the Iraqi-Jewish Ellis longed for Sleeping Beauty’s flowing blonde hair, until she grew old enough to realize that Sleeping Beauty doesn’t really do anything. Later, as an adult, Ellis realized that despite her lifelong adoration of the passionate Cathy Earnshaw from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Cathy lives neither wisely nor well. She marries Edgar Linton for money and then spends her marriage letting Edgar know that she never stopped loving Heathcliff. She dies and winds up a ghost.

As part of an argument with a close friend, Ellis found herself comparing Wuthering Heights to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. She noticed that Jane stays true to herself; her conscience and character are strongly formed, and together they give her the strength to leave Rochester, the man she adores, when he wants to make her his mistress. Even though she goes through great hardship, Jane survives, carves out a life for herself and eventually does marry him.

“My whole life I’d been trying to be Cathy” Ellis muses, “When I should have been trying to be Jane.”

These examples and many more make for a whimsical and often poignant memoir. Ellis isn’t afraid to admit she’s wrong. As a college student, her favorite heroine was Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Like Esther, she longed to come apart, to have a transformative experience of suffering. When she developed an epileptic medical condition, she considered her seizures her rite of passage: “This is, above all, what I got from The Bell Jar: the idea that you had to suffer to be a woman.” Ruefully, Ellis came to realize that she found nothing either educational or liberating about not being able to control her own body: “My seizures haven’t made me virtuous or cheerful…there is just the tedious business of getting through suffering, day after day…” She still enjoys Esther Greenwood’s rise out of madness, but she no longer has any illusions about it.

If there is any flaw in this gem of a book, it’s Ellis’ tendency to criticize her heroines for not being feminist enough, but she is wise enough to realize that even though none of her heroines are perfect (Cathy Earnshaw and Scarlett O’ Hara are anything but!), they each had something to teach her, something that helped her to become who she is. The job of a heroine–or hero–is to do just that.