Someone recently described Samantha Ellis’s How To Be a Heroine as “A book I’ve been waiting to read since I was 16” which is pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted from a book so when I started reading it, I had high hopes. Anyway, half way through the first chapter I realised that this wasn’t a book I’d been waiting to read; it was a book I’d been waiting write. A personal history, entwined with serious close-reading of the most important literary heroines? Isn’t that what all devoted readers are doing when they read, all the time? Isn’t that what my whole imagination is for?
The thing is, I have finished How to Be a Heroine now, and I have realised something else. Sam Ellis has done it way, way better than I ever could have done it. Oh, this book is such a pleasure! The index alone delights: On one page alone are found Lace; Love, Courtney; Just Seventeen; Jane Eyre; Orbach, Susie and Rilla of Ingelside. She argues for and against Cathy Earnshaw, identifies the problems and passions of Flora Poste and (correctly) asserts that Emily Starr is a better heroine than Anne Shirley, all without doing a disservice to any of her subjects. For me, Ellis’s work on Shirley Conran’s Lace was the most satisfying to read. It’s about time people started reading Lace as more than just a fabulous load of shagging and leopard-print; Lace is a book entirely about the importance of women working, and working together. I loved that part so much, I read it out loud.
Samantha Ellis’s book is for fangirls, and I think she’ll probably acquire legions of her own as it continues to live in the world. Her editor said at her launch that she realised the book was part of a larger conversation than just girls who read (a male newspaper reviewer had taken the Which Heroine Are You quiz and discovered he was Anne of Green Gables), but I found myself thinking, who cares? This book is just for girls who read! Go away, bandwaggoning men who wouldn’t give Lace the time of day. You are no heroines of ours. Ellis, on the other hand…Her voice – hyper verbal, witty, pragmatic, learned and emotional – is one of the strongest I’ve read recently. Best of all, in my opinion, she has written herself a barnstorming ending: a culmination of confessional writing, joyful imagination and clever reasoning that might just really help people. What more, frankly, could a heroine hope for? Read the book. Take the Quiz. Pass it on.