Literary heroines put through their paces

When author Samantha Ellis decided to review the fictional heroines of her youth for a book, she worried they might not all stand up to scrutiny

Tue, Jan 14, 2014, 01:00

Three years ago, I visited a book club whose members were girls aged between eight and 12. The next book on their list was Noel Streatfeild’s 1936 novel Ballet Shoes, and several of the girls had already read and loved it. Their favourite of the book’s three Fossil sisters was Petrova, who dreams of being a pilot and would rather fix car engines than dance.

When I told them that Petrova’s cameo appearances in several of Streatfeild’s later novels reveal that she did indeed grow up to become a pilot, they were so pleased they cheered, some chanting, “Go Petrova! Go Petrova!”

Some may be surprised to find that a group of 21st-century kids were so invested in a fictional child created nearly 80 years ago. But those people have forgotten how important fictional characters can be to kids growing up.

Petrova is one of the many literary girls and women featured in British playwright Samantha Ellis’s new book How to Be a Heroine (Chatto & Windus, £16.99). Part memoir, part literary criticism, part loving homage, this perceptive, funny, moving and enormously likeable book examines how our relationships with fictional girls – from LM Montgomery’s Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables to Emily Brontë’s Cathy Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights – can shape and inspire the women bookish girls later become.

“I wouldn’t have become a writer if it wasn’t for Anne of Green Gables,” says Ellis. “She showed me that that was a thing you could do if you had an overactive imagination, which my parents always said I had. Franny Glass [from JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey] massively consoled me when I was losing my faith, and helped me learn that I could find meaning in the wider world rather than just in faith and religion. I learned a lot from Scarlett O’Hara about the toughness I could bring to my life. She really helped me with that. And a lot of my romantic decisions come from Cathy Earnshaw. So she’s been quite significant though not always for the good.”

A love of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar inspired Ellis to follow in the author’s academic footsteps. “I wouldn’t have gone to Cambridge if it wasn’t for Sylvia Plath having gone there,” she says.

Ellis’s background
Ellis grew up in London, the daughter of Iraqi-Jewish immigrants, who expected their daughter to marry a nice Iraqi-Jewish boy and settle down. (More than most British women of her generation, she could identify with the Bennet sisters’ pressure to find and marry a suitable suitor.)

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