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.)

But the books she devoured when she was growing up showed her there were other ways to live and to love. Fictional girls and women became some of her most important role models.

So when, a few years ago, her best friend convincingly argued that passionate but practical Jane Eyre was a much better heroine than Ellis’s idol, the wild, intense Earnshaw, it made Ellis wonder whether she had been wrong about her other literary inspirations.

So, rather nervously, she decided to reread the most significant titles of her youth to see what messages she had absorbed from them, and to find out whether she still admired them as an adult.

There were disappointments. “The biggest was Katy Carr in What Katy did,” says Ellis. “I really didn’t see that coming. I didn’t think she was such a drip and that the whole book was going to be so much about sacrifice and how God’s school is the school of pain. I didn’t remember it [being like that] at all.”

The women of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls felt more miserable than glamorous, and Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, who encouraged Ellis to follow her dreams of the stage, is ultimately punished for her ambition and sexuality.

But nearly all of Ellis’s old heroines still stood up well. “Anne of Green Gables is still closest to my heart,” she says. “She’s incredibly sweet, but she’s got strength about her. I really like the fact that she uses her imagination to empathise [with others]. She’s like an altruistic superheroine. It is feminist and empowering to be an altruist in her way – she shows I can try to understand anyone, and once I understand them, then I can help them. That’s phenomenal.”

‘Heroine for the ages’
Practical Petrova Fossil was as appealing as ever. “Petrova is a heroine for the ages,” says Ellis. “She’s incredibly modern. I think you’d be quite bold as a young girl now if you wanted to be a mechanic.”

To her relief, she still loved Cathy. “I was really worried about re-reading Wuthering Heights,” she says. “I left it for ages and I wrote that chapter really late. I do see my friend’s points but I find Wuthering Heights is a book that doesn’t wash over you, it does encourage you to resist and think. And there’s so much I love about Cathy still.”

Most of the heroines, however, ended up married (or dead). It was harder for Ellis, who is single after several tempestuous relationships, to find characters who were happily and healthily single.

She found inspiration in Flora Poste, the supremely capable heroine of Stella Gibbons’s glorious Cold Comfort Farm, who, when she feels like some male company, summons a charming gentleman friend who flies her away in his plane.

“I was thinking: who is going to help me be single and happy rather than single and waiting and wishing I was not single?” she says. “I go back and forth on Flora Poste, but she’s really helped me do that. That’s been massively significant.”

At the end of the book, Ellis discovers her new heroine: Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights, who saves her life and the lives of other women by telling stories. “She’s perfect,” writes Ellis. “Middle Eastern, a storyteller, a feminist.”

“I wish I’d had her all along,” Ellis tells me, “because that made me feel as though that was a plausible way to be.”


1 Anne Shirley
Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery
You can put an overactive imagination to good use, whether that means writing stories or learning to empathise with others.

2 Petrova Fossil
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
Pursue your own passion, even if it’s something people like you don’t normally do.

3 Judy, Maxine, Kate and Pagan
Lace by Shirley Conran
Individually, the heroines of Conran’s feminist bonkbuster are formidable yet vulnerable, but when they stick together “they had strength and speed and style”.

4 Franny Glass
Franny and Zooey by J D Salinger
You don’t have to choose between a spiritual life and the realities of the world. As Franny’s brother Zooey shows her, her true vocation is to act.

5 Flora Poste
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Flora charmingly and competently solves not just her eccentric rural cousins’ problems, but her own.

Three home-grown heroines:

6 Benny Hogan
Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy
Binchy said that “the ugly duckling [in my books] does not become a beautiful swan. She becomes a confident duck”. And this is particularly true of Benny, who doesn’t need a makeover to be a heroine.

7 Rachel Walsh
Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes
Rachel has convinced herself – and the reader – that she doesn’t really belong in rehab. But it’s not until she confronts her problems that she can really move on.

8 Delia Scully
No More than Human by Maura Laverty
When lively Delia Scully went to Spain as a governess in Laverty’s enchanting 1944 novel, she showed how funny and adventurous a 20th-century Irish girl could be.

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