Page Text: How to be a Heroine; or, what I’ve learned from reading too much by Samantha Ellis
I’d quite like to meet Samantha Ellis. She, Lucy Mangan and I are all almost exactly the same age – does that signify something? Anyone who gets Gone With The Wind and Chicken Licken (/Henny Penny) into the same book and asks neurologists if “brain fever” really exists definitely sounds like my sort of person. Not to mention managing to group together Pride and Prejudice, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Riders in a single chapter. The big questions – who were your book heroines when you were growing up, what did they teach you, and do they still seem like heroines to you now? And then all sorts of questions about them.
Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw? Jane, obviously. The only good thing about Cathy is that Kate Bush sings about her. Scarlett O’Hara or Melanie Hamilton? Melanie’s the one who holds it all together, but can you really identify with someone so good? Elizabeth Bennet? Earlier this week, I told a really annoying person that they puzzled me exceedingly. I actually use her lines: that’s how much I love Elizabeth. Was Anne Shirley better before she became a Smug Married? Definitely. Should Jo have ended up with Laurie? Could everyone just get past this, please?! Should there be “a special place in hell” for Cousin Helen? That’s a bit harsh, but I can see where the author’s coming from.
There are some interesting comparisons which I’d never really thought of before – Anne Shirley being allowed to enjoy her puffed sleeves versus Meg March being made to feel guilty for wearing a fancy frock for one evening, and Scarlett O’Hara’s efforts at dressmaking with curtains versus Fraulein Maria’s. Scarlett’s (or, more likely, Mammy’s) are better, but, to be fair, she had better curtains. And, apparently, Lace is “a career woman’s handbook”. I’ve never heard it called that before. Mind you, it probably beats my own teenage theory that the path to career success is to try to conceal your total lack of self-confidence by turning up to interviews dressed like Alexis Colby. Don’t try this: it really doesn’t work.
And, in amidst all this and more, there’s the author’s family history of fleeing the persecution of Jews in Iraq (the maternal side of her family, in particular, went through some horrific experiences and were mentally scarred for life as a result) and her experiences of growing up in London as part of a tiny and rather insular community of Jews with Iraqi heritage, whose culture and traditions are very different from those of most other British Jews.
She does a lot of criticising – I don’t think it’s very fair to expect heroines of Georgian or Victorian books to be feminist role models in the 21st century – but she makes some very thought-provoking points.
There are two main themes to the book. One, as with Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, is the role which books played at different stages of the author’s growing-up. The other is whether or not the heroines of those books still stand up to her scrutiny now.
She says that the idea for the book came from a discussion with her best friend about Bronte heroines. She’d always idolised Cathy Earnshaw. Her friend persuaded her that Cathy was an annoying brat and that Jane Eyre was a much better heroine. I’m totally with the friend on this one: I admire Jane and I can’t stand Cathy. But I’ve always felt like that. With other people, though, my views aren’t quite the same as they used to be, and they certainly aren’t what their creators intended them to be. Nor are Samantha’s.
The book starts with fairytale princesses – making the very good points that a) even before Disneyficiation, the versions of fairytales told to children bore no resemblance to the original stories and b) there should probably be more to a heroine than bagging a prince – and goes through a wide range of different heroines from different books. I’m not going to write an epic essay about all of them. I don’t even know some of them, TBH. Conversely, there are people whom I’d have included but she doesn’t – there isn’t one school story heroine in here, unless you count Sara Crewe – but obviously we all have our own favourite books and our own ideas about them.
I do need (OK, want) to write about some of the heroines she mentions, though. Starting with Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Hamilton. She doesn’t mention them until the fourth chapter, but never mind. Gone With The Wind is the greatest book of all time. Yes, I know that it was written in very different times, and that the racial attitudes are unacceptable to modern eyes, but we’re just talking about the characters. The ending isn’t really about Scarlett vowing that she’ll get Rhett back because “Tomorrow is another day”. It’s about Scarlett realising that, all these years, she’s had it wrong about the important people in her life. It’s always been Rhett and Melanie who’ve had her back. They’ve always been there for her. And she’s always been too busy mooning over Ashley, the teenage crush she never got over, to see it. On top of that, she’s fallen out with all her other old acquaintances and got in with a crowd she now realises she doesn’t even like. A lot of people will have been there – desperate to keep/get in with a friend or a crush or an in-crowd, or spending years wanting someone who isn’t even right for you, and only realising belatedly that they’re the wrong people and you’ve failed to appreciate the right people as much as you should have done. We think of it as a historical novel, or as a romance, but it also says so much about life that’s valid in any era and for any person.
So, is Melanie the real heroine of the book? She also copes with everything, but, whereas Scarlett alienates the entire community, Melanie keeps their affection and respect. But … well, Melanie falls for the whole “Glorious Cause” thing, and Melanie’s so sweet and innocent that she can’t even see that her husband and best friend are lusting after each other. And Melanie is dependent on Ashley, who’s financially dependent on Scarlett, whereas Scarlett gets out there and sets up her own business and fights for her home and her family. I’m not nice enough to be Melanie or confident enough to be Scarlett, so I’d never claim either of them as role models, but … which of them is the real heroine? Very interesting question. Samantha goes for Scarlett. I think I do too.
I think I take both Scarlett and Melanie the way they were intended to be taken, but how about Katy Carr? Counsellors must love Katy and Cousin Helen. They both accept things and try to make the best of them. However, I’ve never known anyone have a good word to say about Helen and the vomit-inducing School of Pain/School of Love stuff. And the supposedly sweet and lovely menage a trois with her, her ex-fiancé Alex and his wife Emma is just plain weird. No-one is telling me that Emma was OK with it.
And Katy … the point at which she really starts to annoy me is when she’s wrongly accused of and punished for something she didn’t do, and prances around singing
“Let It Go”
“Live It Down”. She’s got a point, because being bitter about something doesn’t help. And I don’t like the nasty prank that Rose Red plays on the teacher involved in order to avenge her friends. But do we really want to accept that, if we’re the victim of an injustice, we should just let it go. Sorry, but I’m not that saintly! Anyway, doing that can be dangerous. OK, Katy has been wrongly accused of writing a note to a boy, not wrongly named all over social media as the perpetrator of some horrific violent crime, but even so.
And who wants to belong to a school gang called “the Society for the Suppression of Unladylike Conduct”? OK, I was never going to be cool enough to belong to the Pink Ladies (not that our school had any gangs like the Pink Ladies), but “the Society for the Suppression of Unladylike Conduct”?! Seriously?! I still love these books, but Katy is not my sort of heroine. I just don’t see her like readers are meant to see her. I think I used to. But not now.
Anne Shirley, though, is different. I still love young Anne and how she imagines everything into being far more exciting and romantic than it really is. I still do that too much myself – I end up saying things I shouldn’t, because I’m trying to make things into a drama. It’s quite a problem in the age of e-mail, when your melodramatic purple prose ends up on someone else’s computer or phone until or unless they delete it, but Anne didn’t have that problem! So I was very pleased that the author says that she too still loves young Anne, and is grateful to Anne for showing her that being imaginative is a really good thing. But, as she says, it’s hard to find much inspiration in adult Anne, who gives up her dreams of writing to become Mrs Dr Blythe and concentrate on “writing living epistles” (i.e. her children). Although apparently Anne is quoted on religious blogs written by people who say that she’s a wonderful example of a woman who devotes herself to her husband and children. I don’t think I want to think about that .
But I think it’s a bit unfair to criticise Anne, or Jo March, or, rather, their creators, over the fact that both characters give up their writing. Times were different then. They live in the world they were written in, not our world. It does rather make you appreciate Jo Bettany (not mentioned in this book), though. OK, as an adult she’s incredibly annoying, and she wouldn’t be able to carry on writing if she didn’t have two live-in domestic staff, but at least she doesn’t pack in her writing and just become Mrs Doctor Dear.
There’s also a reference to how preachy Little Women is, and how you might not realise that as a child but it hits you in the face as an adult. I recently had the same experience with Heidi, re-reading it for the first time in years. Don’t get me wrong, I love these books, but, bleurgh, are they preachy?! Three cheers for young Laura Ingalls complaining that she hates Sundays! And there’s a very interesting comparison between lovely Matthew making sure Anne gets her puffed sleeves and poor Meg March being made to feel that she’s committed the crime of the century for borrowing a friend’s sister’s pretty frock and having her hair done.
The author is really scathing about Little Women and Good Wives. I think she goes overboard, really. I don’t think we’re meant to see Beth as an ideal of womanhood. I don’t think Laurie fell for Amy’s “womanly pain and patience” – I like to think that there was a big spark between them when she boldly told him to stop being such a pathetic idiot and get his act together. And I don’t think Meg was “tamed” – she chose the man she wanted, and pretty much told Aunt March where to shove her comments. And could we all just please get past the idea that Jo and Laurie should have married each other?! Still, what Samantha says makes you sit up and think.
She’s a bit hard on most people, really. She talks about how wonderful Elizabeth Bennet is – well, yes, I couldn’t agree more. But then she even has a go at her, saying that she’s prissy for being disgusted by Lydia’s behaviour. What?? Lydia makes a complete show herself at Mr Bingley’s party, then runs off with Mr Wickham and lives with him before they’re married. How was Elizabeth supposed to feel? About the only book that she doesn’t have a bad word to say about is Ballet Shoes. She really waxes lyrical about that one, which surprises me a bit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely book, despite the use of “Petrova” as a first name when it’s actually a surname and only a surname, but Sylvia annoys me. Why doesn’t she try to get a job? Elizabeth Bennet never annoys me.
Each chapter bears the name of a heroine, but actually covers several heroines … and (Judy Blume)’s Margaret Simon is in the Elizabeth Bennet chapter. Sadly, though, she’s only mentioned briefly. Margaret is a great heroine for teenage girls. If Enid Blyton had written Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, domineering Nancy would have been the heroine. As it is, we get all Margaret’s worries and insecurities. Margaret is brilliant. But she only gets three paragraphs, before the author moves on to Jilly Cooper. Laura Ingalls Wilder, in a later chapter, also only gets three paragraphs. They both get nothing but praise, though, which is good. Laura is brilliant as well.
By this point, the author’s life story’s on to her teens. Most bookish females read a lot of the same books as children – and a lot of these books have been around for years and years, and our mums and aunties and grandmas and great-aunts read them too. With adult books, other than the “classics” and a few other legendary books – like Gone With The Wind – it’s different: people branch out. So I didn’t know all the heroines of the books Samantha read when she moved on to “grown-up” books. They were mostly still older books, though. No Barbara Taylor Bradford! I’d definitely have had Emma Harte in there. OK, Emma Harte first appeared in the late 1970s, but she was still pretty big in the late 1980s: I must have been about 13 when I first read A Woman of Substance. I’d have had Fee from The Thorn Birds in there as well. Meggie’s the heroine of the story, but her mum Fee is the best character in it. If you’re a melodramatic sixth former looking for lines to make your life sound like an epic novel instead of just sad and boring, The Thorn Birds is the place to go to. Scarlett can try to win Rhett back, because tomorrow is another day. Fee doesn’t realise that she really loves Paddy until he’s killed in a fire. “It was like all of my life, too late.” Whenever I’m feeling particularly melodramatic (which I’m afraid is quite often), that line comes out.
She does talk a lot about Lace, though. I’ve never heard it described as a “career handbook” before. Back in the day, if I wanted careers advice, I went to Dynasty – which was how I and my zero self-confidence level ended up going to my first few interviews in a bright red jacket with bright gold buttons and huge shoulder pads. I got turned down right, left and centre, but, to be fair, it wasn’t the jacket’s fault.
But, from Lace, she goes on to the Brontes. I know where I am with them. As I’ve already said, I can’t stand Cathy. And I have no idea why anyone thinks Heathcliff is a romantic hero. He’s a thug. I love Jane, though. And I love Samantha’s theory that, if she’d taken more notice of Jane when she was younger, Jane might have taught her to value herself even though she wasn’t beautiful. I never thought of that. I just thought I was Charlotte Lucas instead of Elizabeth Bennet. And, for a while, I even thought I was Bertha Rochester, because the managers at my first permanent job kept me hidden away from clients (seriously). Maybe it’s because Jane is small and thin. If she’d said “Because I am poor, obscure and fat” rather than “Because I am poor, obscure, plain and little”, I might have got the idea. Charlotte isn’t fat either. Book heroines are not fat. Caroline Scott in the Sadler’s Wells books is a bit, but magically “sheds her puppy fat” in her teens. And Bridget Jones constantly talks about being fat, but, FFS, she only weighs about 9 1/2 stone. Anyway. Jane is amazing. But I don’t really get Samantha’s ideas about looking to the Brontes for relationship advice. Stick to Jane Austen for that.
The penultimate chapter is about adult heroines who aren’t defined by their relationships with men. The only really good one seems to be Mary Poppins, who isn’t the ideal role model unless you possess a flying umbrella. Oh dear. I really feel that Miss Annersley, Miss Grayling and Miss Theobald are needed here. Then there’s a final chapter, which is presumably meant to be inspirational, about how the heroine we really need to be is Scheherezade, writing our own stories – but they need to be the stories of our own lives.
It sounds great, but it’s no good. I need heroines from books. The problem is that most of them are so young. If the book does follow them past their twenties, they either fade into the background and become Mrs Dr Blythe or else become annoying because the story needs them to fade into the background and they don’t (Jo Bettany, I’m looking at you). Even Emma Harte fades into the background as her granddaughter Paula becomes the centre of the story. Ah, but hang on! My melodramatic line – “It was like all of my life – too late”. Towards the end of The Thorn Birds, both Fee and Meggie do the fading into the background thing, as vibrant twentysomething Justine takes centre stage, but Fee finds her voice and her personality. Everyone realises how great she is, how intelligent she is, and how clever she is with words. She was also good at saying things in just a few words, which I’m not – I go on and on and on, so I shall shut up now, and, if anyone has actually read all this waffling, well done and thank you!
Well, I’ll shut up about book heroines, anyway. Just a bit about the author’s family history, which she keeps explaining has had a huge impact on her life, on her choice of reading matter, and on her relationship with fictional heroines.
I read quite a bit about Iraqi Jews a couple of years ago, when I was reading up on Shanghai (I know that sounds weird, but quite a lot of Iraqi Jews moved to Shanghai in the 19th century), but it’s not a well-known story. She talks about how her mother and maternal grandparents – her father’s side of the family having left before things got as bad as they did later – were mentally scarred for life by being imprisoned, how they escaped with the help of the Kurdish community. She also talks about how the Iraqi Jewish community in London was very insular, to the extent that arranged marriages were common when she was growing up, and she was expected to marry someone from the same background (which she didn’t). The community put so much emphasis on girls bagging a suitable husband that, in the 1980s, families kept a layer of their daughters’ bat mitzvah cakes (just before anyone thinks I’ve got the wrong term, it’s Samantha herself who talks about a “bat mitzvah”, despite it being at an Orthodox synagogue … and involving making cheesecake which was then scoffed by some naughty boys from the bar mitzvah class), to be eaten at their weddings.
This isn’t a history book, but (in case anyone’s reading this!) I think it’s worth adding a few notes on the subject. In 1941, due to the belief that Iraqi Jews had supported British forces against the pro-Nazi Iraqi government, there was a huge wave of violence in Baghdad, in which around 200 Jews, maybe more, were killed and 1,000 injured. There was also widespread destruction of property. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, many Iraqi Jews were sacked from public sector jobs, there were boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses, and many well-to-do Iraqi Jews had their property confiscated on trumped-up charges. Things got worse during the 1960s. From Wikipedia:
With the rise of the Ba’ath Party to power in 1963, restrictions were placed on the remaining Iraqi Jews. Sale of property was banned, and Jews had to carry yellow identity cards. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Jewish property was expropriated, bank accounts were frozen, Jews were dismissed from public posts, their businesses were closed, trading permits owned by Jews were cancelled, they were not allowed to use telephones, were placed under house arrest for extended periods of time, and were under constant surveillance and restricted to the cities. In late 1968, scores of Jews were jailed on charges of spying for Israel, culminating in the 1969 public hanging of 14 men, 9 of them Jews, who were falsely accused of spying for Israel. Other suspected spies for Israel died under torture. After Baghdad Radio invited Iraqi citizens to “come and enjoy the feast”, half a million people paraded and danced past the scaffolds where the men were hanged, which resulted in international criticism. An Iraqi Jew who later left wrote that the stress of persecution caused ulcers, heart attacks, and breakdowns to become increasingly prevalent in the Jewish community.
Here endeth the history lesson. And here endeth this extremely long blog post. I’m off to read yet another book …