Book Response: Samantha Ellis’s How to Be a Heroine

In Saows_142359436611480mantha Ellis’s How To Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much, we venture via beloved books and heroines from Ellis’s younger years and the accompanying yearning to be a princess to more recent years and her discovery that she, too, can be her own heroine in a myriad of ways. With personal anecdotes mixed with in-depth literary criticism, Ellis illustrates the ways in which she idolized, idealized, accompanied, emulated, and leaned on certain female literary characters throughout certain points in her life.

I tend to struggle when reading nonfiction books. Not so with How to Be a Heroine. Though we are separated by space, time, interests, and personal experiences, I recognized myself in many of Ellis’s reactions to, identifications with, and rejections of her heroines and their stories. I vastly agreed with her interpretations of Jane Austen’s Lizzy Bennett, struggled with the strength she found in Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara, and discovered new heroism in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (and especially loved her piece on Scheherazade of A Thousand and One Nights). Though several of her heroines served as her somewhat detrimental romantic role models — a habit I’ve somehow managed to avoid, except in the case of Lizzy —, Ellis’s insights into the effects these heroines have had on her personality and life were highly fascinating.

Much like Ellis, I’ve also always felt the books I have read and the heroes and heroines I have met along the way have greatly influenced me throughout my life. Following are the instructions and inspirations I have received on how to be a heroine as well.

I. The female characters of the Harry Potter series

Those who know me well know that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has been my equivalent of the Bible for much of my life. I have three copies of the first book — two of Sorcerer’s Stone, one of Philosopher’s Stone — alone, all in varying states of tatters and dog-eared pages. So, though the eponymous character of the series is, in fact, male, many of my most beloved heroines have come, in one way or another, from having read Harry Potter.

I first read Harry Potter when I was in third grade. I devoured it. I read it for the magic and for getting lost in a world in which adventure abounded and a whole lot was possible. I wasn’t so perspicacious yet that I noticed the gender politics of the books. All I knew was that Hermione Granger was a girl in a book about a boy who had wild hair like mine and liked books as much as I did. I latched onto her and didn’t (still haven’t) let go.

Several years later, when my family moved, I threw myself Hermione-style into school. I meticulously did homework and reveled in answering every question right on quizzes and exams. I read every reading assignment and worked hard on all my in-class and out-of-class projects. Hermione, unlike her friends Harry and Ron, is a Muggle-born and born non-magic in a world of magic folk, and must prove she belongs there as much as anyone else. In the first Harry Potter book, she expresses that she is “particularly interested in Transfiguration, you know, turning something into something else, it’s supposed to be very difficult.” By the end of the first book and the entire series, Hermione has fully proven herself as a witch — as “the brightest witch of her age,” even — all thanks to her ability turn herself into someone else over time with a bit of studying and perseverance. Now, I recognize that I was attempting to do the same more than 10 years ago, and studious, transformative Hermione was showing me the way.

There are more traits in the female characters of the Harry Potter series that have always spoken to me. Hermione is intelligent, but she is also extremely loyal and altruistic. (I will always love her attempt to establish S.P.E.W., a house-elf rights protection group, as unsuccessful as it was.) Lily Evans-Potter, Harry’s mother, proves the power of love in all its forms throughout the series. Luna Lovegood, first introduced in Order of the Phoenix, showed that it was okay to be different, to believe in wild ideas no one believed, lessons I needed when I felt I didn’t “fit in” at a new school. Mrs Weasley is the strong, motherly matriarch incarnate, brandishing a kitchen spoon and cool power and affectionate strength as well as deadly spells. Though I’ve often struggled with the fandom’s glorification of her character, Ginny Weasley, like her mother, can stand her ground against her older brothers, Quidditch opponents, and Death Eaters alike and is the inspiration and proof of one of my favorite quotes: “Anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve.” And there are more ladies populating these books who, despite critics’ insistence on female disempowerment, demonstrate a myriad of incredible, inspiring traits: stalwartness, truthfulness, cunning, dedication, passion, and intelligence.

II. Jane Austen and William Shakespeare’s leading ladies

I decided in seventh grade that I was going to start reading far above my prescribed reading level. I cut my literary teeth on the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, and Louisa May Alcott. There were few heroines of note to lead me on in these books. While Alcott’s March sisters were loyal and resourceful and Jo was an intelligent girl and rejected most of society’s expectations, I was still disappointed, as Ellis was in How To Be a Heroine, that they all ultimately married and settled down in the most unappealing ways that seemed to reject their prior principles and interests.

Then, rummaging somewhat secretly through the middle school library, I found Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’d heard — I don’t know how or from whom, even now — great things. When I opened the first page, it was like reading another language. I dove in, and still, to this day, haven’t resurfaced from Pride or Austen.

My first “grown” heroine was also my first Austen heroine. That was Lizzy Bennett. Stubborn, whiplash-smart, and wild, Lizzy became somewhat of my imaginary big sister. She taught me how to set and hold to my values, to make up my mind and stick to it, sometimes even to speak it no matter the consequences (I’m still mastering this skill, but I always turn to her when I need practice). She taught me to say no, to love and value my family, to use my mind — or, as it is equated in the 2016 movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, my sword — above all else. Granted, she’s also given me a weakness for tall, dark, socially-inept assholes and a tendency to judge far too quickly, but Lizzy and most of her literary and screen iterations are often who I turn to when I am in need.

Austen, in all her satirical and Edwardian glory, also gave me other heroines, including Lizzy’s sister kind, all-loving Jane Bennett; imaginative and romantic Cathy Morland of Northanger Abbey; and quiet, practical, but cutting and intelligent Fanny Price of Mansfield Park. Conversely, Austen’s girls like Emma Woodhouse of Emma, Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility, and Fanny Price’s cousins and friends in Mansfield Park steered me clear of their many faults and misconceptions.

At about the same time, I also tried to read William Shakespeare on my own. I made an attempt at Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice before reading either of them for a class, and — well, suffice it to say, I struggled. It wasn’t until I was in high school and college that Shakespeare began to make sense to me. And, with that sense, came some mighty fine leading ladies. Those heroines of the bard’s that stood out to me were unafraid and unashamed to say what they thought and/or demand what they wanted, be it power, love, or something else. Some order their men around, like loving Juliet and ruthless Lady Macbeth, while others like Hermia and Helena of A Midsummer Night’s Dream pursue love and freedom from society through dark, fairy-infested forests without pause or fear. Girls like Miranda (The Tempest), Rosalind (As You Like It), and Cordelia (King Lear) recognize and act on their own values, which often results in them spitting in the eye of the patriarchy or its domineering counterpart in the play. While some of these heroines are met by tragedy as the curtain closes, they continue to pursue their goals and stick to their guns no matter what they face; even as we witness them dying, we can still see them attempting to accomplish what they’ve started (except for Lady Macbeth — I may never forgive Shakespeare for not writing her death on stage).

Both Austen and Shakespeare have written so many modalities of heroism in female characters, and there is so much to learn and discover in ourselves in these heroines. Every reread and on-screen rendition of these authors’ texts inspire and invigorate me, as do their diverse and refreshing heroines.

III. Clever girl(s)

While Hermione has been a major role model in my academic career, I wouldn’t have gotten far without another set of heroines: those who inspired and taught me to be curious, to think outside the box, and to pursue what I’m after in new, innovative ways if necessary. These are my clever girls, and I call on their characters almost every day.

My first clever girl was Lyra Belacqua in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. She features as the primary character in the first installment, The Golden Compass, and, from the get-go, does everything her own way. We first see her sneaking across the roofs of colleges in Pullman’s alternate Oxford, tricking the boys she plays with into losing (they’re so upset to lose to a girl — I knew I loved her when she told them to shut it). Just after that, she goes looking for her uncle and ends up hiding in the wardrobe of the scholars’ meeting room instead, discovering secrets she never ought to’ve heard but learns all the same. Lyra, always curious, sticks her nose into things that her daemon Pantalaimon warns her not to and, as she begins to do in the first chapter, collects secrets and whispers like a magpie collects shiny objects. She concocts plans nonstop and finds new ways to enact these unorthodox but effective plots at every turn. After she escapes Mrs Coulter, she must trick grown-ups in order to make her way and lies quite creatively and vividly throughout the entire series. Even her greatest asset, the Alethiometer, which tells truths, is unusable and unreadable until she begins guessing and checking and inventing meanings. She must create the question with her own understanding of the Alethiometer and the situation at hand. Other alethiometrists require long study and practice; Lyra understands it intuitively. Similarly, her cleverness and innovativeness are what eventually draw the armored bear Iorek to her side as her companion and protector.

Lyra, clever little Lyra, taught me to read between the lines. Though I wish she’d taught me to be as innovative with the truth as she is (I can’t tell an effective lie to save my life), she did share her need to look at everything, check the details, question what’s missing or not making sense. She and Philip Pullman are why the University of Oxford became my dream school. I have always been in awe with her cleverness and her relationship with what is true and not true, what you can make true and not true, and where all of this can get you.

I didn’t discover my next clever girl until the summer after my freshman year of college. A classmate from my creative writing class suggested I try Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. How had I never read it before? It’s a mystery, but my very rudimentary review of the book, written August 18, 2012, read: “Extremely enjoyable…. I will recommend I read aloud to my own children.” I even mentioned I preferred Looking-Glass to Adventures. I’ve come a long way from then: I’ve written a senior honors thesis featuring Alice and become completely dedicated to Adventures as one of my favorite books of all time.

If we rely only on the opening, Alice and I are actually a bit different. She’s a young girl who has no interest in “a book … without pictures or conversations” (I’ll gobble up any book you hand me) and she stumbles headfirst right down a rabbit hole “never considering how in the world she was to get out again” (I like plans and end goals, quite a bit). What the two of us do have in common, however, is an eternal flame “burning with curiosity.” It’s this curiosity that gets Alice into her adventures to begin with, and it’s this curiosity that gets her through Wonderland in the end. Like Lyra, Alice interacts with her fantasy world by diving in and testing her last-minute theories — rules, as I refer to them in my thesis — as the opportunity arises. She is quick and inventive and navigates Wonderland by intuition and the free-willed government of her curiosity. Alice and her curiosity cannot be contained; external rules, such as “Rule Forty-two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the court,” as invented by the King, do not apply to her. She looks those who make the rules dead in the eye and tells them how it ought to be: “I sha’n’t [sic] go … besides, that’s not a regular rule: you invented it just now.” Her curiosity is creative and empowering — resulting in rules and her own agency, a means of exerting power or influence. She’s learnt how to make the rules, and won’t succumb to anyone else’s attempt to exert their orders and guidelines on her. Her ability to create rules results in her ability to destroy when she defines the King and Queen and their lackeys as no more than insignificant, pliable playthings: “Who cares for you? … You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” With this edict, Wonderland collapses, and Alice, always curious, always clever, always creating, implants the fantasy in the mind of her sister.

Even in Looking-Glass, in which she is ultra-power-hungry and has a structured mission to become a Queen, Alice continues to ask question after question and invents new poems and word definitions. As it becomes chaotic and seemingly uncontrollable, she maintains the ability to manipulate her fantasy world, grabbing the Red Queen, shaking her, and insisting she will “shake [her] into a kitten.” At this severe edict of Alice’s, the Red Queen makes “no resistance” and “really was a kitten, after all” — she’s holding Kitty, not the Red Queen. Her worlds do her bidding and, here, she has chosen again to reinstate the real world as suits her own agency.

Alice, in both books, then, isn’t a child who believes and sees nonsense; she invents places, characters, and rules, and her curiosity and cleverness are what allow her to subject all of the above to her whims. This is the cleverness of imagination at work. I see it in the children I work with everyday at the bookstore; I see it in my young cousins; I search for it endlessly in myself as I aspire to the heights of curiosity and cleverness in my academic and creative endeavors, as taught to me by heroines like Lyra and Alice.

These are my literary heroines. These are the girls and the ladies that have helped me and inspired me to get where I am today. The female characters of Harry Potter taught me a lot of life lessons about kindness, individuality, and bravery. The leading ladies in the classic works of Jane Austen and William Shakespeare serve as inspirations to stick to my values, to say no, to demand, to persevere. And my clever girls have led me to academic and real-life avenues — both literally and figuratively — that have challenged my curiosity and my mind. Some of them — especially Hermione, Lizzy, and Shakespeare’s ladies — have brought into my life the most incredible, most heroic, and most intelligent women I know  (y’all know who you are, I love you all). Like Samantha Ellis in How to Be a Heroine, I recognize the paths these heroines and I have crossed over the years and how they’ve affected me along the way, and, to this day, I continue to appreciate and admire them beyond words.



3 thoughts on “Book Response: Samantha Ellis’s How to Be a Heroine

  1. Carpenter Tracey says:

    Books shaping young women’s strength, creativity and independence….it’s all in what you draw from your experience and perspective. Re-read and see it all anew! So glad you can see the good and can share it all.


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