I've found the answers to most of my life's questions and crises in the pages of my favourite books

How To Be A Heroine

Samantha Ellis is a playwright. In How To Be A Heroine, she examines the influence of her favourite literary heroines on her own life.

You have been writing plays for more than a decade. What motivated you to go back to your literary heroines?

I was in Yorkshire with my best friend, walking up from the Brontë Parsonage at Haworth to the ruins that inspired Wuthering Heights, and we had an argument about whether we’d rather be Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. I wanted to be wild, passionate Cathy, but my friend argued for independent, clever Jane. And I started wondering if I’d been wrong, if I’d been trying to be Cathy my whole life when I should have been trying to be Jane. I decided to re-read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre to see how I felt about my heroines now, and before I knew it, I’d started a marathon of re-reading all my favourite books, meeting again the fictional women who had shaped me.

You mainly mentioned heroines that you identified with as a child, a teenager or a young adult. Are there any recently written heroines you could identify with?

Absolutely! In my book, I write about being influenced by the Dolls (from Jacqueline Susann’s bonkbuster The Valley of the Dolls) in my twenties; I now find this novel too bleak to be inspiring, and wish I had instead read Shirley Conran’s Lace; Conran’s heroines are frankly feminist, support each other and truly love their work. I also write about Flora Poste, the breezy, charming, practical heroine of Stella Gibbons’s novel Cold Comfort Farm, who was the heroine I turned to when I wanted to learn the art of being single and happy, and about Patti Smith’s wonderful memoir of becoming an artist, Just Kids; Smith is, I think, a fabulous heroine for anyone trying to work out who they are. I also love Rachel Samstat, the witty, jubilant heroine of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. Recently, I’ve enjoyed meeting some new heroines, including Bernadette, the mixed-up heroine of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, the unnamed artist protestor heroine of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers and the questing, unhappy Dellarobbia in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour. And I’ll always have a soft spot for Fevvers, the bawdy, voracious heroine of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus.

You mainly write about heroines written by women. Do you think that men can’t write satisfying heroines?

I think men can write wonderful heroines—Shakespeare’s Juliet is much more bold and interesting than Romeo, Henrik Ibsen’s Nora inspired many women to smash down the walls of their own dolls’ houses, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders is a shrewd proto-feminist, and I love JD Salinger’s restless, charming Franny Glass and Joss Whedon’s superheroine with a heart, Buffy. I think the best heroines come from writers who empathise with their heroines—Holly Golightly is a wonderful heroine because Truman Capote put so much of his own life and his mother’s life into her. And EM Forster’s intrepid heroines do what, as a gay man, he couldn’t: they put love first, and don’t worry what society thinks about them. I think men should write heroines, just as women should write heroes, because if men don’t at least try to write heroines then they aren’t trying to understand women. And I think that radical act of empathy, of trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, is what writing (and reading) fiction is all about.

A study was recently published saying that reading literary fiction developed empathy. To go back to the title of your memoir, do you think that the works you mentioned—and most generally great works of literature—are the best kind of self-help book one might need?

Yes! I’ve found the answers to most of my life’s questions and crises in the pages of my favourite books. Reading is a way of trying out new ways to be, and experimenting with choices, and I wouldn’t be without my fictional female friends, just as I wouldn’t be without my real ones.

Editorial reviews (6 reviews)

I found myself scrolling through my library’s online catalogue for the titles, and I’m looking forward to returning to How to Be a Heroine once more to read Ellis’ commentary. It’s hard to fault a book that loves other books so much.

Her eclectic heroines, from Shakespeare’s to Jilly Cooper’s, allow her to think about feminism without tangling with theory.

She is ardent about everything and writes of her favourite novels as if they were drugs, "inhaling" them, indulging in them, bingeing.