Book Review: How to be a Heroine

Thursday 28 April 2016 by

How to be a Heroine, Samantha Ellis, Book, Vintage, ReadingHow to be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much by Samantha Ellis

Published by Vintage

Cathy Earnshaw or Jane Eyre?

Petrova or Posy?

Scarlett or Melanie?

Lace or Valley of the Dolls?

On a pilgrimage to Wuthering Heights, Samantha Ellis found herself arguing with her best friend about which heroine was best: Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. She was all for wild, passionate Cathy; but her friend found Cathy silly, a snob, while courageous Jane makes her own way.

And that’s when Samantha realised that all her life she’d been trying to be Cathy when she should have been trying to be Jane.

So she decided to look again at her heroines – the girls, women, books that had shaped her ideas of the world and how to live. Some of them stood up to the scrutiny (she will always love Lizzy Bennet); some of them most decidedly did not (turns out Katy Carr from What Katy Did isn’t a carefree rebel, she’s a drip). There were revelations (the real heroine of Gone with the Wind? It’s Melanie), joyous reunions (Anne of Green Gables), poignant memories (Sylvia Plath) and tearful goodbyes (Lucy Honeychurch). And then there was Jilly Cooper…

How To Be A Heroine is Samantha’s funny, touching, inspiring exploration of the role of heroines, and our favourite books, in all our lives – and how they change over time, for better or worse, just as we do.


I don’t often read non-fiction, but Samantha Ellis’ How to be a Heroine has been on the to-be-read pile for a while now after some great publicity. This is Ellis’ memoir of sorts – a story as told by the heroines she has read and emulated from the years. Inspired by a conversation with a friend about Cathy Earnshaw versus Jane Eyre, Ellis revisits all her old favourites, from Anne of Green Gables to Valley of the Dolls. She investigates them all, putting them under intense scrutiny in a way she hasn’t done before, and examines her original views and how they have changed over the years.

This is a joyous romp through old favourites (and new). Some are familiar stories and some are completely new to me. It’s an interesting view of some of the more famous heroines of the literary world. Ellis portions out her chapters with events in her life – and analyses what each story has meant to her at that time. She then reads it again and compares it to how she feels about it now. Often her decisions about who is the hero and who she sympathises with change with the new read – even her feelings about Cathy change.

Is it because her idea of romance has changed? Has her need for independence, or dependence, altered? As she has grown up, her idea of heroines have changed. What she wants from her protagonist is different with each passing experience, and so her feelings about each story changes with it. It is fascinating to go on that journey with her and discover what she feels about the books. It reminds you what you felt about them, but it also introduces you to new heroines you might want to encounter.

This is a brave, intelligent read. It’s insightful and fun and inspiring. Ellis is a brilliant writer and tempers humour with serious notes. She doesn’t shy away from the darker side of growing up, but she does it with a certain lightness that makes you feel positive about it all.

There is nothing quite like a book about books to make you fall in love with literature again. And call them what you will, but these heroines are mighty and powerful. And this is a celebration of all things literary and all things woman. An uplifting read.

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