Newberys Read This Year: 15
Newberys Left for Goal: 0
Newberys Left for Total: 14
Book: How To Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis
When I read nonfiction, I tend to read about English royalty, the American Revolution, women’s history, and reading itself. This is the second book about reading that I read this year, and, sorry to say, both were a disappointment.
Samantha Ellis is a British playwright who grew up with a rich tradition of reading. She and I loved some of the same books (Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Gone with the Wind, to name a very few) and took great joy in immersing ourselves in the stories. So this book exploring her relationships with the heroines of these books should have been a slam dunk for me.
Yet it so was not.
In retrospect, I should have been on my guard, at least, seeing the name Cathy Earnshaw in her list of chapters. I suppose I figured that we are all entitled to our guilty pleasures, so I just let it go. Now I see that I should have viewed it as foreshadowing.
There was trouble in paradise early on in the book. In chapter 2 titled “Anne Shirley”, Miss Ellis rejoices in the spunky, unconventional spirit the child Anne embodies. She goes on to express her disappointment in Anne as she grows up throughout the 8-book series. Miss Ellis laments that Anne gave up pursuing a career in writing to become a wife and mother, that Anne loses her penchant for romance and drama, and that Anne becomes a background character. To all this, I say, “Miss Ellis, did you actually read the books or are you relying on the Megan Follows televised series?” because Miss Ellis is either flat-out wrong or totally misses the point.
In the books, Anne does not express a desire to have a career as a writer, something that occurs in the television version. The written Anne ventures a few times into the world of publishing with varying degrees of success. She is crushed by her rejections and elated by her successes, and she enjoys writing, but she never is determined to pursue writing as a career. As for Miss Ellis’ assertion that Anne’s character changes, I couldn’t disagree more. Anne matures as she ages. She always has a romantic nature and is always quite different from other people in general. She grows out of her slight drama queen existence, but her essential character remains intact. Yes, she does become a background character, but Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote for child audiences. Her protagonists needed to be children. Kids don’t really want to read about adults, so Miss Montgomery connected new kid characters to a known and beloved one who grew up. Besides, if all the adventures Anne’s children and their friends experienced had been given to Anne (on top of her own), she would have lost her believability and authenticity.
In that same chapter about Anne, Miss Ellis rips apart another childhood heroine we share, Jo March. The short version of her complaints are that Jo gave up writing to marry and run a school and that the March girls in general buckle under and give in to the contemporary expectation that wifedom and motherhood were the highest ambitions for women. Miss Ellis spends considerable time and energy denouncing the March sisters (and their creator, Miss Alcott) as non-feminists. I think that, again, Miss Ellis misses the point. She needs to recall that the March sisters were products of the 1870s, not the 1970s. Jo leaves home and seeks adventures and writing opportunities in New York. Miss Ellis doesn’t see that as a woman doing what she wants instead of what society expects? Marmee, who doesn’t have the unlimited time and resources of a rich woman, devotes her time to social causes. This was common in American Victorian society? Meg refuses to make a rich match that will ensure her family’s comfort in order to marry a man she loves. That conformist! Miss Ellis makes the mistake of viewing the March women with modern eyes and therefore out of context.
She also makes the mistake of confusing the characters with their writers. Anne and Jo were certainly inspired by the lives of their creators, but they are not literary versions of Maud and Louisa, respectively. It is an error to see Anne of Green Gables and Little Women as romans à clef; an error often made and incidentally repeated by the producers of the Winona Ryder version of Little Women.
And all this was in Chapter 2. Things tended to get better for me, as far as Miss Ellis’ analyses of her heroines, although in her discussion of Scarlett O’Hara I once again wondered if she was referring more to the movie than the actual book. But things got worse for me the more Miss Ellis talked about her own life—a natural thing for her to do since the book was about how the heroines influenced her. But as I learned more about Miss Ellis, the more I realized that I didn’t like her. Turns out she is a self-confessed, full-fledged drama queen. And as I have no patience or respect for drama queens, it was also a natural thing that I quickly grew disenchanted with Miss Ellis. (Side note, this was the same reason why I didn’t care for that other book about reading, The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller—I didn’t like the author who was writing about his own life.) The only positives I got from finding this out about her was that it explained a couple of things—why she was disappointed when Anne Shirley grew out of her slight drama queen ways and why Cathy Earnshaw was on her heroines list.
So in Miss Ellis we have a drama queen who confuses print stories with visual stories, who doesn’t want to see characters mature over time, who refuses to see characters in the context in which they were written, who blurs the lines between author and character, and who admires both Cathy Earnshaw and her romance with wife-beater Heathcliff. Small wonder that I, who prefers to live in a drama-free zone, was not enamored of Miss Ellis’ work.