I dual majored in English and Communication in undergrad so it isn’t a shocker that I love to read. I tend to mix it up between fiction and non-fiction and I know this is admitting what I nerd I am but the life-long learner in me still enjoys picking up something on literary criticism every now and then. On of my favorite books on that topic in recent years was How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis. I couldn’t put it down. She recounts all of the literary heroines she loved over the years and revisits whether she should be holding them up on the pedestal that she used to. Many of the characters she covers are also some of my favorites and I too needed to pause and think about how I was reading them.
Ms. Ellis’ epiphany came when arguing over who is the better heroine, Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. While I enjoy both Emily and Charlotte Bronte’s novels I, like Ms. Ellis, always preferred wild Cathy to practical Jane. During her argument with her friend though I have to admit an excellent point was made. Her friend pointed out that Cathy ends up unhappy and a ghost lost on the Moors while Jane becomes independently wealthy, free to make her own choice, and with her happy ending. It’s hard to ignore facts like that.
While I see merit to that argument I also agree with Ms. Ellis who feels that Jane isn’t the perfect heroine because she doesn’t really have flaws or make mistakes. That’s boring and while I don’t want to end up like Cathy, Jane still isn’t the heroine for me.
Two of my favorite characters ever are also explored by Ms. Ellis, Anne Shirley, and Jo March. I reread one of the Anne novels each year and I have to admit that I get more excited when I read the earlier four books as opposed to the later four. I used to think it was because there was more tension in the earlier novels and while I still think that is true Ms. Ellis reminds the reader that once Anne gets married she gives up writing and all of her later stories are focused on her children. Jo March meets a semi-similar fate. She doesn’t give up writing completely, but she does end up living back in her hometown and married to a man who is boring compared to her prior beau. I wanted them to both have amazing adventures and become world famous authors.
She breaks down other characters I love including Elizabeth Bennett, Franny Glass and even the women in Valley of the Dolls. Okay, I admit I never saw Neely, Anne or Jennifer as a character I wanted to be, but I do reread Valley of the Dolls every couple of years. I love and agree with most of Ms. Ellis’ critiques. She doesn’t abandon these characters. They still have heroic qualities we should look up to, but we should also be aware of their shortcomings and flaws.
This has made me want to read some more novels with strong female characters to find some new heroines to add to my posse. Let me know some of your favorites in the comments.