As a twentysomething, I often feel as if I am ‘in training to be a heroine’ like Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland.
Here I am, a girl who reads, trying to spin out the plot to my own story, reaching for the demarcations of a prologue and the sharp ridges of a climax. Even though I know there’s no real narrative to any life outside of books, there’s still a part of me searching for one because if I’m not the heroine in my own life then what’s the bloody point?
As a text, Ellis’ How to be a Heroine sits somewhere between literary criticism, memoir, and self-help for the bookish feminist. A ‘read blooded woman,’ she forgets the leading ladies in real life and focuses on the women who shape bookish hearts: our Little Mermaids, our Elizabeth Bennetts and Cathy Earnshaws.
It’s jaunty; a warm-spirited romp through fact and fiction, offering insight into an eclectic range of books and authors, as well as the writer’s own background as part of an Iraqi-Jewish family living in the aftermath of Ba’athist persecution. Occasionally it veers into a half-hearted exercise in narcissism but overall Ellis’ bloggishly-written book is a thoughtful exploration of the role of heroines, and our favourite stories, in our lives – and how those choices, like us, change over time.
With this in mind, I thought I’d take a trip down nostalgia lane and reacquaint myself (and now you) with ten of my top heroines.
1. Belle – Beauty & the Beast (Beaumont, Disney and Angela Carter)
The first lie story I ever told might well be the one I gave my nursery school when I declared “my name is Belle.” This gave my mum a bit of a scare when she came to collect me, but fact is that all I wanted was to be Belle. Unlike Jasmine and Ariel, she wasn’t trapped by officious parents, she was trapped by dreams bigger than her life. Smart, funny, not even Beaumont’s version could put me off loving Belle when I was a child. Briefly it irked me that my childish self equated ‘reading’ with ‘smart’ (whilst Belle is clever in other ways, her romance novels probably aren’t the best indicator of this). Then I met The Tiger’s Bride by Angela Carter and my love for Belle came flooding back. Here is a woman who goes from being a possession ‘lost … at cards’ by her father, to a powerful narrator and an even more powerful heroine. If I ever get a tattoo…
2. Jane – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I was never much of a fan of the Victorian “marriage plot” novel, but Jane Eyre feels like so much more than just a romance – there’s the gothic atmosphere (and a genre turned on its head), the coming-of-age narrative, and a heroine so unconventional it’s hard not to love her. She’s plain Jane, impoverished, alone in life, but throughout the novel she does what is right for herself. She’s a survivor understanding the need for self-reliance. Despite the weird subservience to her ‘master’ and love interest, Rochester, what’s wonderful about her is that she’s flawed, passionate, and she pretty much makes all the moves (including standing up to both her cruel aunt and her nearly-bigamous fiance). There are a thousand reasons why Jane is infinitely awesome – not least that she’s not wuthering and withering like Cathy – but you should read Ellis’ analysis. It’s pretty good.
3. Titty – Swallows & Amazons by Arthur Ransome
What’s not to love about Arthur Ransome’s daydreaming narratorial linchpin? Titty might have a ridiculous name (causing controversy for the BBC), but she’s quick as anything, a writer and reader, sailor, plus she’s the girl of the hour when she manages to snatch The Amazon in the middle of the night. My dad read this fabulously British series to me when I was about 5 or 6. Ransome’s pre-war, pre-health-and-safety world is full of interesting female characters – there’s maternal Susan, tenacious Nancy, steadfast Peggy, dreamy Dorothea, plus the stalwart Mothers – but Titty always stood out and she still does today for her vivacious imagination.
4. George – The Famous Five by Enid Blyton
When I was eight, I asked the hairdresser to cut off all my hair “like George from the Famous Five”. One giant snip later and I’d burst into a snotty, blubbering mess and wailing that I didn’t want it short after all. Fiery, bold to the point of brash and with a decided distaste for dresses and awesome athletic skills, George was every girl’s top tomboy. She even got stuck in the Scariest Cave Ever and managed to escape (Famous Five Go Off In A Caravan). To me, George could do no wrong as I was growing up. She’s basically a 1940s version of ‘This Girl Can.’ With hindsight, George is flawed – it’s often emphasised that she’s proud of being ‘like a boy’, that she let this isolate her from other kids – but that’s just another reason why she’s so brilliant.
5. Hermione Granger – Harry Potter Series by JK Rowling
Okay, who didn’t see this one coming? #YesAllWitches it’s Hermione Granger and the Goddamn Patriarchy. Bushy-haired, muggle-born Hermione was my ultimate childhood goal. Here was a heroine who loved books, was fiercely intelligent but had to seriously work for it like so many of us do. From the outset, she’s the planner, the intellectual and emotional heartstone of the Golden Trio. She works (for most of the books) alongside two boys in a completely platonic way that challenges the general rule of ‘men and women cannot be friends in fiction’. However, being a muggleborn also meant I hoped even harder to receive an Owl from Hogwarts… In summary: Witch hats trump tiaras any day.
6. Alice – Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
I often wonder about Alice’s ‘six impossible things’ – does she have to come up with new ones every day? Or can she just recycle the same six? Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland have been called a ‘comic compendium of feminist issues’. It wasn’t until my early teens that I fell in love with Lewis Carroll, but my early readings could only see Alice The Rebel (to borrow Megan S. Lloyd’s phrase). She’s so un-Victorian: curious, assertive, able to work out her own problems and face them. Later, at university, we discussed the second idea of her as ‘enslaved’ by the fear and destructiveness of female sexuality. This actually comes out in adaptations on stage more than in the books in my opinion, but I don’t see why both views can’t work together as a bildungsroman where the curious becomes the powerful.
7. Lyra Silvertonge – His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullmap
Lyra is a storyteller. From her name to her talents, she’s a creator, a perceptive word-weaver. Like many of the heroines on this list, she’s strong and feisty, a little bit rude, perhaps not ‘classically smart’ but savvy, and throughout His Dark Materials she grows from a girl who can lie into a woman who understands the truth. Unafraid of being afraid, What is marvellous about Lyra is her development as a character. Beyond recoiling from what Mrs Coulter expects of her as a little girl, she meets everyone – Polar Bear King to Witch – as an equal. Including her male counterpart, Will. Their relationship develops from friendship to young love but that equality is never lost. Moreover, Pullman presents ‘original sin’ as the source of all knowledge and awareness, conveying a narrative of choice for women that emerges through the Eve imagery reflected in Lyra.
8. Kate – Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
An exercise in misogyny – or a love story about a man liberating a woman? Kate is here for Quaddy. And for Fiona who loves 10 Things I Hate About You as much as I do. If you focus on the bare bones of the story of wildcat Katherine and her “tamer” Petruchio, Shakespeare’s early play looks like a nasty piece of work. When I first read it, I hated it. Kate was this tempestuous young lady and she’s crushed. All that fire, gone. There’s a more balanced argument I prefer now. One where you remember the political and personal are distinct in Shakespeare and one where social commentary is as much about the institution of marriage as femininity.
9. Little Red Riding Hood (from Grimms to Carter)
‘Rape or raison d’etre: the sexual potency of Little Red Riding Hood’ was the title of an extended essay I wrote during my final year of sixth form. Fairytales are the dictionary of the imagination, with LRRH’s story featuring in various forms from the early Grimms and Perrault fairytales to more contemporary adaptations by writers such as Angela Carter, James Thurber, Carol Ann Duffy, and Roald Dahl. Weirdly enough, Charles Dickens even said that he ‘would have known perfect happiness’ had he been able to marry LRRH. I think what I love about her as a character is her metamorphosis. She’s a cultural symbol of female power or lack thereof. So whilst one version might be rife with antiquated stereotypes, another illuminates those issues and another subverts them.
10. Thursday Next – The Eyre Affair by Jaspar Fforde
Some of you may not know Thursday Next but you really really should. Thursday is a detective, an investigator with the SpecOp’s ‘Literatec’ division. Her cases? To battle against the forging of Keats verses and the stealing of original manuscripts for nefarious purposes of course! Thursday herself is a thirty-something BAMF. She fought in the Crimea, returning as a folk hero for going back into battle to try and rescue missing comrades. But despite her badge, gun and too-cool leather jacket, she’s not invincible. Her mother doesn’t understand why she’s not married, her brother is a sad sad story, her father is a rogue member of the Chronoguard, and her pet dodo won’t listen to her. Still she’s ambitious, often to the point of reckless; and stubborn, sometimes to the point of vindictive. She tries to overcome her flaws, fails, tries again, and generally struggles with the questions of career, love, and self-love that many of us experience – all whilst saving the world.