For Books’ Sake Talks To: Samantha Ellis
19th May 2014
Throughout my teenage years I plotted my life through an ever-increasing list of heroes and heroines. In a move which we considered quite worthy, one of my best friends and I exchanged weekly letters, of which at least one sheet would be given over to our literary idols.
So when I came across Samantha Ellis’ How To Be A Heroine, years later, it was as if I were seeing part of myself being mirrored back at me.
Samantha Ellis has taken that list and fleshed it out. What started off as a fierce debate over Cathy Earnshaw vs Jane Eyre between two friends, became almost a lightbulb moment in which she realised that her “whole life, [she’d] been trying to be Cathy, when [she] should have been trying to be Jane.”
Samantha Ellis was already an established playwright, a founding member of women’s theatre company Agent 160 (named for the wonderful Aphra Behn), and originally had just planned on rereading the two Brontës, but soon found herself wrapped up in rereading other books.
“After all,” she says, “If I’d been wrong about Cathy, had I been wrong about my other heroines too?”
And as How To Be A Heroine moves from the talk of the “pile of books…by [her] bed” waiting to be reread in the Introduction, to a memory of a four year old lost on a beach, determined to have an adventure, we realise that this is about more than just characters.
When we talk, one of the things that comes across most strongly is this engagement with reading and a self-awareness of what it meant for her in the long-term.
“In some ways, I think I realised that was part of the reason why I wanted to go back and reread,” she argues, “was because at the time I didn’t really think that I had a journey I was going on.”
“I’m a playwright. I started looking at the strong narrative arches and asking questions: What strong choices are these characters making? What is it that I’m trying to get with them? And as I realised what they had meant to me, I started realising that there was a journey.”
In fact, it is the memories that are interwoven with character analysis that help us as readers really engage with How To Be A Heroine. This isn’t a dry analysis of female characterisation, but instead an exploration of a very personal relationship with books.
Cathy Earnshaw for example, Samantha Ellis describes as perfect for her as a “very shy and awkward girl, quiet and anxious – perfect to make me feel different.”
But it isn’t an easy thing to explore. There were great disappointments when she rereads – namely within books that she’d loved. When she describes her anger with her retrospective reading of What Katy Did (“having had seizures since I was 18 I found it a very hard read – she becomes a good woman because she’s suffering. I was so furious”), it’s very difficult to disagree with her reaction.
As a child I was looking for women who were doing things that I might be able to do - women who were doing things that were very different from the women I knew. And now? I like the idea of having lots of people to draw on; a female friendship group.Similarly, when she highlights that “we can see ourselves represented in fiction”, it’s interesting to note that it’s often in the places we least expect. She talks of Pride and Prejudice and the surprise of discovering herself in Darcy.
“Darcy is the other, the dark brooding hero. I didn’t even try to empathise with him originally. And yet this time I found lots of myself and probably Jane Austen in Darcy; all shyness and awkwardness.”
“It’s great to empathise with the romantic hero – and not just imagine him as someone you’d like to snog one day.”
And in fact, this is one of the things that’s most refreshing. As opposed to focusing only on the portrayal of women or just looking at women writers, she includes everyone and argues that we should encourage men to try and write well-rounded characters.
“I think that men should try to write heroines as well as heroes and that women should write men and women. We write to try to understand – it’s this huge radical act of empathy – even if men are failing to write good heroines, I want them to be trying.”
And this comes through when she talks about Scarlett O’Hara. Central character to an incredibly flawed novel, Ellis doesn’t shy away from acknowledging her debt to her. “I drew a lot of strength from Scarlett; she’s incredibly tough and tribal in her loyalty.”
“And yet, she spends the entire novel closed off from the novel that she could be having. That’s the cost of being a lady and what you have to suppress in yourself. I think we’re still expected to suppress parts of ourselves.”
She’s also passionate about the suppression of female voices in theatre: “I’ve been campaigning for more plays by women to be put on. 35% of new plays put on in the UK are by women; and if you include the Canon, that goes down to 17%.”
“I think it’s really important that we hear women’s voices. This comes in two parts: more female characters; and more work by women (which may be about men, but is from a woman’s point of view).”
So why this retrospective look at fiction? “My parents were very recent refugees. As a child I was looking for women who were doing things that I might be able to do – women who were doing things that were very different from the women I knew. And now? I like the idea of having lots of people to draw on; a female friendship group.”
In the closing chapter of her book, she describes imagining hosting a party for her heroines in her flat, an imagined embodiment of the “riotous bash in Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.
And that’s kind of the whole point. Samantha Ellis becomes a Scheherazade of her own, retelling her stories and others’ stories and in the end we do what she recommends; we use fiction to “measure ourselves up and think about who we want to be.”