Literary Heroines

Samantha Ellis’s, How to be a Heroine, or, What I’ve Learned From Reading Too Much, is one of those books about books that I have a weakness for. I’m not sure what the draw is. Perhaps I’m looking for someone who has read the same books and had the same sort of experiences with them, someone I can look at (figuratively speaking) and think, “Yes! This person understands!”

That hasn’t happened yet. But the experience of reading other writers’ reactions has helped me to look at some of my favorite books in a new light and made want to read other books- the ones they loved that I haven’t read yet.

Ellis’s book is shot through with nostalgia in a good way– she has gone back and re-read the books she loved as a teenager to see if her views on the heroines stands up to what she has learned in adulthood. In many cases, her teenage view does not match her more jaded adult view, but then, why would it? The sixteen-year old Ellis was looking for a Big Romance To Sweep Her Off Her Feet. The kind you see in movies, but that never happen in the real world. When you’re sixteen, Cathy Earnshaw seems like the sort of woman you want to grow up to be, while Jane Eyre seems positively frumpy in comparison.

Then you grow up. You have a few flings, get disillusioned, find the work that makes you happy even though it’s not what you thought you wanted when you were eighteen, and your views change. It’s not a bad thing. It’s the way life is.

But suddenly Cathy Earnshaw seems like a terribly flighty creature, while Jane Eyre is the sensible, reasoned, stand-up-for-yourself kind of woman you want to be. Life is funny like that.

There is a thing that Ellis does, though, that annoys me. I’ve heard of it before (third- and fourth-hand, so who knows if it’s actually a Thing or not. I haven’t been in college for years), but there are apparently people who, when looking at the feminism of books like Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice, will try to remove them from their historical context and examine them as though they came out of a vacuum and judge the characters accordingly. From a Twenty-first century perspective that assumes the authors’ Eighteenth- or Nineteenth-century viewpoints don’t matter at all.

I don’t understand this phenomenon. How can we assume that Jane Austen’s opinions (expressed in her own words) don’t matter when we’re talking about Jane Austen’s books? And how could Lizzie Bennet’s or Jane Eyre’s Nineteenth-century actions stand up when taken out of context and examined by a Twenty-First century commentator? They won’t, really. They can’t. The life choices available to women now are vastly different from the choices available to a Nineteenth century woman.

Judge them lightly, Dear Reader.

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I read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft this week. It’s another book where memoir is wound into the narrative (perhaps a little more deftly than in Ellis’s book, but then, King has had more practice). It’s also one of the best books about the craft of writing that I’ve ever read. Right up there with Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing, and Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write. When I brought On Writing to the checkout desk at the library, the librarian was excited to see that they had finally gotten a new copy. The old one was ready to fall apart.

I am currently reading Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth, which is about Alice Kober’s quest to decipher the Bronze Age Aegean language known as Linear B. Codes and cyphers and their decryption is not my cup of tea, but since that’s not really what the book is about, it’s been an interesting read. When Fox does have to explain some part of the decryption process, she lays it out very plainly (often using the Dancing Men code from the Sherlock Holmes stories), so it doesn’t become a stumbling block in the midst of the story.

After that, I plan to read The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fford, and then Colm Tóibín’s The Story of the Night.

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