Saints and rebels, mavericks and misfits… these are the role models of literature. But Samantha Ellis asks whether she learned the right lessons from their passionate and tortured lives
Last summer I was on the Yorkshire moors, making the pilgrimage to Top Withens and arguing (over the wuthering) with my best friend about whether we’d rather be Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. Like Kate Bush, I chose wild, free, passionate Cathy over stoic, virtuous Jane. But my friend found Cathy silly, a snob who betrays Heathcliff for Edgar and makes them all unhappy, while Jane makes her own way. As we reached the top, I had a moment of realisation: all this time I’ve been trying to be Cathy when I should have been trying to be Jane.
So I decided to reread the books I’d read as a girl, the books that shaped my ideas of how to be a woman, to see if I’d always chosen the wrong role models. To see what I’d learned from the books, to see where they’d misled me.
Back in London I stacked them up. They were scarred from use – battered, tear-stained, mascara-smeared, their jackets scuffed, spines cracked, margins scrawled in; some had flowers pressed between the pages, some bulged from being dropped in the bath. As to the contents: I was excited about meeting my heroines again, but what if they’d changed for me? What if I didn’t like them any more? What if I ended up feeling they’d ruined my life?
After all, Gone With the Wind was directly responsible for me feeding my sandwiches to the ducks for years in the hope of getting Scarlett’s 17-inch waist. The Little Mermaid gave me some very skewed ideas about love (she exchanges her voice for legs to get a man). The Secret Garden made me value imagination so highly that I had nightmares. And using Cassandra Mortmain as my internet dating name did nothing for my love life except flummoxing some men who hadn’t read I Capture the Castle and were hoping for a posh blonde.
I read these books to dream up adventures I might actually have, lives I might live. My mother had already had a storybook life – a childhood in Baghdad, persecution, prison, a failed escape across the mountains of Kurdistan, a real escape to London and a whirlwind romance with my father. And all this by the time she was 22. No wonder she wanted me to have a boring life.
Her idea of my happy ending was a wedding, which might be all right as long as I could marry a prince – a challenge because there are no Jewish princes. But Esther had done it, and in my cream-and-gold Esther dress and tiara maybe I could, too. Of course when you reread the biblical story of Esther, who becomes queen of Persia and saves the Jews, it’s Vashti the dissident queen who makes the more interesting role model. I’d thought she was a villain, but she’s not; she’s incredibly brave. The king asks her to dance for his drunk friends in her jewels (possibly, say scholars, in just her jewels), and she says no, knowing she’ll be executed for her refusal. Meanwhile Esther mainly fasts and faints.
Although I hadn’t yet learned about saying no to the patriarchy, I was too shy and awkward to be a princess, and I ditched the plan of becoming one altogether when I read LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I read the Anne books so many times that I felt as at home in turn-of-the-century Prince Edward Island as in 1980s suburban north London. Like a lot of my heroines, Anne was a misfit, a maverick, a clumsy girl. And because she wanted to be a writer, I decided I would be one, too. She was the first of my writer-heroines, and my favourite, but I also likedLittle Women‘s Jo March, with her “scribbling suit” and her hat to wipe her leaky pen on, and Frost in May‘s Nanda – not just a writer but a fury. Her battle to be herself inspired me to fight to be myself.
It was confusing being caught between two cultures. At home my grandma was telling me the cautionary tale of her mother being taken out of school at 14 because reading was spoiling her eyes (and men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses). Meanwhile in school drama classes I was acting out suffragette Emily Davison being trampled by a horse. My friends were reading Jackie Collins and Judy Blume, but Jane Austen felt more relevant to my life. And I liked Pride and Prejudice‘s Lizzy Bennet best because she was strong and funny and wouldn’t marry Mr Darcy until he grew up. “Do not consider me now as an elegant female, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart,” she says in true protofeminist fashion. Rereading Austen as an adult, I love her irony and her gutsy, vanity-puncturing humour; compared to Little Women, Pride and Prejudice is practically amoral.
As I grew older my heroines got more restless, more angry. Armed with Scarlett O’Hara’s ruthlessness and the conviction, gleaned from Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, that leaving home was the first step to liberation, I convinced my parents to let me go away to university. It had to be Cambridge, because that’s where Sylvia Plath had gone. As a stroppy, intense teenager I was obsessed with her poetry, which seemed to be all about exquisite suffering. It turns out to be tangled and dauntless and funny and life-affirming, but I didn’t know that then. I wrote endless poems about being unhappy. I wasn’t unhappy (and later, when I was, I didn’t want to write about it) but I thought that was what poets did. In her Journals Plath charts honestly her struggle to become a woman writer; there are also wonderful descriptions of Cambridge. I expected to go to wild parties, read the Greeks and meet my very own Ted Hughes, with whom I’d live a life of “Books & Babies & Beef Stews”.
By the time I got there I was already in love with a man who wanted me to follow him into Orthodox Judaism. When I couldn’t, we broke up and I turned to Salinger’s Franny and Zooey for consolation. From Franny I learned that prayer can take many forms, that grace is everywhere. Her brothers tell her she can “be God’s actress” if she wants to, and they promise to “rent tuxedos and rhinestone hats and solemnly come round to the stage door with bouquets of snapdragons”. A couple of other students asked me to write a play with them. Because of Franny, I said yes.
A few weeks later I began to reel. I’d trail off mid-sentence as the ground fell away, and I was lost. Ever the romantic, I thought this was heartbreak. But then I started falling, flailing and having spasms, and a neurologist diagnosed seizures. What Katy Did is a very different book to read when you’ve had seizures for 18 years; this time when Katy started banging on about “the School of Pain”, I threw Susan Coolidge’s book at the wall. I was confused. I’d remembered Katy Carr as a rebel, not a saint. I’d thought I was guilty and neurotic because of growing up Iraqi-Jewish, and that the books had rescued me. It turns out a lot of them are rammed with selflessness and self-sacrifice. It’s not just Katy – although I blame her for the fact that I wasn’t more usefully angry about my seizures early on. I blame Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar for making me think theatre isn’t a proper job, even though now I find its ending so jarring (Marjorie abandons her acting aspirations and her lover to bury herself in suburbia) that I think this might be her author’s fault instead.
And Hans Christian Andersen’s got a lot to answer for; The Little Mermaid made intense, messy, painful love seem the only kind there is. I wish I hadn’t loved Scarlett O’Hara so much – I might have realised unrequited love is just deeply boring. The same goes for Anne in Valley of the Dolls, who only gets her man after a lot of ugly scheming. Now, having read my 1970s feminists, I think any heroine who spends a whole novel in unrequited love with someone should be disqualified from being a role model for girls. And the amount of guilt these heroines felt about writing! I was so appalled by much of What Katy Did that I almost missed the bit where her writing gets burned. Jo March’s writing gets burned, too, and Nanda’s first book gets cast into hellfire. Thank goodness forAnne of Green Gables; I still think its message that altruism and hard work eventually get rewarded is, if not true, then at least a good way to live.
But as a girl I fell into the books and got lost in them; I would no more have questioned the heroines than I would have questioned my best friend. And I miss reading that way; it’s much less fun to read as a more dispassionate adult. But it’s also good to have a bit of distance from some of the heroines. As I put the books back on the shelf, it crossed my mind to get rid of some of the ones I’d changed my mind about. But I didn’t; after all, I loved them once.
Reading around the books, through writers’ biographies, diaries and letters, I tried to work out why some writers forced their heroines to give up and why some were brave enough to try to make their characters’ dreams come true. And I wanted to know how the writers’ own stories ended, what really happened, which stories they didn’t tell. Take Charlotte and Emily Brontë: Charlotte fell in love, got her heart broken, exorcised her demons by writing them out, and married wisely. Emily never got to fall in love – imagine what she might have written if she had. Maybe it would be more interesting to have to choose between Charlotte and Emily than Jane Eyre and Cathy Earnshaw.
I might be older but I’m not wiser; it’s still Emily. Not least because I read a telling little story about Charlotte’s husband berating the women of Haworth for impiously hanging out their washing in the churchyard, and that makes me think he must have been a bit of a prig. Knowing more about the writers made me realise why so many of them left their heroines on the brink. Because interesting lives are difficult.
If I were writing myself as a heroine, I’d end the summer I graduated. I’d taken my play to the Edinburgh Fringe. The play was bad but it had heart. There were no rhinestone hats and no snapdragons, but it was thrilling. On the overnight coach back to London we scorned sleep, swigging a paperback-sized bottle of whisky, eating a block of Dairy Milk and talking about the future. I was finally growing out of the role models, finally becoming me. And I felt sure I was going to have an interesting life. Because interesting lives are difficult. As my mother knew.
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War saga is set at the same time as Little Women, but Scarlett O’Hara is a very different proposition. She sacrifices herself, too, but while Jo March sold her hair, when Scarlett married Frank she sold herself. I loved her courage, her optimism (I took on her mantra “Tomorrow is another day!” as my own) and her style; her curtain dress was much better than the curtain dresses in The Sound of Music. I was exhilarated by her ruthlessness. But this time round I felt sad that she doesn’t know herself until the last page. It was hard to read 800 pages of her being blind to her own heart when all that time she could have been snogging Rhett.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
For years, Emily Brontë’s novel was my template for raging, tempestuous love (the only kind). Cathy, the headstrong heroine, refuses to become ladylike and runs wild on the moors with brooding hero Heathcliff. Their love is so strong that even death fails to part them! But now, the idea of Cathy dying of a broken heart and haunting Heathcliff (trying to, as Kate Bush put it, grab his soul) seems less appealing, especially because it all comes from her betraying Heathcliff for puny, sallow Edgar.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
I cried right through re-reading Alcott’s story of four sisters growing up during the American Civil War. But I didn’t like it. I used to love Jo the rebel, the writer. I was gutted to find she’s a goody-goody. And the book is so moralistic; Jo gets slammed for writing a few racy stories to support her family but apparently it’s fine, another time they’re stuck for cash, for her to sell her hair. And at the end she gives up writing to marry a boring old German professor! It’s all very troubling. And dishonest, because Alcott stayed a spinster and wrote smutty potboilers to the end. But then why make Little Women so preachy? I think Alcott felt guilty about her choices and loaded that guilt on to Jo.
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
I remembered Jacqueline Susann’s book as a gossipy, glamorous ode to female friendship. I liked Anne best because she escapes her prim, boring home town for showbiz New York. Turns out she’s a Waspy ice queen whose big ambition is to be a secretary. I wish I’d gone for Neely as my heroine instead. She’s bad but in such a witty way (the scene where she flushes her rival’s wig down a toilet is hilarious) and she’s got ambition. And, unlike the other women in the book, she’s not deluded. “Guys will leave you,” she says, “your looks will go, your kids will grow up and leave you, and everything you thought was great will go sour; all you can really count on is your talent.” It’s bleak, but bleaker still is that Susann gave her talent – writing – to a male character, the hideous “hero” Lyon Burke.
Happy reading! Win a set of classic novels
Thanks to their generous publishers, we’ve got two sets of 11 of the books featured in this piece. To win one, tell us your favourite childhood novel and how it affected you, in the Comments box below this article. We’ll select the two best answers and send off some great bedtime reading. For more information, go to guardian.co.uk/childhoodreading. Terms and conditions apply.
Samantha Ellis blogs at http://samanthaellisblog.blogspot.com/