Samantha Ellis

If, like me, you have an incorrigible book habit, I must counsel you not to buy How To Be A Heroine: Samantha Ellis writes so winningly and persuasively about her literary heroines, that you immediately feel you must own the full 153 books in its bibliography. It’s a magnificent reading list, and it also makes you aware how lightly Sam wears her considerable scholarship.

Anyway, she and I had a glorious time chatting about books and heroines at last night’s event at The Club at Cafe Royal:  we talked about quests and journeys, active resistance, learning to save oneself, and the necessity of writing one’s own life.

As I crawled into bed last night, I wondered if we all, like Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland, are “in training for a heroine”, even if that means we have to work out the kind of heroine we want to be


1. Henry Penny
Henny Penny was Sam’s “most tattered and destroyed book, a read-along picture book of The Story of Henny Penny (it’s a book I knew as Chicken Licken), a heroine on a mission, a heroine who does something, a heroine with a social conscience, a heroine who knows fear. And she’s not a princess”
For anyone unfamiliar with Henny Penny, it’s the story of a chicken who thinks the sky is falling in when an acorn falls on her head so she goes off on a quest to tell the king, taking along a whole gaggle of feathered friends with her. She has a narrow escape from a fox. Her friends are less fortunate.

2. Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery
“Anne Shirley is a heroine with an imagination…it’s not only that Anne can imagine stories, she’s also able to imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes – reading Anne taught me that a heroine should have both imagination and empathy”

3. Lace Shirley Conran

Let’s not be distracted by the goldfish and other sexual shenanigans in Conran’s 1982 best seller, Lace is actually “a career-woman’s handbook”

4. Wuthering Heights (Vintage Editions)
– Emily Bronte
“I’ve read Wuthering Heights every year since first finding it at twelve….At 29 I decided to live by it…It’s not really about Heathcliff as a hero or Cathy as a heroine, it’s about love – transcendent love, operatic, excessive, abandoned and unreasonable”.
Is Heathcliff husband material? I really don’t think so…

5. Lolly Willowes (VMC)
– Sylvia Townsend Warner
Lolly Willowes is the magnificently original story of Lolly (Laura) Willowes who doesn’t see men or a relationship as her destiny at all. Instead, “at the age of 47, she finds her independence by selling her soul to the devil and becoming a witch”.
Before the rather cosy satanic pact, Lolly lives with her brother and sister in law where “she says she builds up a ‘mental fur coat’ of things to make her feel better when things get rough, things like marrons glacés, flowers and books.”
lolly’s epiphany about moving away from her brother and sister in law to live in the country comes when she is given a large spray of beech leaves when buying flowers, and she misses walking freely in woods and orchards as she did as a child. Penhaligon’s scent the event so I chose their beautiful candle ‘A Walk In The Woods’ to remind us all of Lolly’s quest for freedom.

6. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Penguin Clothbound Classics)
– Anne Bronte
“Helen [Graham, the novel’s protagonist] is interesting because she’s an artist, not just because she is a painter, but because she paints her own life: she takes out what she doesn’t like in the picture, and puts in what she does like, and she ends up (after much struggle) with a beautiful life.”
Samantha Ellis’ next book will be about Anne Bronte: I absolutely can’t wait to read it, and to welcome her back to The Books That Built Me.

Buy How To Be A Heroine: Or, what I’ve learned from reading too much