Interview: Samantha Ellis

By Simon Round, January 20, 2014
Samantha Ellis: lists her girls of wisdom

Samantha Ellis: lists her girls of wisdom

Samantha Ellis can pinpoint the exact moment when the idea for her literary memoir How To Be a Heroine came into her head.

She was on a visit to Brontë country with her friend, Emma. Ellis's favourite Brontë character had always been Cathy Earnshaw in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights: "I was genuinely surprised and shocked that Emma was championing [Charlotte Brontë's] Jane Eyre. She said Cathy was 'silly'. That started me off re-reading Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and lots of other books, too."

The journey that started on a hill in Yorkshire eventually led to How To Be a Heroine, a re-evaluation of Ellis's fictional female role models, from The Little Mermaid through Anne of Green Gables to Elizabeth Bennett "and, of course, Jane Eyre." Each chapter deals with a different character and tells how she has influenced Ellis's life.

Cambridge-educated journalist and playwright Ellis is the daughter of Iraqi Jews who fled to Britain in the early 1970s. Her childhood search for heroines was partly a quest for her own identity. Hans Christian Anderson's Little Mermaid, she suggests, is a homesick refugee in the human world and, as such, very appealing to the child of homesick refugees. Ellis also strongly sympathises with Esther Greenwood, the troubled protagonist of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables influenced the young Ellis to go out and buy a notebook to try, like Anne, to become a writer.

But Ellis's book is only partly an account her reading; it is also a memoir about her North-London upbringing in the tightly knit Iraqi-Jewish community:

"When I was growing up, my parents' plan for me was that I would marry and not necessarily have a career. I knew I wanted something different… That's what led me to read in the first place.My mother came over as a refugee from Iraq in 1971, only four years before I was born, so I spent a lot of time trying to work out how to be a westerner and a Londoner.

"Sometimes I was looking for a role model and sometimes they found me. Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar was very important for me. Marjorie was a Jewish girl who wanted to be an actress. I wanted a life in the theatre too."

More recently, Samantha Ellis recalls going through a relationship break-up: "I was trying to work things out in my head. I think there is an art to being single and happy. Flora Poste - from Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm - was very helpful in that process."

However, her ultimate heroine is Scheherazade. When she read The Thousand and One Nights as a girl, she found the stories too fantastical. But, the second time around, she loved Scheherazade as a storyteller, a complex and misunderstood character - and a Middle Eastern heroine.

And Jane Eyre? Ellis remembered her as dull but on re-reading the novel she found herself agreeing with her friend's assessment. "Now I see that she is independent, she knows her own mind, she lives according to her conscience and she is not scared of being clever in front of men. She's definitely ahead of her time."

How to be a Heroine manages to bring off the difficult trick of bringing literary criticism alive. Ellis took 18 months to re-read the books that had been so influential in her life She realised that she had misjudged certain works - E M Forster's A Room with a View, for example. Others, like Marjorie Morningstar, disappointed her.

Her writing is pithy, funny and poignant, especially in the autobiographical episodes. She writes beautifully about the conflict between her family's expectations of her and her own professional ambitions that took shape in part through the inspiration of her heroines. Her book is a warm, thoughtful and compelling read.

'How to be a Heroine' is published by Chatto & Windus at £14.99. Simon Round is a freelance writer

Last updated: 11:27am, January 20 2014