I read a great book from my sickbed last week. Samantha Ellis’ How to be a Heroine. Remember Katy from What Katy Did? Cathy from Wuthering Heights? Scarlet O’Hara? The list goes on…..Ellis re-read all of her most favourite books and looked at how her heroines matched up to what she had learnt in life. Was Cathy merely passionately in love, or really just a bit silly? Was Jo March truly a champion of women’s writing or a girl who was bludgeoned into giving up her dreams for a boring old marriage to a Professor?
The book is a nostalgic look at most of my old heroines, and some new ones which I’ve immediately downloaded onto my kindle. Heroines – and indeed heroes – are what we aspire to be but the great writers create characters who show us our downsides too, perhaps that of which we might be ashamed.
So who were mine I thought? Many of Ellis’ I could relate to – Scarlet’s temper tantrums over Ashley are very reminiscent of me as a small child; I imagined I was Jane Eyre when I was scolded by horrible relatives; I was definitely Lizzy Bennett (so I thought) when I was sparring with potential love interests.
But in truth, it was the heroines who had the tomboy in them who most appealed to me – the mix of the girl with the boy. It was always George who was my true heroine. George from the Famous Five, who loved Timmy her dog more than life itself; who could row boats and climb trees and solve mysteries equal to Julian and Dick (and of course pathetic Anne, but who cared about her?). Then it was Kay Scarpetta who intrigued me – she of the forensic investigative skills whilst at the same time being a dab hand at pasta making in the kitchen. Anna Karenina accompanied me around New Zealand in my backpack, Bridget Jones around Australia. These women were more than my companions. Ellis had it right. These characters are our touchstones in life. They represent key periods, times when you can look back and say, I felt this way then.
All great characters have this propensity – male or female. Even the writers themselves. The boys in particular had me bemoaning I hadn’t lived in Paris in the 1940s. But then being married to Hemingway probably wasn’t all it promised – I’m not sure how much fishing or bull baiting I could put up with, in all honesty. I had a huge crush on F Scott Fitzgerald until I read about Zelda and his alcoholism. Still, a man who can write the last line of The Great Gatsby, and who likes a beer, would probably always win me over at a party….
In line with this theme, I’m still figuring out the writing of my own heroine, DI Erica Martin. What does it mean to be her? Maybe the difficulty in writing is trying to be the ventriloquist for your characters – but also attempting ultimately to figure out which part of YOU they represent. Perhaps this is what drove Fitzgerald to alcohol, Hemingway to big fish and Agatha Christie to run away to Harrogate. I’m hoping I don’t succumb to any of those! But writers battle with their heroines and heroes – they carve them out of themselves and then pass the baton to their readers.
Who are your favourite heroes and heroines? Or even villains? Let me know!