Upon a literary pilgrimage to the Brontë sisters’ isolated Yorkshire home, British playwright Samantha Ellis asked herself several important questions. Who’s a better female role model, Catherine Earnshaw or Jane Eyre? Why did Jo March and Anne Shirley apparently quit writing? In a life modeled on classic authors from Jane Austen to Margaret Mitchell, how much is truly her own? Seeking answers, Ellis returns to her beloved library, and rediscovers the controversies of literary womanhood.
Ellis combines literary criticism and intimate memoir to tell her own story, which, unpacked from its context, proves not her own. For Ellis, books aren’t artistic creations or cultural artifacts. Where too many academic critics treat literature scientifically, like some distant tribe they research dispassionately, Ellis has cozy relationships with her books. She allows literature to transform her, and she in turn transforms her literature; Laura Ingalls and Lady Lazarus become inextricably part of her.
Growing up amid London’s close-knit, often insular immigrant Jewish community, books form Ellis’s connection to larger society. Starting with literature’s established canon, mostly British with generous samplings of American and Commonwealth, she incrementally molds herself on fictional templates: rebellious wives, headstrong daughters, tempestuous women, unconventional girls. Where her community imposes standards of religious and cultural conformity upon her, she seeks adventure, glamour, satisfaction. She chases what, in books, appears to come easily to her heroines.
Her relationships with books resemble relationships with people. She embraces them, struggles with them, learns from them, and—to her constant chagrin—eventually she outgrows them. Just as with friends, our relationships with books change us, revealing our options to us, teaching us to view other people more completely, guiding us to understand ourselves better. Thus, though her books have the same words, in the same order, as yours, each one is unique to her.
Sadly, each stage of growing up brings new disillusionments. The heroines of childhood, created by broadly Victorian authors like Frances Hodgson Burnett and LM Montgomery, don’t survive Ellis’s teenage transition to social consciousness. An astonishing range of literary sexual temptations, from Judy Blume to Jilly Cooper, challenge her parents’ chaste authority. Fellow Cambridge alum Sylvia Plath carries Ellis through college, but becomes an albatross afterward. Each life stage’s charming mythology falls away with each evolution.
But Ellis also rediscovers why these heroines matter as adults—just because she’s written these ideas down doesn’t mean they’ve become fixed. Only as an adult does Ellis finish reading Alcott’s novels, and learn that Jo March vetoed her husband and resumed writing. Rereading Plath after adult-onset seizure disorder colored her life, she realizes Esther Greenwood isn’t heroic because she suffers; she’s heroic because she perseveres. Reading, like love, is a constant process of reinvention.
Diverse readers may find Ellis’ experience very particular. Despite her aggressively international reading selections, her story is intensely British, intensely Jewish, intensely female. As a literary critic, she doesn't indulge illusions of thematic transcendence or proclaim erudite judgements as “death of the author” or “chain of signifiers.” Ellis isn’t an academic; she writes about writers to make them clearer, to herself if nobody else. I contend her particularity, her personal approach, makes her truly universal.
Not that she’s averse to scholarly criticism. Alongside her love affair with novels, Ellis describes consciousness-raising encounters with Germaine Greer, Susie Orbach, and other feminist revisionists who influence her outlook. Once she discovers the tools to read favorite novels more critically, she discovers unexamined implications that frequently run so horrifying, I remember twice reeling back from Ellis’s text, moaning “holy shit.” Ellis also learns that literature sometimes counters critics; it’s okay to argue with scholars.
Books, like Swann’s famous macaroon, have powerful psychic abilities. Cracking the spine on some childhood favorite instantly transports you back to that moment, that period of your development, your ideas and hopes and loves. Ellis relives her life, sometimes nostalgically, sometimes ruefully, through the novels which once enlivened her. The result is sometimes shocking, but always honest. And, in examining her journey through a lifetime’s greedy reading, she encourages us to revisit our journey, too.