Shelley DeWees’s Not Just Jane — Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature provides a fascinating look into seven successful, yet relatively unknown, British women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Born of her love of Austen and Bronte, in this book DeWees sets out to discover other women writers who were pioneers of their times. I had never heard of any of the writers featured in this book. Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craig and Mary Elizabeth Braddon all enjoyed some success in their day. Their stories tell us a lot about what was going on in England during their life times. Many of them faced poverty and had few honorable options for earning a living. They might become a governess or they might become prostitutes. Faced with these options, one way or another these women became writers, and some of them became expert networkers as well. Sara Coleridge’s story is a bit different. She was well educated and didn’t suffer poverty, but her father, the famous poet Samuel Coleridge basically ignored her existence. Under those circumstances it seems a shame that so much of her work was devoted to organizing her father’s work posthumously.
I have yet to read one of their books, but I certainly enjoyed reading about their lives and their environments.
Samantha Ellis is a playwright, journalist and avid reader of novels featuring intriguing women protagonists. It is a fine book that discusses Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Predjudice, Gone with the Wind, Valley of the Dolls, Franny and Zooey, and a host of other classics;and that is the feast we have been given here. Ellis, the British born daughter of Iraqi Jewish refugees, populates her book, How to Be a Heroine – Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much, with an energetic roster of literary heroines. Some, like Elizabeth Bennet, are pretty much completely wonderful without being annoying about it. Others, like Scarlett O’Hara, are pretty reprehensible but their boldness and determination still take your breath away. Many are insecure and of course most of them have been dealt a bad hand in life. Ellis does a masterful job of looking at all these girls and women and their stories as she describes her own efforts to break free of a confining family and learn to be bold. Ellis’s views change as she grows and makes her own way. Indeed her defense of Mrs. Bennet as an inherently practical woman has considerable merit, although I will always have a soft spot for Mr. Bennet. In any event, Ellis increasingly loses patience with the “good girls” and is more inspired by the brave and the bold, even if they are self-centered and obnoxious and their behavior is outrageous.
This book made me wish I had read certain classics, such as Anne of Green Gables. I don’t think I’ll read up on Scheherazade, but Ellis’s evaluation is intriguing. Ellis’s discussion of all these powerfully drawn heroines also gave me pause in some cases — perhaps my initial readings were too glib. It is definitely time to reread a few of these great books and to try at least a few of them for the first time.
Most importantly How to Be a Heroine reminded me how important it was for me to be able to read about strong women and their stories. They inspired me and caused me to think outside the confines of my own life. Feminism didn’t just happen — millions of us were inspired by reading about strong girls and women who dared to be brave and rescue themselves. Hopefully How to Be a Heroine will give you the same powerful memories of your own reading adventures and obsessions.