Samantha Ellis begins her book with a walk near the purported site for the house in Wuthering Heights. Ellis and her friend Emma are arguing over which heroine they found more inspirational. Ellis insisted on Cathy Earnshaw citing her unbridled passion and sense of adventure. Emma on the other hand defended Jane whose practicality and self awareness she found aspirational. Despite thinking Jane was rather an ice queen, Ellis began to entertain a thought that perhaps she misread her after all and decided that perhaps she misread other heroines throughout her life and they deserved a second chance. So here goes hers:
Once upon a time there was a little Iraqi Jewish girl living in London town. The little girl loved adventure and stories and derived an inordinate amount of pleasure from reading. She is raised on family stories, her mother her very first heroine. Her mother’s family lived in Iraq for generations until the 1950s when Iraqi Jews began to be persecuted. Ellis’ mother tried to escape Iraq via Kurdistan (so cool!), got captured, spent time in Iraqi prison, was able to get to London and was married to a nice Iraqi Jew before the age of 22 and commenced on doing her duty and raising her own family. But with the spirit of persecution hanging over them, the flight from their homeland pushed the Iraqi Jewish community even closer together raising the bar for familial expectations. From the stories of her family’s flight from Iraq to the stories of the obedient Queen Esther who saved her people from genocide, as a child Ellis was expected to ultimately be fulfilled with being a wife and a mother, a credit to her people. But she was caught between two worlds from her early days. Ever the early Disney girl, as she read The Little Mermaid, she caught on the subtle theme of entrapment. Like Ariel, Ellis was caught between the world of the family she loved and adventure that awaited her in world that books opened to her: the world of travel, imagination, passion, adventure and not necessarily a world of marriage as imagined for her. It took Ellis many years and many heroines to come to terms that she wanted something different for herself. Anne of Green Gables taught her it was OK to have imagination, Lizzy Bennet that she did not need to settle for anyone other than who she herself wanted, Scarlett O’Hara that it was OK to have spirit, Franny Glass that it was OK to be different, and finally back to her origins, Scheherazade taught her that ultimately story telling can save your life.
Ultimately Ellis’ book is about finding yourself and as a youngish woman of a certain age, I can identify. My own family’s expectations for me were impressed on me from the same young age as Ellis was. I may not have been raised in an Iraqi Jewish family, but let me tell you, a Ukrainian Jewish family is not different. At any rate, Ellis’ point is universal, nations may be different, but expectations are cross-cultural. Families most often than not want the same future for their children that their parents wanted for them: freer, brighter, more diverse, but the same future. My parents wanted me to marry young and have a family young, and though I didn’t have heroines to help guide me along, like Ellis, I wanted my future to be on my own terms. I used books as an escape, not necessarily from any particular fate or concern, but almost as a way to affirm that sticking to my own path was alright. I didn’t really need to find myself but what I needed from reading was to re-affirm that my own choices were strong and my own, not my parents’. I would like to think that I am still satisfied with sticking to my own little path.
Anyway, with so many heroines populating the book, I got me some reading and possible re-reading to do. I’ve been meaning to try out Wuthering Heights again and I strongly suspect I’ll be coming down on the side of Jane Eyre over Cathy. I stumbled over so many potential stories to hear for the first time or for the tenth.
I hope that you guys will give this book a read as well and enjoy it as much as I did. And I am off to the land of Gone with the Wind which I picked up pretty much as soon as I finished this.
From the fingertips of Eugenia S