|Image from Goodreads|
The more I read Blakemore's personal examination of the characters she considered heroic, the more I realized we should be best friends. Though she doesn't always pick obvious ones, or she chooses ones to highlight I might have let pass, I realize that the experience of woman reading is not so unique as people may think. We come to our books as if they are friends, there to help us laugh when we are down, to help us cry when we need to be reminded that it is not just us that reality can sometimes hate, and always there to remind us that we are not alone. This book reminded me of all the things I loved about being an English major. The small seminar classes where we debated our love for Charlotte versus Anne versus Emily, our hatred of Dora Copperfield and about how Peyton Place was more than just a scandalous piece of literature but meant to make a point about the role of women and the options open to them at the time. I have always been drawn to the women in my books and if I cannot relate, I often find them lacking in some way. Blackmore reminded me that sometimes I don't need to relate, I simply need to be able to learn from their experiences and appreciate what they, the characters, and they, their creators, need me to see in their narratives.
That said, I'm not sure I will ever be one to love Scarlett O'Hara but reading the series of circumstances that led Margaret Mitchell to write her at least made me appreciate her more than I ever have before. I was already in love with the ideas of Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Shirley and Mary Lennox but listening to the stories of their authors made me see even further into these characters and what they reflected, or not, of the women who wrote them and sent them out into the world for girls like me to find. Jane Austen wrote Lizzie stifled by her society and resigned to her spinster state. Lucy Maud Montgomery gave birth to the sunny and optimistic Anne Shirley in the midst of a harrowing depression and Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote the redeemed Mary Lennox at the end of a writing career that had fizzled as her marriages had. Blakemore does make the point I have often felt when I learned the stories of the authors who penned the fictional characters I idolized. We are disappointed to find their lives do not match the imaginary ones they give us as readers but always we appreciate them more for what they overcame to give us, the future generations, fictional heroines to return to in our happiest, and darkest, hours.
Another thing I adored about this book was remembering who I was when I first read about these women. An awkward 6th grader when Anne Shirley arrived in my life, a more cynical 9th grader when I finally read The Secret Garden and realized how much Mary Lennox just needed a hug. An ancient 11th grader when Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy entered my literary world. It would be even longer before someone finally introduced me to Jane Eyre or Jo March. However, I feel like I found these characters, and the women who wrote them, exactly when I was meant to. And they have helped me and I have returned to them as I've kept working and fighting my way through school, work, family issues and just life in general.
One thing I also found comforting was Blakemore's idea of re-reading. That these stories are something we should returned to whenever we need them. She even gives suggestions. Read Pride and Prejudice "as an antidote to deathly seriousness" and read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn "when you have to make do with $5 until your next paycheck." The books on my shelves have always been old friends. The oldest, my Anne books, look like they have survived wars and indeed they have. Anne got me through middle school and junior high. The books from college I re-read and laugh at my marginal notes. Reading Jane Eyre isn't just comforting; it's a conversation with my 20 year old self who commented and underlined throughout the entire book.
As you can probably tell, I loved The Heroine's Bookshelf. It celebrated all the best things about reading and reminded me of the great things women are capable of accomplishing, both in this world and in the fictional world. If you have any women readers in the family, I highly recommend this as a gift for under the tree this Christmas.
Full disclosure: I did win my copy of Heroine's Bookshelf from Goodreads.