Classical literature is classic for a reason: the stories – and characters – have weathered the changes in time and history and yet have still remained beloved. Fictional characters become real to readers, forging literary friendships and delighting us over and over again with adventures that never seem to grow old. Indeed, where would I be – where would any of us be – without Lizzie Bennett, Anne Shirley or Laura Ingalls? There heroines played a large role in my childhood and now, thanks to a thoughtful book by Erin Blakemore, I’m still learning from them as an adult.
The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder is a series of essays that explore the lives of the female authors and their famous heroines, extracting important and vital lessons. Blakemore digs deep into the authors’ pasts to uncover how their own lives informed the creation of their characters’ lives and what, exactly, a 21st century woman – a heroine in her own life – can learn from them. Each heroine/author pair is examined through the lens of one particular quality; Jane Austen and Lizzie Bennett, for example, embody “self” while Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre are, of course, “steadfastness.”
The Heroine’s Bookshelf may not have been written for me, but it may as well have. In the introduction, Blakemore reveals her own bookworm tendencies, thereby guaranteeing that I would love her and this book:
“Call me a coward if you will, but when the lines between duty and sanity blur, you can usually find me curled up with a battered book, reading as if my mental health depended on it. And it does, for inside the books I love I find food, respite, escape, and perspective. I find something else too: heroines and authors, hundreds of them, women whose real and fictitious lives have covered the terrain I too must tread.”
From the start, I knew I would find kindred spirits in this book, but I also found a sense of comfort and familiarity, a feeling that comes with revisiting literary friends I know so well. This book also conveys a sense of discovery. I was pleasantly surprised to learn things that I didn’t know before, both about the authors I’ve loved since I was a child and the characters who have become as real to me as any living person. I also truly enjoyed the fact that Blakemore included many of my favorites (Austen, Bronte and Alcott), but also exposed me to a few heroines I’m learning to love in a new way for the first time (I’m looking at you, Miss Scarlett O’Hara).
One of the reasons I think The Heroine’s Bookshelf works so well is because these authors and their heroines struggle with issues that are universal. There’s a timelessness to these stories, which makes it easy to go back and re-read them time and again and still find a new way of looking at them. While my 21st century live might be very different from Lizzie Bennett’s economic and marriage woes or Mary Lennox’s magic garden, there are still things they can teach me, still ways in which our lives do connect. For all of their flaws – and for all of my own – these heroines are women who triumph, women who find their own way, and there’s certainly a lot to be said for taking that lesson and applying it to my own life.
Every reader has his or her own relationships with and memories of these heroines. These women mean different things to each of us and that’s part of what makes The Heroine’s Bookshelf so great. While the lessons therein are largely universal, every reader will have a different experience with this book because we all have our own way to relating to these fabulous characters. My Lizzie Bennett might be quite different from yours, and that’s okay because neither one is wrong. The Heroine’s Bookshelf is a must-read for any literature lover, for any girl or woman who grew up with these characters or anyone who just loves looking beyond the surface and seeing more of a character or author.
“As women, we are the protagonists of our own personal novels. We are called upon to be the heroines of our own lives, not supporting characters…luckily, we’re not required to be brave to be heroines…all we have to do is show up for our own stories. Even if the reality is less glamorous than fiction, even when it feels impossible to tap into a spirit that’s bigger and better than you, but IS you, we’re called upon to lead big, sloppy, frustrating lives.”
[Photo Credit: The Heroine's Bookshelf website]