Monday 26 April 2021

Samantha Ellis and Her Enjoyable Books

Let’s start by stating that I am a big fan of Samantha Ellis and have been ever since I read her much beloved book How to Be a Heroine a couple of years ago. In this book, she explores different literary heroines and how they have shaped her life. This is often quite funny and recognizable.

Ellis successfully combines clever observations about literary heroines with personal experiences and anecdotes. One of the conclusions she comes to is that while she had always identified herself with “wild, free, passionate Cathy” Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights, she actually “should have been trying to be Jane” Eyre, a woman who listens to her own voice and makes her own way in life.

It is interesting that Samantha, who had been a “life-long Emily and Wuthering Heights devotee,” ended up writing a book about Anne, the often-forgotten Brontë sister.

Take Courage is one of my favourite biographies because it is so much more than a biography. In this book, Samantha takes us on a journey through Anne Brontë’s life by looking into the lives of the women and men around her and by analyzing her literary characters. Samantha does this in the same delightfully erudite and personal style as her previous book. She seems to grow really close to Anne. The book ends with Samantha visiting Anne’s grave in Scarborough, a passage so beautiful it even moved me to spill some tears. This gem of a biography has really made a lasting impression on me.

Samantha Ellis

So having enjoyed both Samantha’s books -- Take Courage and How to be a Heroine -- I was eagerly looking forward to Samantha’s talk in 2020. Yes 2020… Of course, the talk got cancelled, like all the things we were looking forward to in that year. I remember feeling rather sad about it, and it was added to my long list of disappointments in that hellish year.

However, 2021 is a new year with new chances and opportunities it seems. On Tuesday 20 April, the members of the Brussels Brontë Group were able to have a conversation with Samantha Ellis after all, thanks to the technology of Zoom. Samantha gave a fascinating talk about the reasons why Anne, unlike her sisters Charlotte and Emily, did not make it to Brussels and how this affected Anne’s personal life, her relationship with Charlotte, and her writing.

After the talk, the group members were able to ask questions to Samantha and it was clear that she still hasn’t let go of Anne entirely after having written about her so personally and extensively. She told us that writing about Anne has taught her a lot about living life to the fullest, not giving up and dealing with the fears and challenges that life throws at us.

After having applauded Samantha Ellis and having said some awkward goodbyes to the people, each in their little box on my screen, I closed my laptop and sat thinking in my dark living room. Just like Samantha’s books, this talk meant a lot to me.

I opened the windows and looked outside at the deserted Brussels street. A view I have been observing every evening during the several lockdowns we have gone through. I know this view, I have seen it in sun, wind, rain and snow. I know it by heart – the sad little trees, the yellow bricks and empty rooms of the opposite building and the pigeons sitting on the eaves, looking back at me. An empty bus goes by, slowly through the street, a solitary walker ignoring the evening clock strolls past and I see all of this from my window and I think of Anne Brontë, dying in Scarborough, younger than I am now. And I think of her last words to her sister: “Take courage, Charlotte, take courage”.

Pauline Ghyselen







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