Samantha Ellis, author of How to be a Heroine, is fully aware of the importance of strong female role-models within the literary canon. So much so, that she’s written a book on the subject. Here she talks us through five of her favourites, from Anne of Green Gables to Scarlett O’Hara.

When I felt like I wanted to change, I used to read about the good-girl heroines of Victorian novels, but as Jane Austen rightly said, ‘Pictures of perfection…make me sick and wicked’, and now, if I try reading What Katy Did, Little Women or (aarghh) Pollyanna, I’m liable to get so mutinous that I throw down the books, drink all the whisky, put on my best dress and go rampaging. But here are some heroines I still reach for when I need inspiration.



Anne of Green GablesAnne Shirley, from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables

If you want to change the world, Anne might just be your girl. I was going to say Katniss Everdeen, because her journey from apathy to revolution, in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, would inspire anyone. But Anne is radical too. She uses her imagination to empathise with other people, and work out how to make them happier. And activism surely starts with just putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.




REphronachel Samstat, from Nora Ephron’s Heartburn

In the kitchen, the best heroine of all is Rachel, not just because Ephron’s book is full of excellent recipes but because her key lime pie is the best thing to throw at your philandering husband. I don’t have a philandering husband but I like to be prepared. And in the meantime I can eat the pie.





Lizzy Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and PrejudiceP and P

If you feel blue, a good walk might be the answer, and what better motivation than imagining you’re Lizzy, tramping across fields, and attracting Mr Darcy with a winning combination of muddy petticoats, radiant eyes and flushed cheeks. For Lizzy, fresh air and a stomp are the answers to everything; heading off on holiday to get over heartbreak, she says ‘What are young men to rocks and mountains?’ What indeed. This is good advice even if you haven’t fallen for a sexy cad and bounder who will later elope with your sister.




Flora Poste from Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm

I’ve always based my love life on Wuthering Heights, but now, instead of trying to be Cathy Earnshaw, I’m channelling Flora, the most self-possessed heroine I know, who, when she decides she’s ready for love, summons a man to whisk her away. Not only does he arrive in his own plane, he also has ‘heavenly teeth’.






gone with the windScarlett O’Hara from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind

When you’re wavering, or feeling muddled, Scarlett can infuse you with willpower. Through sheer stubbornness and grit, she got through war, famine and the hell of unrequited love. And if you mess up today, don’t give up, but try again, because, as she says herself, ‘Tomorrow is another day’.





Samantha Ellis is the author of How to be a Heroine: Or, what I’ve learned from reading too much, published by Vintage. For more heroic advice, why not say hello to Samantha on Twitter.

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You can find even more amazing content from some of our best loved authors, talking about their heroines, on the Five Dials page now.

Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on teacupsandraindrops and commented:
    I need to get this book! Truly sounds amazing. A very feminist review of the women in classical novels (& I love that she agrees with my views on Cathy from Wuthering Heights!)

  2. […] Samantha Ellis’ Top 5 Literary Heroines on the Penguin Blog […]

  3. […] this being said, I can’t wait to get my hands on Samantha Ellis’ How to be a Heroine. I imagine there is more to discover about my beloved female characters and perhaps it might just […]


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