Erin Blakemore has assembled The Heroine's Bookshelf from some unlikely elements; literary criticism, biography, and some self-help psychology. Addressing the common habit of the bookworm to seek refuge in comfort reading during challenging personal times, she suggests that the books we turn to can provide more than just comfort; chosen carefully, they can help us develop the internal resources to get through and rise above those challenges.
Each of the dozen chapters in The Heroine's Bookshelf focuses on a specific trait--self-awareness, happiness, dignity, compassion, fight, ambition, etc.--and features a classic fictional heroine who exemplifies it. Her premise assumes that these characters are already well-known to most readers, but merit new consideration in light of the highlighted trait. Blakemore provides more than character analysis, however; she also talks about the author who created that character and her story. The authors she discusses are also women, and she explores how their own backgrounds and experiences informed the characters they created, although this did NOT necessarily mean the characters were based on them. Blakemore's underlying theme is that we are the heroines of our own stories, and she returns to it in each chapter with specific examples of how both author and character exhibit the mindsets and behaviors of heroines. Each chapter concludes with a short list of the circumstances in which a reader might consider revisiting that particular heroine, and some suggested literary sisters who might also be worth knowing.
The heroines Blakemore highlights come from both older classics---Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), Jane Eyre, Jo March (Little Women)---and more recent ones--Scout Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Celie (The Color Purple). Some are expected choices and others are more surprising, and sometimes Blakemore brings out an element we may not have considered before. However, I was at least as interested in the author biographies as I was in the characters--sometimes, particularly with books I haven't read, even more so (Margaret Mitchell pretty much rocked.). I didn't expect there to be so much attention given to the creators of the characters featured in The Heroine's Bookshelf, but I appreciate that there was, and I enjoyed the book more because of it.
One reason that classics are classics is that they continue to be meaningful to readers over time. Although many of the novels we call classics could be considered historical fiction now--and some actually do fall into that category--some were utterly contemporary at the time they were written. However, one thing they have in common is that they're not dated--the themes that frame them are timeless, and perhaps more importantly, so are the characters that their stories are built around. The Heroine's Bookshelf is a reminder of the continuing value and relevance of some of those characters, and made me want to visit with some of them again.