It was easy when I was young; I didn't need to work out who to be or how to behave, I just had to read a book.
It started with Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren's fiercely independent nine year old who lived in Villa Villekulla with a horse, a monkey and a suitcase full of gold coins. Who wouldn't want to be the girl with the strength to lift a horse, the imagination and determination to spend her days arranging adventures and telling outrageous stories? Pippi wasn't worried by her long thin legs, she wasn't in the least bothered that her nose was covered in freckles and she was positively proud of her hair in its two tight plaits that stuck straight out; so what could it possibly matter if someone called me skinny dripping, teased me for my freckles, or laughed at the way my carefully braided hair was looped across my head?
In time Pippi was followed by a succession of girls I might have been or could have been; the resourceful and rebellious Arrietty from The Borrowers, the graceful and talented Posy from Ballet Shoes. As I grew, I found new characters to emulate, I built them into so much more than the typed letters on a page.
And then I found Elizabeth Bennett. My middle name is Elizabeth, I'm a second daughter; that was enough to grab my attention. When I found out she was intelligent, opinionated and favourite of her father's children, that was enough to keep me caught. Through her I defined my role as the sensible one in the family. I recognised my inclination to form an opinion too quickly, saw the implications of a judgement based on first impressions, learned the dangers of pride and prejudice. I still mostly didn't get it right, but she helped me believe that mistakes could be overcome, that there were always second chances. And that kept me going for a long, long time.
But the trouble with Elizabeth Bennett is that she ceased growing up nearly two hundred years ago. She never got to be middle-aged; she didn't have to worry about what to do with greying hair and increasing girth. She married into a stately home, so what would she know about paying a mortgage into pension age, she never became a working mother or grandmother. I can't turn to her for advice on how to handle a re-structure at work; she can't tell me how to muddle through a long day in the office and still be half-awake and slightly interesting when I get home.
So I need a new role model; someone for this century and today's world; I just don't know where to find her. And for the first time in my life, books have let me down. I don't see any authors creating a positive pitch for the past-her-prime lady. I can't find the novel where it all turns out well for the woman who ought to know better by now; I've yet to read the story of the almost-invisible someone starting their second half-hundred; or the fable of the grown-up girl who is still trying to find out what to think and how to be.
I hope she's out there somewhere. Maybe she's just starting to come together, letter by letter, page by page. I'd love to think that one day I'll pop into a bookshop, pick up something that catches my eye, turn to the first page, and suddenly learn that there's another truth that's universally acknowledged.