The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

The Madwoman Upstairs As someone who loves the work of the Brontë sisters, I was both intrigued by and wary of a book described as “A witty modern love story which draws from the enduring classics of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights”. Modern novels inspired by classics can sometimes be very good, but they can also be very bad, so I was interested to see what this one would be like. I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed it, but with one or two reservations.

Our narrator, a young American woman called Samantha Whipple, is (supposedly – this is fiction) the last living descendant of the Brontë family. The novel opens several years after the death of Samantha’s father, the eccentric author Tristan Whipple, from whom she is believed to have inherited a vast Brontë estate which includes previously unseen drawings and manuscripts. Samantha knows this is untrue; her inheritance consists of something known only as The Warnings of Experience – what exactly this may be, she has no idea.

Arriving at Oxford University to study English Literature, Samantha is told that there’s a shortage of accommodation and is given a room on the fifth floor of a windowless tower decorated with an eerie painting she calls The Governess. Things become eerier still when her father’s old copies of the Brontës’ novels start to mysteriously appear in her room – novels which she believed to have been destroyed in the fire that killed her father. It seems that Tristan Whipple, from beyond the grave, is sending Samantha on a literary treasure hunt – and with the reluctant help of her tutor, James Timothy Orville III, she begins to follow the clues.

There’s so much in The Madwoman Upstairs for a Brontë fan – or a fan of literature in general – to enjoy. Samantha and Orville, who have very different views about reading, have lots of fascinating discussions, asking questions to which there is no right or wrong answer, such as whether the intentions of the author or the reader’s own interpretation is more important. In particular, they talk about the Brontës and their novels, exploring the themes and symbolism and how the sisters drew on their own lives and experiences for inspiration. I liked the fact that Anne, who is usually given less attention than Charlotte and Emily, was the most prominent of the sisters in this book, and Catherine Lowell has some theories about her which I had never come across before. This was all very interesting and I liked this aspect of the book much more than the mystery element – or the romance, which was quite predictable.

My main problem with this book was the character of Samantha herself. Homeschooled by her father and with no friends her own age, she’s awkward, outspoken and lacking in important social skills. I didn’t dislike her; some of the things she says are quite funny, and I particularly liked her response when asked if there are any leading men in her life (“several, but they’re all fictional”). However, I couldn’t understand why someone who appeared to have no passion for literature and claimed not to like any authors had chosen to study English Literature and how she could possibly have been offered a place at one of the world’s top universities. I thought her conversation with Orville at their first tutorial session was unrealistic – I couldn’t imagine speaking to a tutor like that!

Of course, the whole portrayal of university life in this book is unrealistic. Apart from her one-to-one meetings with Orville, Samantha seems to receive no other form of tuition and doesn’t have any interaction at all with any of the other students. And would Oxford really house a new student alone in an ancient tower which is part of a weekly tour? [Edited to add: maybe some of this is more normal than I’d thought]. Luckily, I was able to overlook the more implausible parts of the plot and concentrate on enjoying the literary analysis and Brontë references. If you can do that too, I think you’ll find this an entertaining read with some fascinating insights into the lives and work of Anne, Emily and Charlotte.

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

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23 thoughts on “The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell”

  1. SIGH. Oxford-set novels that don’t bear any relationship *at all* to the reality of the place are one of my biggest literary dislikes. One-to-one teaching is standard at Oxford (though more usually it’s two-to-one) and it’s perfectly easy to not interact with other students on your course if you don’t want to, but “not liking any authors” would probably get you quietly dismissed from serious consideration for an English degree at interview stage, and all of this “ancient tower” business is probably bollocks too. I mean, there are ancient towers, and people live in them, but they usually aren’t put on the tour route. Oxford spends a lot of time trying to prevent tourists from disrupting the lives of the people who actually, you know, live and work there (more than they already do, I mean.)

    1. I suppose I just found it strange that Samantha was told that her entire course would consist of one weekly tutorial and no seminars, lectures or other classes at all. As for the ancient tower, the tour group came right into the room where she was sleeping!

      1. My degree course consisted of one tutorial a week (two when we were working on medieval lit), and a seminar a week during the term we worked on lingusitics and language theory. We were encouraged to go to lectures, but after second week, almost no one did! (They weren’t essential, just useful. The content of our course was delivered entirely through tute discussions and essay feedback.) That tour group thing is definitely bollocks. If any college tried it there would be serious complaints, especially in this social media-savvy age!

          1. Heh, I know! I briefly dated a neuroscientist and his schedule was sheer madness. Not well suited to my lie-in-bed-til-noon tendencies…

  2. Hard to know whether to read this one or not. On the one hand it sounds funny, and I probably wouldn’t know whether the depiction of Oxford was accurate or not. On the other hand, I can’t imagine anyone who is not interested in literature getting a place in a top university, as you say.

    1. It is funny and some parts of the plot probably weren’t meant to be taken too seriously. I enjoyed it overall and I think it’s worth reading.

  3. I don’t often read modern books based on classics unless they’re set in the past or the fictional world of the original. I have less interest if they’re based in the modern world, however I do like the sound of a literary treasure hunt. So perhaps not a book I will rush out to buy but if a copy came my way I would read it.

    p.s. If it makes you feel better Helen, I studied Theatre at university and I had to go in 3-5 days a week for lectures, workshops, tutorials and rehearsals 😀

    1. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one with such a heavy workload, Jessica. 🙂
      This isn’t the sort of book I would usually be in a hurry to read either, but I did enjoy it once I got into it and am pleased I gave it a try.

  4. I have got this one to read from netgalley too. Having read your review I am somewhat intrigued by it, so might have to move it to the top of the list.

  5. I’m glad the few flaws you found in this book didn’t ruin it for you. It sounds like a fun read. I think I might give it a try. Thanks! 🙂

  6. Glad to read your review because I’ve seen this one advertised and was intrigued. I might pick it up the next time. Sounds like having a handle on some at least of the Bronte books might make it better reading. Fortunately I’ve read the main ones!

    1. There’s quite a lot of discussion of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey, so having read some or all of those would probably help.

  7. The Oxford and personality parts don’t sound so odd (reading the words you’ve used to describe her makes me wonder if she’s meant to parody the Bronte sisters as they didn’t get out much), except for the tour part. Not being a reader…. yeah, that’s not going to get you a place on an English Lit course.

    1. I didn’t dislike Samantha’s personality exactly, but her attitude was irritating at times! I apologise for misunderstanding about Oxford. I know people who studied English Literature at other universities and the description in this book of only having one hour of contact time a week with the same tutor for the whole course and no opportunity to get to know the other students on the course just seemed unusual to me.

  8. I’ve wondered about this one so I appreciate your thoughts – I think it sounds like a fun read. Do you plan on reading Jane Steele? I have that one on hold, but don’t know how I feel about Jane Eyre as a serial killer!

    1. Yes, I have a copy of Jane Steele which I’m planning to start reading soon. I’m not sure about Jane as a serial killer either, but I have enjoyed some of Lyndsay Faye’s other books so I have high hopes for this one.

  9. Your quibbles brought up some very interesting discussion. I have always been fascinated with Oxford, because it sounded so much more intense than college in America. I like books that cause me to catch up on the works of an author. I don’t even remember Wuthering Heights though I must have read it long ago. I’ve read Jane Eyre a few times and always like it more each time. But the other two you mentioned I’ve not read. Mini reading project, here I come. The home schooling thing made me wonder what books she was made to read, if that turned her off to authors. Rather than putting me off, it made me want to read the book and find out how she got that way!

    1. I highly recommend The Tenant of Wildfell Hall if you haven’t read it. I find Anne’s writing just as good as Charlotte’s and Emily’s.

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