(Book Review) The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

By Katy Goodwin-Bates

madwomanI’m not sure what’s behind the recent craze for Brontë-inspired novels. Just in the last four or five months, I’ve read The Brontë Plot by Katherine Reay, Yuki Chan in Brontë Country by Mick Jackson and Worlds of Ink and Shadow by Lena Coakley; I’d quite like to know what inspired this trend; the Brontës have all been dead for over a hundred years, and aside from the big Charlotte Brontë anniversary coming up this year, I can’t think of a particular reason for all these books to be coming out now.

The latest to be added to this list is The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell (Touchstone, 2016), which creates a descendant of the Brontës in Samantha Whipple, arriving at Oxford University to study English literature. Following this course with a blood connection to the famous family proves not so much an albatross around Samantha’s neck as a blue whale or perhaps a planet. In the style of a couple of the other novels I mentioned above, there’s a mystery at the center of The Madwoman Upstairs, as Samantha’s seeks to understand the legacy of her dead father, as well as her own relationship with the doomed sisters.

My father had homeschooled me for as long as he was alive, which meant that I had spent the first fifteen years of my life living in a pleasant anachronism. His idea of a Friday night was to fill up the paddling pool on the front lawn, stir up a margarita, and read me Shelley until it grew dark. He disliked Shelley – it was actually my mother’s middle name – and Dad would read every verse with dripping sarcasm.

Firstly, The Madwoman Upstairs is very funny. Samantha has an amusingly irreverent attitude to the Brontës, with each of the major novels ‘treated’ to a snarky critique, as well as some intriguing theorizing about the sources of each one, and an interpretation of Wuthering Heights which I can’t believe I have never thought of myself. Samantha endures numerous incredibly awkward one-on-one tutorials with a professor whose attitude towards her is difficult to grasp early on, and these meetings also provide much of the novel’s humor. As a Brontë fan and colossal English literature nerd, I adored all the literary analysis here, as well as the weighty discussions of authorial intent and conflicting branches of literary criticism. Fellow literature graduates yearning for a return to academia would undoubtedly enjoy this aspect of the novel too, although it may prove alienating to a reader who simply wants to enjoy an entertaining book.

Samantha’s attitude to the Brontës is fascinating. On the one hand, she is saddled with the legacy of being their only surviving descendant, constantly questioned about a mythical Vast Bronte Estate. On the other, she rebels against the Brontë-obsessed education she received from her late father, flippantly describing Anne’s Agnes Grey as “the most boring book ever written,” before voicing a basically brilliant theory for how it came to be quite so dull. Despite this, Samantha shows the urge to protect her ancestors; when confronted with a drawing by Anne, she says, “I hated seeing the Brontës’ sketches in frames. It was the same way I didn’t like to see stuffed deer heads mounted on walls.” Her protective, almost possessive responses, rather than being irrational, bely her loyalty. Most of us are happy to criticise our families, but will react with outrage should an outsider voice a similarly harsh viewpoint. There’s something really compelling about Samantha’s conflicted attitude to the Brontës, which perhaps comes from her extreme solitude, Despite the vaguely anarchic humour of The Madwoman Upstairs, at its center is an isolated young woman, still mourning her father and largely estranged from her mother, set upon by campus media and national newspapers alike, all because of her long-dead relatives.

He would want to discuss the fire, the estate, the legend. He would want to know what Emily Brontë ate for breakfast on the morning of December 5, what erotic poems Anne wrote in her spare time, what Charlotte secretly had tattooed on her bottom. It was my own personal curse, being related to the three most famous dead women in all of England.

I wholeheartedly recommend The Madwoman Upstairs to Brontë fans and readers of literary fiction–two readerships between which I would imagine there is considerable overlap. Aside from the brilliant use of a literary institution, it made me consider all sorts of interesting things like my own relationship with literature, as well as the extent to which revering a particular author is unhealthy. It is one of those novels I wish I had written myself.


The Madwoman Upstairs is available now at GPL.

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