Review: The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

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Samantha Whipple is used to stirring up speculation wherever she goes. As the last remaining descendant of the Brontë family, she’s rumored to have inherited a vital, mysterious portion of the Brontë’s literary estate; diaries, paintings, letters, and early novel drafts; a hidden fortune that’s never been shown outside of the family.

But Samantha has never seen this rumored estate, and as far as she knows, it doesn’t exist. She has no interest in acknowledging what the rest of the world has come to find so irresistible; namely, the sudden and untimely death of her eccentric father, or the cryptic estate he has bequeathed to her.

But everything changes when Samantha enrolls at Oxford University and bits and pieces of her past start mysteriously arriving at her doorstep, beginning with an old novel annotated in her father’s handwriting. As more and more bizarre clues arrive, Samantha soon realizes that her father has left her an elaborate scavenger hunt using the world’s greatest literature. With the aid of a handsome and elusive Oxford professor, Samantha must plunge into a vast literary mystery and an untold family legacy, one that can only be solved by decoding the clues hidden within the Brontë’s own writing.

A fast-paced adventure from start to finish, this vibrant and original novel is a moving exploration of what it means when the greatest truth is, in fact, fiction.

Published by Quercus in Australia.


An eARC of this book was received from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


 

The Madwoman Upstairs is the debut novel from author Catherine Lowell.  It is a modern-day retelling of Jane Eyre, and deeper than that, a kind of love letter to the work of the Bronte sisters, and to literature itself.

American Samantha Whipple is the last living relative of the Bronte family, her father Tristan descended from the father of the Bronte sisters.  Home-schooled by her father and as obsessed with the Brontes as he was, Samantha also shares his passion for literature.  After her father dies, she moves to Oxford University to study English Literature.  There, she finds herself in an archaic place governed by rules and literary mystery.  She also finds herself the uncomfortable focus of stories in the university newspaper, as well as a target of Sir John Booker, her father’s nemesis and curator of the Bronte museum.  And of course there is also her tutor, Dr James Timothy Percival Orville III, to deal with.

Jane Eyre has been a long time favourite of mine (I still own the battered cheap copy I bought when I was about 12 and read practically to death), and it was natural that I was drawn to this book and how it would deal with modern-day versions of Jane and Rochester.

This isn’t an exact transposition, of course, but reads more as something inspired by Jane Eyre and the Brontes.  There are chunks of commentary and theories about the Brontes and their work scattered through the book.  It’s possible that some readers may find these sections harder reading, but for me, they were fascinating (even if some of the theories did sound outlandish – but to be fair, I’m no student of literary theory of the classics).

Samantha herself is a frustrating character.  It becomes clear very quickly that her childhood, which she sees as idyllic, has actually stunted a lot of how she’s able to see the world and be able to communicate with other people.  She is often arrogant and rude to people, but the depth and passion of her beliefs make her a character who is easy to follow through this labyrinth of a story.

There is a vividness to this Oxford University.  Samantha’s tower lodgings, with no heating or windows and a tour group coming through at intervals, gives an almost fairytale sense to the book.  And Samantha sets out on a very fairytale quest as she seeks to untangle the mystery of her father’s legacy (including undertaking some extremely foolish acts, which would name her clearly as the titular Madwoman).

For me, the weakest aspect of this book is the romance, and I never quite found that it rang true to me.  However, as we see everything of the relationship between Samantha and Orville through Samantha’s eyes, it is entirely possible that this is deliberate.  It could also be a deliberate comment on the original romance between Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre, which is in many ways just as unlikely.

If you have a love of the Brontes’ work and of literature, you will likely find a lot to enjoy in this book.  If not, this is probably not going to be the book for you.

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