Published by Touchstone
Publication date: March 1st 2016
It’s no secret that Catherine Lowell styles certain elements of The Madwoman Upstairs after Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. In fact, the novel’s protagonist, Samantha Whipple, is the last remaining descendant of the Brontë family after her father dies in an unexplained fire at their home. Now she’s at Oxford and her professor, Timothy Orville, is handsome and brooding. It’s also dark and stormy a lot. But Samantha is no Jane. Instead, she is much sought after regarding the rumored Brontë estate—a valuable collection of memorabilia and possibly unpublished writings that has supposedly been kept hidden by the family.
Oxford, the Brontë sisters, a mystery—what’s not to love? Lowell manages all three components with aplomb, especially in her choices about Sam who, despite an isolated childhood being homeschooled by an eccentric father, is self-deprecating with an irreverent sense of humor. Her dialogues with the taciturn Professor Orville lighten what is a lot of verbal sparring about heavy subjects as sibling rivalry among the sisters, who wrote what when and why and the intricacies of all manner of Brontë trivia and lore (an English major’s dream!). When Sam is not fighting off Brontë fanatics wanting to know what she’s done with the collection she’s trying to solve a treasure hunt left for her by her father. It apparently is her inheritance but may or may not have to do with the Brontës. It’s uncertain whether someone leaving family mementos in her room is trying to help her or drive her mad.
By and large, Lowell modernizes the Jane Eyre story with wit and style and there is much entertainment in The Madwoman Upstairs. Where the novel falls flat is in the decision to abandon the more modern, independent take on the story and on Sam and veer into decidedly Victorian romance territory. For some, this may be just fine, but for me hearing Sam’s frustrated desire to follow in the family footsteps
I began to resent Emily, Anne, and Charlotte—my old friends—with a terrifying passion. They were not only talented; they were brave, a trait I admired more than anything but couldn’t seem to possess. The world that raised these women hadn’t allowed them to write, yet they had spun fiery novels in spite of all the odds. Meanwhile, I was failing with the odds tipped in my favor. Here I was, living out Virginia Woolf’s wildest feminist fantasy. I was in a room of my own.
meant I wanted her to stride out into the moors on her own and write. Instead, I was left with a literary Nancy Drew with romance-y overtones. Fun to read but not as filling as I had hoped.