The Madwoman Upstairs

By Catherine Lowell

Simon and Schuster | 338 pages | 2016

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Catherine Lowell

The Madwoman of Oxford

Back in the days my English Literature professors would chair debates like the ones that occupy the main characters of this novel: how much should what we know about the author’s life influence our reading and interpretation of her books? Is the truth of a book dependent upon the author’s intention, her real life experiences, or the individual reader’s “take” on the subject? Whose vision holds the trump card—the author’s, the critic’s, or the reader’s?

I distinctly remember a majority ruling to the effect that a book had to stand on its own merits, however interesting it might be to trace its origins back to its author’s actual experiences. However…

The Madwoman Upstairs stars the last surviving descendant of the Brontë family, Ms. Samantha Whipple, who is creating quite a stir on the campus of Oxford University where she is enrolled as a student.

Trying to remain under the radar proves futile when her every move is broadcast in the campus newspaper. She meets with her handsome, brooding tutor once a week and engages in obstinate, obstructive, obtuse banter, repeatedly insisting that she hates writing and writers and certainly does not want to talk about the Brontës.

Why is she there? Her eccentric father, whose educational theories echo those of patriarch Patrick Brontë, has died in a mysterious fire. The literary world is ablaze, searching frantically for the rumored caché of valuable Brontë artifacts. Anything will do: Charlotte’s scarf, Emily’s brooch, Anne’s diary.

Meanwhile, Samantha has always been told this caché is a fiction and non-existent. She has inherited nothing so far, but her father’s scribbled, nearly illegible will mentions a bequest of The Warnings of Experience. What is that, and, more critically, where is that? Samantha grudgingly admits she needs help if she’s to unravel the mystery and become an heiress. Who better to guide her in following the trail of her father’s clues than . . .her tutor?

Sticking close to her room in the Tower, interacting minimally with other students, not participating in any activities as far as the reader knows, Samantha lives a life most uncharacteristic of college freshmen.  She’s drawn out of her apathy and mourning by the sudden and mysterious materializing of the Brontë novels, the very worn editions owned by her much loved, late father.

He’s apparently constructed some sort of obtuse puzzle for her. She enlists the help of her tutor as she rereads each Brontë novel, searching for clues, and presenting them to him for validation.

What she finds: Well, she comes up with a possibly groundbreaking reading of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s lesser known Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which truly casts a new light on the talented sisters, their rivalries and secrets.

These favorite books of the English literary canon are dissected, torn apart and then put back together. The author had this reader wondering, Really? Could it be so?  What could easily be a dissertation exploration, and maybe (for all this reader knows) has been, Lowell turns into a novel with many overlapping layers.

Who is the madwoman upstairs? We think first of Rochester’s first wife locked in the attic (Jane Eyre), but this title could apply equally to our heroine in her dreary, unheated, nearly uninhabitable 21st Century Oxford tower. Was the best known and longest surviving sister, Charlotte, in real life a control freak who “stole” events from little sister Anne’s life for her own fiction? Was Anne meant to be the towering talent in the family? And brother Branwell: a drunk and wastrel? How about her father? What exactly caused her mother to flee when Samantha was a child? His mistress or his obsessions with his literary forebears?

The reader may delight as certain “truths” about the Brontës legacy are debunked or questioned. As a novel however, certain problems arise in The Madwoman Upstairs. One: the immature, off-putting behavior of the 20-something year old heroine. She’s hardly sympathetic. She reminded this reader of a recalcitrant teenager, a 15-year-old maybe, brooding, sarcastic, and obstructive.  Home schooled by her father, she admits she has close to no social graces. It is Impossible, therefore, to conceive of her as an intelligent, attractive young woman with normal desires and sexual longings.  She is wrapped up in resolving her feelings toward her father and begrudging her mother’s escape from an impossible marriage. She’s trapped in the legacy.

Most difficult to believe is that an older adult, a professor, would look upon her as an appropriate/suitable/desirable love object. Yet by the end of the novel, with a little help from her “friends,” the heroine has completed her mad quest, descended unscathed from the tower, and, if we are to trust the Epilogue, found love and happiness too.

My verdict: a fun and engaging premise, taking on the literary establishment as it were, forcing the reader to reexamine what she remembers of the pivotal novels of the 19th Century, a plot structure with well-executed twists and turns and characters who are enigmatic enough to sustain our interest.

I would just have wished for fewer pauses and silences in the dialogue, livelier reparteé, and an altogether more engaging and evolved protagonist. But she’s a Brontë, not an Austen, and brooding suits her well.

I could see my entourage of books—Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, and Tenant—stacked neatly in the corner to my left. They had won, it seemed. I had let go of myself and become one of them: strange, antisocial, obsessed, uncontrollable, and artistic. I was not anticipating the inexplicable fondness that washed over me. I looked at those books and finally understood what it must feel like to be part of a loving, dysfunctional family, the kind everyone else seemed to have. Here was a group of people that I was beginning to love, if only because they were crazy and mine.

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