Review: The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

Thursday, March 10, 2016
Title: The Madwoman Upstairs
Author: Catherine Lowell
Genre: general fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 352
Published: March 1 2016
Source: publishers for review
Rating: 4/5

In this smart and enthralling debut in the spirit of The Weird Sisters and Special Topics in Calamity Physics, the only remaining descendant of the Brontë family embarks on a modern-day literary scavenger hunt to find the family's long-rumored secret estate, using clues her eccentric father left behind.

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.

A clever novel with a clever, amusing main character, The Madwoman Upstairs eagerly and originally takes on the lore and legends of some of literature's most debated figures: the three Brontë sisters Anne, Emily, and Charlotte, and to a much lesser extent, their brother Branwell. In this fun and mostly fast read, protagonist Samantha, the siblings' only living descendant, is set upon a strange journey when her father's esoterica about their famous, long-dead relations begins to have an impact on her daily, modern life. This was a strong, descriptive, and memorable debut novel for Catherine Lowell; it was filled with adventure and mysteries but also interesting concepts and surprising plot twists.

Samantha Whipple serves as a good main character; she's smart but not smarmy or one-dimensional in her knowledge or person. She's a fish out of water, and almost always has a snappy retort when challenged. Her personal motivation at the beginning seems to stem only from her tumultuous and confusing relationship with her dad, and in turn, to understand what drove him while alive. But Samantha is challenged by her Professor at Oxford, the grumpy but acerbically intelligent James Orville. The chemistry between the two is at times frustratingly staged (and intended as an homage to the kind of relationships seen in the Brontë novels), but their rapport is undeniable. The rest of the characters barely make a dent in the page, except in their absence, like in the cases of Tristan and the Brontë family. As both Samantha and James are rather solitary beings by nature and motivation, the lack of a secondary cast was not necessarily a detriment to The Madwoman Upstairs. Instead, it allows the engaging main character and her foil/partner more time to interact and their bond become substantial.

The book does occasionally delve a bit too deeply into debating literary criticism philosophies and discussions about the nature of an author's role in the resulting novel. It makes for an interesting commentary, but it's not wholly relevant or necessary to the narrative of The Madwoman Upstairs. It can feel and read tangential, in addition had a tendency to drag down the pacing, and meaningful progression of the plot. The ideas introduced through this debates and interactions do reinforce and inform the main character's suspicions about Anne Brontë's life and the origins of her sister's great success Jane Eyre, but those same ideas could stand to be edited down into a more succinct version; one that doesn't distract from the main plotline. Samantha and James challenge each other in many ways, but these particular nuances will be lost on a lot of readers.

I did not expect The Madwoman Upstairs to be as fun as it was or to enjoy it as much as I did from the first page. I had expected something dreary and dark, something navel-gazingly introspective (I was never a fan of Wuthering Heights or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall despite their respective literary and feminist importance), but instead found an exciting, smart, amusing story that hustles along a creative plot with engaging characters. It was like a less serious but more snarky version of The Historian. I think both long-time fans of the stories from the Brontë family will find new aspects to appreciate with Lowell's insight, and also that even those readers who don't hold their collective bibliography in such esteem will find an involving and creative story to enjoy with The Madwoman Upstairs.



  1. This only recently came onto my radar, your review is fantastic! I will have to get this from the library soon; I like the Bronte books I've read and find them fascinating. I also loved The Historian so a less series, snarky version sounds pretty great. I'm glad this was engaging and interesting for the most part! It helps when you like the main character I imagine.

    1. Thank you!I had a lot of fun reading and talking about this book! I had a lot of fun with it and I think you would, too. I thought of you when reading it, actually, because I know you do love Wuthering Heights :)


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