The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

What teenage girl has not sighed over the plight of Jane Eyre and the love story in Wuthering Heights? The novels contain “the collective imagination” poured into them by millions of teenage girls. In The Madwoman Upstairs, narrator Samantha Whipple is the last Brontë heir. She is related to three of the most famous women writers, Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, but she has a contentious relationship with them. Gothic and imaginative, The Madwoman Upstairs is a tribute to the Brontës.

Twenty-year-old Samantha has made an art of being “tragic and misunderstood.” Her alcoholic author-father homeschooled her for the first fifteen years of her life after her mother left him, so she is a bit of an anachronism to her peers. Her father’s idea of an education was to study the Brontës, go on literary treasure hunts, and sit by a paddling pool and read Shelley, whom he hated. Samantha is socially awkward and physically clumsy but clever and very imaginative.

When her father dies in a literal blaze of fire, Samantha is lost. Her mother comes from Paris to help, but Samantha is inconsolable. She pours her grief into writing but gives up. At twenty, she is now literally the madwoman upstairs as she is living in the windowless and heatless Tower at Old School at Oxford University and studying literature.

Her father left a peculiar will; she inherited from her him an Emily Dickinson bookmark and The Warnings of Experience—although both are mysteries. Everybody thinks she has inherited the vast and priceless artifacts of the Brontë estate. The plot thickens as Samantha starts receiving her father’s old copies of the Brontë novels and clues about her puzzling inheritance. Then she and her very mysterious and attractive, “non-ugly, non-gray and non-old” tutor, James Timothy Orville III, start studying more than literature together.

Full of apocalyptic weather, creepy paintings, a haunted tower, a clueless narrator, and the intense emotions of a Gothic novel, The Madwoman Upstairs has plot twists and witty literary dialogue that will keep you entertained and make you rethink your relationship with the Brontë novels.

If you enjoyed this novel, of course reread the Brontës, especially the lesser known Villette, by Charlotte Brontë, or try The Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, The Brontë Plot, by Katherine Reay, and The Madwoman in the Attic, by Sandra Gilbert.