Title: The Madwoman Upstairs
Author: Catherine Lowell
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble
After reading a few books in a row published over 100 years ago (including The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a review of which will come later), it was nice to get back into the present day with this literary mystery. Samantha Whipple, our American narrator, is the last living descendant of a sibling of Patrick Brontë, the Brontë sisters’ father, and is the so-called heiress to the Vast Brontë Estate. This estate is non-existent, Samantha tells us, even though the media persists in writing articles about it. The books are in public domain, and nothing valuable has been passed down to her. Still, the name has its advantages, and, during her interview for Oxford, she can tell that the person interviewing her wants to talk about the Brontës. She obliges and finds herself at Oxford, in a room in a freezing, ancient tower that was once used to quarantine victims of the plague.
Since the death of her father, Samantha has come to hate the Brontës and purports to hate the vast majority of writers despite the fact that she is studying English Literature at Oxford. Her tutor, Orville, asks her what the purpose of literature is, and Samantha runs through a list of cliché answers. Orville challenges her, both about her definition of literature and its relation to the world. Orville at first refuses to study the Brontës with Samantha, for reasons he won’t explain, but he eventually relents and they discuss the novels. He is silent on the subject of The Warnings of Experience, which is the only hint Samantha’s father gave her about her inheritance. Having just finished The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I recognized the reference, even though Samantha does not, and Orville does not tell her until the novel is nearing the end.
There are many literary references, both within and outside of the Brontë canon (Samantha’s father died in a fire, he had a mistress named Rebecca who supposedly died in a boating accident). Catherine Lowell has a good grasp of literature, and her theories about the Brontës are interesting. The only thing that bothered me is that there was a long discussion of the reliability of narrators, and (slight spoiler) in the end Samantha says that she’ll have to write her own happy ending. It made the ending feel more ambiguous than it had to be. I personally like my books to be free of literary theory of that sort; I don’t want to finish a book and wonder if the ending really happened within the narrative or was fabricated by an unreliable narrator.
That said, I still really enjoyed this novel. Samantha is a quirky narrator who may come across as a bit twee, but I related to her more than I was annoyed by her. I enjoyed the dialogue:
“Are there any leading men in your life?”
“Several, but they’re all fictional.”
Samantha is sometimes a bit thick about researching things to get answers (a quick internet search would have led her to the source of The Warnings of Experience, to find out what Orville’s connection to the Brontës is, or even just to find out who has been writing about her in the college newspaper). But I thought the coming-of-age aspects of the novel were excellent. Samantha believes that her father set up a literary scavenger hunt to find her inheritance, reminiscent of clues he would leave for her to find when she was a child. By the end, her growth felt both hard-earned and believable. Overall, this was an amusing book with a lot of quotable passages.