The Madwoman Upstairs by Catharine Lowell
The Madwoman Upstairs has all the ingredients for a book which I love: a quirky, independent heroine, lots of literary allusions and a mystery to uncover. 2016 is bringing forth several books with a Bronte link. It will be the bicentenary of Charlotte Bronte's birth in April 2016 (with those of her siblings to follow over the next few years). As far as I'm concerned, I can't read enough of these.
Its central character, Samantha Whipple is the last blood descendant of the Bronte sisters. An American, she is over at Oxford University to study English Literature. Cue her enigmatic and brooding tutor. Samantha's father, who died in a fire which destroyed his library, home schooled her and has left her with a treasure trail to find her inheritance. There have been rumours for years that Bronte memorabilia has stayed within the family. Samantha herself does not know if there is any truth in these tales but tries to avoid the buzz that seems to attach to her because of her ancestors.
I enjoyed all the echoes of the Brontes in this book, starting with the Haworth Parsonage itself. Once at Oxford, Samantha lives in an ancient tower at the college, with peeling red paint and an old painting on the wall, 'The Governess'. Jane Eyre was banished as punishment to such a 'red room'. The book is littered with allusions to the novels, right through to the Epilogue. The Madwoman Upstairs will appeal to anyone who has ever sat in a literature seminar, with the tutorials between Samantha and her tutor exploring authorial intent, and theories of literary criticism. You find yourself thinking about the issues they raise, why one reads books and can a text be read without any reference to context.
I found the Samantha's character very amusing. She is a spiky individual who finds social chitchat difficult. She doesn't really have a filter and tends to say what she is thinking. How reliable a narrator she is, I am not too sure but I enjoyed following her story through the book. Reliant on her memory for interpretation at times, you wonder whether things were ever actually as she remembers them. This is a cleverly written novel with Samantha being subject to the strict rules of the College. Just as nineteenth century society restricted behaviour, so is her life constrained too.
If you look beyond the literary references and debates on the art of reading and writing, there are other themes at work too. Samantha is alone and coming to terms with her grief at the loss of her father. Her relationship with her mother is distant. She has had an unconventional upbringing and always seems to be on the periphery. It is also about her coming to terms with her past and maturing into adulthood.
I read the book with genuine enjoyment and in all, this is a book with real panache.
In short: a fast paced but thought provoking novel
I received an e-copy of this book from the publishers, Quercus, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.