Book review: The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

3 Mar

madwomanThink you know Charlotte, Emily & Anne? Think again.

Samantha Whipple is the last remaining descendant of the illustrious Brontë family, of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre fame. After losing her father, a brilliant author in his own right, it is up to Samantha to piece together the mysterious family inheritance lurking somewhere in her past – yet the only clues she has at her disposal are the Brontë’s own novels.

With the aid of her handsome but inscrutable Oxford tutor, Samantha must repurpose the tools of literature to unearth an untold family legacy, and in the process, finds herself face to face with what may be literature’s greatest secret.

The Madwoman Upstairs tells the story of Samantha Wipple, the last surviving relative of the Bronte family as she moves to Oxford to begin her studies at Old College. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from this book; my own reading relationship with the Brontes is a little fraught.  I’m more of an Austen girl so I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book and how my interest in Anne, Charlotte and Emily was piqued. It’s certainly made me want to pick up their books again.

There’s a wonderfully gothic feeling of mystery to The Madwoman Upstairs; Samantha finds her self living in a dark tower, attending tutorials with her tall dark and rather handsome professor in his library. Having lived and worked in Oxford I thought Catherine Lowell perfectly captured the wonderful mix of traditional and modern, taking a tongue in cheek look at academia, literary criticism and the Bronte novels.

Lowell’s sense of humour is witty and her literary knowledge fascinating. This is a novel that sees her moving from debating the correct way to read a novel and how to decide the meaning of a book to her main character marveling at her tutors biceps within the space of a page. Samantha is a wonderful mix of wise and principled, naive and American. This mix provides for a lot of the clever humour in the book and I found myself smiling a lot as I read.

Sam has grown up with the world thinking that her family are the custodians of a secret wealth of hidden Bronte treasures. To this point in her life Sam has dismissed this as nonsense but then she starts to receive surprise parcels with a link to her dead father and together with her Tutor James she sets out to try to solve the mystery. I loved the dialogue between Samantha and James – their Tutorial conversations are brilliant and there’s a wonderful underlying romantic tension between them.

As Sam works to solve the puzzle she’s been set she also begins to uncover the details of her immediate family and to find out about her mysterious Father’s own past. With reflections on history, women writers, art and scholarship, the debates in this book kept me thinking. Romantic, mysterious and fun, The Madwoman Upstairs is a fab debut and a must read for literature lovers.


The Madwoman Upstairs is released today by Quercus and is available in hardback and ebook formats.

I’d like to thank the publisher for providing a review copy of this book.

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