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BOOK REVIEW: The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

| 31 March 2016 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell 

March 2016
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell




Think you know Charlotte, Emily & Anne? Think again. Samantha Whipple is the last remaining descendent 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.


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.

Then, as always happened, Dr Margaret King became Maggie again, a schoolgirl ogling her literary heroes. The Brontës pulled their age-reversing magic trick and there she was, a wide-eyed teenager who wanted nothing more than to traipse over the brooding English moors like Catherine and Heathcliff. I nodded and smiled and prostituted my ancestors until, together, we’d exhausted every nuance of Jane Eyre.

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.

‘You get the idea,’ Dad interrupted.
‘No, I don’t,’ I said.
‘Lessons. Do you understand?’
‘Sorry, what?’
‘They’re lessons.’
‘What are?’
‘Exactly. Are we on the same page?’

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.

Reading Wuthering Heights had always made me wonder whether Emily Brontë had been on drugs. It was not always clear, even to her, where her imaginary world stopped and where reality began. Yet for a woman who spent her entire life secluded on a desolate English wasteland, Emily Brontë had a curiously nuanced grasp of the world, much more developed than some of her more worldly literary counterparts.

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.


Lowell offers a story that delves into classic literature without leaving the reader behind. She gives us enough information to help us understand the underlying messages in the classics Samantha studies, without feeling like we’re drowning under so much regurgitated literature, even if we’re not well versed with the titles.

In fact, a reader who hasn’t read these classics will find themselves inclined to do so. Soon. And a reader who has read some will no doubt find something to add to their to read list, or will be called back into those they’ve already read with a new way to interpret the text.

The funny and absurd moments in this story serve as a counterweight to the grief and uncertainty that Samantha is feeling as she tries to make her way through a degree while being gawked at as the last living Bronte descendant and tries to work out what her father left her, if anything.

In all honesty, this wasn’t the deep Bronte mystery that the blurb promised, and there were quite a few errors in the text that any “close” reader will be sure to pick up on, but it was quite an enjoyable read, these things aside.

If you ever dreamed that there was more behind the Jane Eyre that everyone knows so well, this light, fun read so full of absolutely delicious quotes, while it did not entirely enthrall this reader, did not fail to entertain.

The curtains were blood-red and drawn. This was not an office. It was a small library, two storeys high, with thin ladders and impractical balconies and an expensive ceiling featuring a gaggle of naked Greeks. It was the sort of library you’d marry a man for.

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

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