Friday, February 19, 2021

Review: The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

I still have my original Scholastic copy of Jane Eyre, the one that I convinced my mom to buy me out of those joy inducing book order forms that were sent home from school in elementary school. Why Jane Eyre was included in the elementary version (and unabridged at that), I cannot say but it kicked off a long fascination with everything Brontë. I have read the sisters' books. I have read criticisms of the books. I have read re-imaginings. I have read responses and prequels. So when I saw Catherine Lowell's The Madwoman Upstairs, a novel centered on the last living Brontë descendant, I knew I wanted to read it.

Samantha Whipple is an American who has come to Oxford to study English literature. She's a bit older than a traditional student, having been homeschooled haphazardly for a long time by her brilliant, Brontë scholar father who also happens to be a descendant of one of Patrick Brontë's siblings. After her father's death in the fire that destroyed his library and long estranged from her mother, Samantha was sent to a small boarding school in Vermont, her first experience with traditional schooling. And somehow from there she ends up at Oxford, in the college her father always wanted her to attend to read English, which she doesn't seem to actually like very much. And she claims she certainly doesn't like the Brontë sisters and the attention her relationship to them brings her although her actions would dictate otherwise. Samantha is determined to find the family legacy, the Warnings of Experience, from her father, using the scant clues he's left her, starting with the inherited bookmark that she receives in his will. As she embarks on this slow, literary scavenger hunt, she also meets with her professor, Orville, who is clearly modeled on Mr. Rochester. Orville is young, handsome, aloof, disapproving, and enigmatic and the two of them spar over literary discussion and analysis. There's also her father's literary rival, a friendly-ish fellow student, Samantha's mother, the college porter, and a disapproving administrator making mostly brief appearances in the story but the bulk of the novel is Samantha on Samantha and her journey.

The novel is slow and meandering, not quite a scavenger hunt nor a mystery nor a love story. In an appropriately gothic setting, Samantha's room at the college is in a windowless tower where a strange portrait glowers on the wall and which cannot be removed because it is a part of the college tour. Books from her father's burned library mysteriously appear on her bed and she sees a fleeing figure at least once. Samantha is a loner who, it would seem, interacts with almost no one at the college and certainly has no friends. She is an odd combination of intelligent and completely cowed by her professor. She is, however, 100% insufferable, disaffected mess. Her interpretations of her famous ancestors' works are definitely different, almost completely based in biographical history. Interestingly, she is convinced that Anne is the sister whose work is the most misunderstood. The tone of the novel ping pongs between light and academic pretension and back again but it doesn't quite balance both successfully. There's zero chemistry for the love story and it can get a bit tiring to be entirely in Samantha's head for the duration of the book. Most of the twists were quite expected and the whole thing felt strangely ponderous. Lowell does insert some clever allusions to various Brontë works, not least of which is the ending which echoes the end of Charlotte's The Professor. The novel is fine but will probably lose all but the most avid Brontë fans.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts