It's 3:00 AM (no, really) on the dot and I've just finished The Madwoman Upstairs. My gosh. I'm writing this post on my phone with my mouth agape because Catherine Lowell has written herself a masterpiece and what has become one of my favorite novels.
Madwoman tells the story of, Samantha, the last remaining Brontë heir, who is thrust into an epic literary mystery of her late father's making to uncover her inheritance which may expose secrets long hidden about the Brontë Sisters, and make us question the validity of what we know about them.
Firstly, I love this novel because it's a love letter to the Brontë Sisters, with speculations ranging from the highly romantic to the wonderful, and even to the possible jealousy that may have entered their turbulent lives. This novel is steeped in truth and "Moorish" folklore that is literal candy for a Brontë fan in the form of worn penguin editions popping up, leaving our protagonist confused and emotional.
Secondly, I love that it's a love letter to books and their magical affect on us. Lowell crafts a tale of characters who are literally lost without the tomes that guide them; every kind of reader, from the close, literal reader who takes the writing as it is under their nose, to the reader who digs beneath the surface to uncover the deeper meanings of every metaphor. As much as I've grown disdainful of Academia over my years of undergrad and post, this novel also made me a bit nostalgic for my days spent philosophizing literature I loved, and mostly literature I hated. If you were an English Major, this will bring back all of the memories, victories, and moments where I felt in over my head at every waking moment!
It's set in the beautiful Oxford University, and I gushed over this. I've always loved the mystery around such renown universities, especially in England, and fun fact: it even inspired me to pick up an 80's Oxford Sweatshirt that winked at me a little too enthusiastically to pass up on Etsy.
Lastly, which is not the end on any level, I adored Samantha Whipple. Samantha is my spirit animal. She is hilarious and awkward and opinionated and I adored her. I loved her relationship with her eccentric father who teaches her the beauty of treating novels as tangible living things. I loved that he creates little literary mysteries for her as a child, thus preparing her for this grand uncovering as his final poignant message. And James Timothy Orville the Third is the greatest. Listening to them spar made me nostalgic for my own college days full of challenging tutors. Although, if I had a tutor as breathtakingly handsome and intelligent as Orville, I'd have taken the torture with glee! Samantha's relationship with Orville is so precious, honestly. Lowell creates a special meeting of minds and hearts with these two. They drive each other crazy in the best way possible, and it has the same subtle quality of other classic romances out there in terms of slow pacing and subtle nuance. Their dialogue is so intelligent and hilarious. It's the dream of any bookish person to meet someone who will go toe to toe with them in seeming endless passionate debates over literature and dinner.
Lowell does an awesome job of weaving all sorts of key Brontë moments from their novels and lives into Samantha's, from the fire in Rochester's bedroom, to the student professor relationship, to the stormy moors all the while balancing each moment with Samantha's wit and humor. I especially loved how Lowell makes Anne a key component of this novel. Anne has long since fascinated me because it seems that the world has forgotten her in lieu of her two passionate sisters and as I've become an avid fan of the Brontë's, it's made me a bit resentful. For some reason I feel the need to stand up for Anne and shout that the world shouldn't sleep on her. And through Samantha, I was gratified. I loved that they analyzed who "the Madwoman", Bertha Mason, could be or represent. She even calls out Charlotte's passionate refusal to have Anne's Wildfell republished, opening the door for examination of the sisters' relationship with each other. More importantly a woman's desire to be heard.
Catherine Lowell's writing is beautiful, sparse at the right moments, and dreamy at the right moments. Samantha has such a great voice that is sarcastic, enthusiastic when pushed, and thoughtful. Samantha's comebacks are the best!!! I loved that even with her matriculation into the world's greatest institution, she second guesses her self, her writing ability, her place there, and has to fight to gain her confidence. I won't say that the uncovered mystery at the end is a feat of magnificence, but I kind of think that this was the point all along. The novel discusses at length the things we do to give people, objects, or stories great significance because it fills a hole in us that we want to fill. This was one of the great messages that the novel contained. But all of this said, the experience of this novel, it's characters and charm, it's dark humor, and the Brontë's are the point!
The Madwoman Upstairs is for the English major, Anglophile, blue-stocking, Jane Eyre loving, Haworth visiting, "Reader I Married Him" swooning person out there. I still don't know if this review does the novel justice. I literally spent all week looking forward to leaving work so I could stroll with my book in peace. Catherine Lowell has given us a fabulous debut novel that is beautifully written, and witty, and I think I've already entertained ideas of rereading this one right away.