As someone who loves the work of the Brontë sisters, I was both intrigued by and wary of a book described as “A witty modern love story which draws from the enduring classics of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights”. Modern novels inspired by classics can sometimes be very good, but they can also be very bad, so I was interested to see what this one would be like. I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed it, but with one or two reservations.
Our narrator, a young American woman called Samantha Whipple, is (supposedly – this is fiction) the last living descendant of the Brontë family. The novel opens several years after the death of Samantha’s father, the eccentric author Tristan Whipple, from whom she is believed to have inherited a vast Brontë estate which includes previously unseen drawings and manuscripts. Samantha knows this is untrue; her inheritance consists of something known only as The Warnings of Experience – what exactly this may be, she has no idea.
Arriving at Oxford University to study English Literature, Samantha is told that there’s a shortage of accommodation and is given a room on the fifth floor of a windowless tower decorated with an eerie painting she calls The Governess. Things become eerier still when her father’s old copies of the Brontës’ novels start to mysteriously appear in her room – novels which she believed to have been destroyed in the fire that killed her father. It seems that Tristan Whipple, from beyond the grave, is sending Samantha on a literary treasure hunt – and with the reluctant help of her tutor, James Timothy Orville III, she begins to follow the clues.
There’s so much in The Madwoman Upstairs for a Brontë fan – or a fan of literature in general – to enjoy. Samantha and Orville, who have very different views about reading, have lots of fascinating discussions, asking questions to which there is no right or wrong answer, such as whether the intentions of the author or the reader’s own interpretation is more important. In particular, they talk about the Brontës and their novels, exploring the themes and symbolism and how the sisters drew on their own lives and experiences for inspiration. I liked the fact that Anne, who is usually given less attention than Charlotte and Emily, was the most prominent of the sisters in this book, and Catherine Lowell has some theories about her which I had never come across before. This was all very interesting and I liked this aspect of the book much more than the mystery element – or the romance, which was quite predictable.
My main problem with this book was the character of Samantha herself. Homeschooled by her father and with no friends her own age, she’s awkward, outspoken and lacking in important social skills. I didn’t dislike her; some of the things she says are quite funny, and I particularly liked her response when asked if there are any leading men in her life (“several, but they’re all fictional”). However, I couldn’t understand why someone who appeared to have no passion for literature and claimed not to like any authors had chosen to study English Literature and how she could possibly have been offered a place at one of the world’s top universities. I thought her conversation with Orville at their first tutorial session was unrealistic – I couldn’t imagine speaking to a tutor like that!
Of course, the whole portrayal of university life in this book is unrealistic. Apart from her one-to-one meetings with Orville, Samantha seems to receive no other form of tuition and doesn’t have any interaction at all with any of the other students. And would Oxford really house a new student alone in an ancient tower which is part of a weekly tour? [Edited to add: maybe some of this is more normal than I’d thought]. Luckily, I was able to overlook the more implausible parts of the plot and concentrate on enjoying the literary analysis and Brontë references. If you can do that too, I think you’ll find this an entertaining read with some fascinating insights into the lives and work of Anne, Emily and Charlotte.
I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.