The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

I’ve been blogging on this page for eight years now. It’s kind of hard to believe that my oldest child was five months old when I began. Here I am, two more children later (and the youngest is 5 months old), and I struggle to find time to read the books I love let alone write about them all. In some respects, my mommy-brain has changed this page from being a sincere effort to analyze and respond to literature to become a conglomeration of a variety of books, ramblings, and attempts at deep thought. Maybe I have become my own kind of “madwoman upstairs” who struggles to battle life herself throughout the craziness of daily tasks. Maybe my page is now an attempt to stave off madness and keep some degree of sanity when I come from the written word to a blank page. Can my mind still put my thoughts in order after the day has come to an end?

My reading has changed dramatically since I began. I went through my compulsive reading phase(s) for years, my “no time to read” and “I can’t handle anything” new mom phases, and now I’m alternating between “mom daze” phases (in which I simply binge on netflix and either can’t read or can’t write) and regular “I’m a homeschooling mom: What should my kids read next?” phases (in which I binge read middle grade fiction and try to strew the best of the best around the house for my 8-year-old son to stumble upon). Sometimes the thoughts get written on the blog and sometimes I go weeks without a post.

And then sometimes I start a book that reminds me of my compulsion to read and I stay up to the wee hours of the morning reading it. Because I love it so much. It’s not that I have any more time on such-and-such a day. And yes, I’ll still have to try to function with three children the next morning. But this type of book reminds me of how much I love to read and simply don’t want to stop.

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell was such a book. Although it is not a Victorian-era classic, which I usually say is my favorite type of book, it combined my love for classics (Jane Eyre, none the less) with my love for analyzing classics, such as I did during the four years as a student in English literature. It also added elements of history (I love looking at woman in various time periods) and mystery and times on the moors, as well as alternate histories of real people. I can tell that debut author Catherine Lowell has similar loves to mine.

The Madwoman Upstairs tells the story of Sam Whipple, the (alternate history) heiress of the Bronte sisters’ estate, as she enters Oxford University shortly after the death of her father, an acclaimed writer in his own right but also a possible madman who may have burned his own home down in a drunken stupor. Sam, who is estranged from her mother, must come to terms not only with her literary heritage as she inherits her estate (a disappointment of its own) but also with her own desires to study literature, become a scholar on her own merits, and navigate the difficult world of being a young adult in England after living for so long in America.

Ms Lowell tells a story that intertwines the mysteries and spookiness of her 1361 dorm room and the English moors surrounding Yorkshire with a discussion of literary analysis of Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Biographical details of the three sisters are paramount because Sam Whipple is keen on new historicism as her literary perspective of choice. Since the novel focuses on her first year at Oxford University and her professor is an intriguing young scholar himself, I felt almost as if I too were stepping back in to my English courses and debating the merits of various literary authors.

For a debut author, I must say I felt Ms Lowell had an excellent command of pacing for the story. There was just enough to Sam’s first person narration to give the reader continued interest in her personality (although I have mixed feelings about her comments on homeschooling), and there was enough balance between her professor’s lectures and her own mysteries and social moments during her days. Sam is a literature student and this is a book for those who love literature and thinking about literature. But this was also, I believe, a book that any type of literary reader could enjoy as well.

I know most who read reviews of books do not want spoilers of what happens in them. In a review, one must tell just enough to get one eager to read the book. But this must be done without “spoiling” it for the rest of us!

For me the delight of reading a book is the discoveries within it, the details to be relived in retelling the highlights of the plot, and the analysis of the text as one revisits it with those who have read the book. For me, it is impossible to “spoil” a good book. Readers of The Madwoman Upstairs must know that “spoilers” such as basic plot elements of the Bronte books mentioned above are rampant throughout Ms Lowell’s novel. This is a book that assume basic knowledge of those books, but it will also tell you the ending if you have not read them. Reading them is not necessary. But if you do not like “spoilers” you should not read this book.

You should also not read any more of this review.

I love that the basic plot of this book revolves around the main characters’ thoughts on the Bronte sisters’ lives and works. The analysis of their works is paramount to Sam’s developing character (and her own “madness”), and the main climax of the book pits Sam’s beliefs against those of her professor and her nemesis, the curator of the Bronte house in Haworth.

Who is right? Does the text of a novel stand alone? Does the text provide insights in to the life of the author? Or does the author’s life give insight into the novel? Maybe Sam’s claim is right: only the reader’s perspective matters as he or she reads, for the reader is ultimately the one who assigns meaning.

As the author ended her story, I felt the deep significance of the fact that this book is a work of fiction. It was hilarious to me. Because, at the bottom of all literary criticism, is the fact that it is fiction, that these characters do not exist anywhere. The author truly can make anything happen that she wants. Hence, Sam has no other choice but to become a writer. Ha! She can change her ending to what she wanted it to be.

Although Sam spends the entire novel arguing that she is not a writer, I love that she to comes to terms with writing when she understands that a novel is fiction. Despite her search to understand her relatives, their lives make no difference in the end. They made their own stories and endings in their fiction. Life experience means we all have stories and endings we may want changed. I love that Sam’s ending was just what I wanted.

Catherine Lovell must have had a lot of fun writing it too!

Notes: I received a digital copy from the publisher for review consideration. Then I read it in one sitting. Then I waited and thought about it. When I sat down to write my thoughts, I ended up reading it again in one sitting. Now I’m waiting for my physical copy too.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. Hi I was inspired by your post to buy the book. I too studied most of these texts at Unie. It is a fun read so far up to first couple of chapters but I am finding the narrative voice self absorbed and depressed. It brings back a lot of memories like you said in your post and I want to revisit the texts again. Thanks I needed to do some personal reading in depth again. Teaching Literature is taking its toll on my personal reading time.

    Rgds Hazel

  2. I cannot wait to read this book! The last book I read that made me remember those carefree and crazy read all not days was Life after Life by Kate Atkinson. I couldn’t put it down.

  3. This book just sounds so incredibly fun. I wanted to bring it on my trip to New York earlier this month, but I ended up not being able to get a library copy in time for that. Alas! I have a hold on it, though, and I’m looking forward to jumping on this extremely fun bandwagon. 😀

  4. Congratulations on your 8 year blog anniversary! I’ve been following on and off for the past several years and always enjoy your posts. My kids are a bit older than yours (I have just two girls, ages 8 and almost 10) so they are definitely into bigger books these days but I always enjoy getting more kids book ideas. But this book looks like a good one for me!

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