Life must be hard for the children and descendents of the famous. They have their forebearer’s legacy overshadowing their entire lives. This is certain true for Samantha Whipple, the protagonist of Catherine Lowell’s The Madwoman Upstairs. Her father is a famous author and they are descended from the famous Brontë sisters. Supposedly, the Whipple family is heir to what is always referred to as the Vast Brontë Estate. The Madwoman Upstairs is a story about legacy that evolves into a story about one of the central debates of literature: how to understand Story.
Samantha grew up with her eccentric father, who spent his life trying to decode the Brontës’ works. When Samantha arrives at Oxford, she is ill-prepared for the idea espoused by all of the literature professors that literature not only can be understood outside of an author’s intent, it should be analyzed without regard to authorial intent. Her upbringing and education have taught her to believe in the Truth of literature, not the little truths of literature. Her tutor, James, does his best to try and teach her the ways of contemporary literary criticism, but keeps running into her fundamental faith that novels have their origins in real life.
The plot of The Madwoman Upstairs is a strange scavenger hunt at Old College, Oxford, and Haworth Parsonage. Samantha is convinced that her father left her something, perhaps the Vast Brontë Estate. It’s hard to say if Whipple the Elder really did leave clues or if Samantha is manufacturing clues to feed her need to connect with her father and finally understand him. As she follows the “clues,” Samantha also hatches some bizarre ideas about the inspirations for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Jane Eyre.
The plot, however, is not what I found most interesting about The Madwoman Upstairs. I feel this is a book for English majors, because the chief pleasure of this book is sitting in on the conversations the characters have about how to approach novels. If you’re not the sort of person who finds such conversations interesting, this book is going seem overly academic and a little dull. Samantha, a character in more dire need of a reality check than any I’ve ever met in fiction, is going to annoy readers. For readers who need to bond with characters and/or need a thrilling plot, this book is not going to work. Even for me, an English major with a keen interest in the nature of story and literary criticism, the ideas frequently hijacked the book.
I did like this book, but I will caution other readers about its problems when I recommend it.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley and Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 1 March 2016.