“The Madwoman Upstairs” by Catherine Lowell – Book Review

The classic novels written by the Brontë sisters have long been among my favorites. For this reason I was curious to read “The madwoman upstairs“.

From the publisher: 

    • As the last living descendant of the Brontës, Samantha Whipple is accustomed to the stares, rumors, and questions that come with being a member of one of the most discussed literary families of all time. She grows up studying the novels of her long-lost relatives under the tutelage of her notoriously eccentric father, whose death when Samantha is a teenager mysteriously mirrors events that occur in both the Brontës’ novels and their lives. At twenty, Samantha enrolls at Oxford University, where she takes up residence in an isolated tower and begins finding a series of Brontë novels left on her doorstep, each one encrypted with obtuse notes from her late father. Upon further study, Samantha realizes that the clues in the books point to valuable objects from the long-rumored Brontë estate. Against her better judgment—and the rules of Oxford—Samantha enlists the aid of her inscrutable yet undeniably handsome professor to find the true nature of her inheritance. Along the way she realizes she must decide for herself what truth truly lies in fiction.

Set in the city of “dreaming spires“, a place I have always wanted to visit, this novel is set in and around Oxford University’s ‘Old College’.

The protagonist is twenty-year-old Samantha J. Whipple, an intensely intelligent young American woman who has just started her studies at Oxford.

“This is what I was learning about Old College: it was miserable and perfect.”

Samantha is given a tower room in the oldest part of the college. With a musty air, peeling paint, and no windows, she feels even more isolated than normal. Her only company comes in the form of a large painted portrait titled “The Governess”.

“An imagination left alone in the dark can be a terrible thing.”

Samantha has been home-schooled for most of her life, so she has fewer social skills that she would like. Grieving for her father, who died in a fire at their home, Samantha looks to literature to help her find her way. By turns overly serious, then flippantly witty, Samantha garners the attention of her tutor, Professor James Orville.  When she first enters Orville’s office she tells the reader “It was the sort of library you’d marry a man for.”

Samantha and Professor Orville have differing views of literature. He thinks that good non-fiction is, in fact, fiction. She thinks that all good fiction is actually nonfiction.  Together they spend countless hours decimating and analyzing the great works of classic literature.

One stormy winter day, Samantha travels north to the Brontë parsonage in Yorkshire. Her experiences there mark a turning point in her life.

This is a steady-paced debut novel that will be cherished by bibliophiles who don’t become bored by endless book discussion. Though a modern story, it contains a hint of the gothic, and a hint of mystery. It is more love story than I first thought it would be. I realize this is not a book that will be to everyone’s tastes – but for me it worked. The author captured the essence of a Brontë novel. A mysterious inheritance, a handsome and brooding male, a solitary heroine, and of course… family secrets.

In summation, I love it when a book transports me to another place, a place seeping with history and atmosphere. I appreciated the sarcastic wit peppered through the narrative. I liked that it “Talked nerdy to me“. A plethora of bookish quotes and Brontë references liberally scattered throughout the text ensured my reading enjoyment. ♥

I received a digital copy of this novel, free at my request, from Touchstone via Edelweiss.

The publisher has provided a Reading Group Guide and a Conversation with Catherine Lowell about the writing of this novel.

Catherine Lowell received her BA in English from Stanford University, and currently lives in New York City. The Madwoman Upstairs is her first novel.

About Fictionophile

Fiction reviewer ; Goodreads librarian. Retired library cataloger - more time to read! Loves books, gardening, and red wine. I have been a reviewer member of NetGalley since October 2013. I review titles offered by Edelweiss, and participate in blog tours with TLC Book Tours.
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11 Responses to “The Madwoman Upstairs” by Catherine Lowell – Book Review

  1. Pingback: It’s all academic! (fiction with academic settings) | Fictionophile

  2. I’ve been curious about this one for a while, so am glad to hear you enjoyed it so much! I’m always willing to give books about/inspired by the Brontes a try. Love all the photos you included in the review as well!


  3. This sounds like a fun read! Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I read this a few years ago and loved it! I am more of an Austen fan over the Brontë sisters – too moody for my tastes haha. However, I read this at the cottage on a rainy, gloomy weekend and loved it, the perfect novel to cuddle up with and disappear from the world with. I look forward to seeing what else Catherine writes!


  5. This sounds good. I just put it on my TBR list. Thanks for the great review! 🙂


  6. Sandra says:

    I have yet to come across one of these contemporary books which ties in to the classics that has really stood out for me although I’m mostly thinking of books which continue a literary classic, or imagine what came before etc. This sounds different. And rather fun! I do love the Brontes…. and Oxford…. and a book filled with book talk – how can I not give it a try!


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