Review by: Mark Palm
There are a lot of writers whose children have followed in their literary footsteps: Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, John Cheever, Stephen King, to name a few. When you start thinking of what the Bronte family accomplished however, you are in a very different league. It’s hard to believe that three young women, living in a cold, cramped house on the Yorkshire Moors managed to write novels and poems that still have the power and originality to startle us. When you realize that Anne died at age 28, Emily at 30, and Charlotte at 38, their collective achievements are hard to fathom. Their works, as well as their lives have taken on mythical proportions.
The Madwoman Upstairs: A Novel, by Catherine Lowell, starts with a basic premise; what would it be like to be the last living relative of the Bronte family? That question is the only thing that is basic about this book however, as Ms. Lowell gives us a smart and original novel that delivers on many levels.
Samantha Whipple stands out in her freshman year as a literature student at Oxford for several reasons; not least because she is an American, the last living relative of the Brontes, and her father Tristan was a famous writer who died a tragic death. Scholars and fans of the Brontes presume that she is the heir of an estate that includes diaries, paintings and novel-drafts that have never been seen outside of the family. As for Sam, she has never seen a bit of it, and just wants to get on with her life. All of that changes when long-lost objects from her life begin mysteriously appearing, including a copy of Jane Eyre with her father’s hand-written notes. With the reluctant help of her professor, the handsome, enigmatic James Orville, she begins a literary scavenger-hunt that is aided by studying the Bronte’s works. Whether the treasure is literal or figurative gives the search extra depth, until we realize that the journey is as important if not more so, then what lies at the end.
In lesser hands this could have been dry, but Ms. Lowell brings such intelligence and wit that the pace never dragged. The plot is subtle, and begs close reading. The prose is sharp and full of startling imagery. All of the characters are solid, but Samantha is a real delight. Prickly, funny and sarcastic, with hidden depths of feeling and intelligence that unfolds with the story. Ms. Lowell has a particularly fine ear with dialogue. The rhythm takes a while to get used to, but after a few pages I found myself speaking it aloud to myself to better enjoy how rich it was. Sam’s conversations with James, in particular, are a joy. Witty, funny, and often poignant, these episodes are among the most affecting in the entire story.
Sam’s recollections of her life with her father are also top-notch. The love and affection in the relationship is clear, but rarely if ever does Sam romanticize Tristan, a deeply flawed man, but a caring parent. We only see him in flashback, but he is as vibrant and any living character.
Also worthy of note is the way the author uses the tropes of the Bronte mythos to great, and often comic effect. Sam lives in a tower, for God’s sake. There are times when Sam and her relationships with her father and James seem to echo the lives and works of the Brontes, but every so often Ms. Lowell subverts the expected, which gave verisimilitude to a story that could have appeared overwrought and stagy. A few times the scholarship skated up to the edge of exposition, and the ending felt a bit rushed. Still, if you love books and literature, and the Brontes, The Madwoman Upstairs: A Novel is a must-read.