Hennessey Library's Reviews > The Madwoman Upstairs

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
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The Madwoman Upstairs reads like a creative thesis for an MA in Professional Writing. Catherine Lowell invests her heroine, Samantha Whipple, with the desperate ennui of a Masters candidate after 2-4 years of academia, wondering what the heck she was thinking when she chose her course of study. She hates British Lit. She hates authors. She hates her tower room at Oxford. She is out of place, out of time, and awkward.

Samantha (Sam), is an American Abroad, Mark Twain's innocent on the continent, lugging a heavy bit of family baggage into a dismal tower at Oxford where she encounters a sinister picture she dubs, The Duchess. She is the last of the Brontes, and heir to the (perhaps non-existant) Bronte authorial fortune--notebooks, unfinished novels, diaries, etc. coveted by the literary world and lost (possibly) in a fire (if they ever existed at all).

Perhaps. Maybe. Possibly. The book is a literary mystery with clues to be found in the oeuvre of the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. Sam's father has died after passing his obsession with the family on to her, but she is somewhat reclusive, socially inept, and shy of attention as the last living Bronte. She suspects her being accepted to study under the tutelage of an Oxford don has come about because of who she is, rather than her abilities. As her readers, we are sure of it.

The professor, James Orville, is arrogant, brusque, and condescending--the very picture of a young professor who has "arrived" in academia. The awkward posturing of professor and student is intended to echo the sharp interchange between Jane Eyre's Jane and Rochester, but feels more like Anastasia Steele to Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey . As an older woman reader, I find Orville as distateful as Grey, the kind of man a weak woman wants as her "domme." Samantha is weak, but becomes strong in a highly implausible change of character. Unfortunately, she is so obsessed with the Bronte anti-hero, that she fixates on Orville and cannot see what an overbearing spouse he would be.

Don't let me put you off. The book is fun, a literary voyage through the Bronte books and lives, an homage to pioneering female writers who inked out the path for others to follow, but it is sloppy, massively overwritten with similes and metaphors spilling out of paragraph after paragraph of contemporary snark. There is literary exegesis, the philosophical arguments of English academics, Gothic atmosphere, and a jerkily unrealistic romance. Nevertheless, it is a quick read and showcases a young author trying out all the craft she has learned in her writing classes. She has talent, but she hasn't found her own voice. The next book will be better.

I recommend this one to readers of classic British Lit. Love it or hate it, you don't want to miss it.
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Reading Progress

June 1, 2016 – Started Reading
June 2, 2016 – Finished Reading
June 3, 2016 – Shelved
June 3, 2016 – Shelved as: reviews

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