I spent so much time talking about The Madwoman Upstairs on Snapchat last week that I ended up setting up a YouTube channel just to contain all my thoughts about it. Most of what popped into my head to talk about were complaints (and boy, did I have a lot of complaints), but I can’t deny that I was also really enjoying the book a lot of the time.
The Madwoman Upstairs is about Samantha Whipple, the last living descendant of the Brontë family, as she sets out on a literary treasure hunt to discover what her late father left her in his will. (I was totally hooked by that premise: one of my most-adored books growing up was the very similar Natasha’s Will.)
The novel’s basic set-up requires a pretty big suspension of disbelief: Samantha arrives at Oxford University, is shown to a totally isolated tower with no windows, introduced to her only tutor, and told she will not be invited to any lectures or seminars. The novel takes her through her first two terms at the university, and in that time she manages to meet about three people. So far, so unlikely. But soon, the action starts; mysterious packages are being hand-delivered to her door, containing books she thought had been destroyed in the fire that killed her father…
Catherine Lowell is certainly an imaginative writer. Lowell uses beautifully crafted metaphors and turns of phrase that had the book bursting into vibrant, sparkling life in my hands. Many of her lines are so wonderfully tongue-in-cheek you almost want to return them with a knowing wink (“It was the sort of library you’d marry a man for”, for example, and this hilariously true description of every new Jane Eyre adaptation: “An unknown actress would play Jane… A very handsome…man would play Rochester, and Judi Dench would play everyone else.”) Other lines summon up the kind of raw emotion that makes you need to pause, and stare dramatically out of a window (“He was great in the ways that only dead fathers can ever truly be great”).
Book nerds will love the literary theory sprinkled throughout The Madwoman Upstairs. The role of the reader versus the author in interpreting the book is called into fascinating question—but even more interesting to me was Samantha’s point that “the history of [female writers such as the Brontës and Jane Austen] was a history of censorship”.
It was the vivid language and interesting literary discussion (as well as my soft spot for treasure hunts) that kept me enthusiastically reading until the end—despite the constant struggle I faced not to throw the book against the wall. Which brings me to…
The Madwoman Upstairs is just so implausible. We’re supposed to believe that Samantha was accepted to Oxford to read English, and yet she displays no passion for literature at all. She wastes her entire tutorials sarcastically complaining about every book her tutor mentions—(as someone who would have loved to read English at Oxford, I was never going to forgive her for that…)—and she seems never to have heard of even the most basic literary concepts.
Then again, this definitely isn’t a realistic Oxford either. As I said above, there’s the pretty ludicrous idea that one of the greatest universities in the world would offer up one measly weekly tutorial as their entire degree package. Then there’s Samantha’s tutor Orville, who seems to have no interest in furthering her education at all, instead beating the table with a stick every time she gets something wrong. At one point, Samantha actually pulls herself together and writes an essay—which Orville praises as “one of the finest papers I’ve ever read by a student.” That would be lovely, except that he then goes on to break the news to her that there is plenty of other academic writing on this subject, seemingly unbothered by the fact this literature student must have done absolutely zero research on her essay to be unaware of this. I was a Lit student, and I can tell you in no uncertain terms that an essay so obviously un-researched would more likely get you kicked out of university than praised.
Then there’s the fact that this book was so obviously written by an American. Yes, Samantha herself is American, and we are supposed to see Oxford through her eyes, but after so many months of living there, I think she could stop putting the word “British” in front of literally everything she comes across. And I’m not convinced Lowell did much fact-checking of her slang words either…
But I could forgive all of that if it wasn’t for the one cardinal sin this novel commits…romanticising an emotionally abusive relationship.
We’ve seen this so many times (thanks Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey)—and it’s so damaging. Orville is rude and aggressive; he repeatedly insults Samantha’s intelligence and dismisses her emotional responses. He’s awful—and yet the author lingers on his chiselled jaw and handsome stubble, as if that’s enough to turn him from an abusive prick into a deep, sexy, and complex lover. Even Samantha’s father gives her the same treatment, invalidating her opinion by refusing to engage with her if she doesn’t agree with him. And this is painted as the loving father-daughter relationship that helped Samantha grow and learn?!
In terms of pure enjoyment factor, The Madwoman Upstairs probably deserved the one extra star—but I just couldn’t bring myself to give it. I am so tired of novels teaching girls to fall in love with the arrogant and controlling arsehole, of romance stories that justify abusive behaviour as love. It’s time to stop playing along.
The Madwoman Upstairs is on sale in the US from today, and in the UK from 3rd March.
*I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.