The Madwoman Upstairs: A Brontë-Inspired Novel
It can be no easy task to re-hash Brontë lore--whether in fiction or non-fiction--and yet, occasionally a reader finds reason to rejoice. Catherine Lowell's debut novel, The Madwoman Upstairs (Touchstone, $25.99), is utterly absorbing, a lighthearted read that appeals to those of us who unwind with TV adaptations of Victorian novels (almost any will do) and who might be still be sobbing this morning over the demise of Downton Abbey.
Twenty-year-old American Samantha Whipple is the last of the Brontë line and thus the center of much unwanted public scrutiny. The world seems to believe that Samantha's family is hiding a hoard of Brontë treasures. Samantha's enigmatic father--who home-schooled her, primarily in literature--died young, but not before planting clues to Samantha's "inheritance." She sets off to attend Oxford University, where she feels quite lonely, until her father's annotated copies of Brontë novels (believed to have burned in a house fire years before) begin appearing in her room.
Lowell's plot moves along at a brisk pace, introducing characters who upstage Whipple, the men in particular. Her father, Tristan, is either a genius or a loon; her professor, James Orville, is a taskmaster we warm to; and her adversary, Sir John, has a dark side that borrows a bit from A.S. Byatt's unscrupulous collector Mortimer Cropper in Possession. Sir John is on the hunt for the Brontë relics--a brooch, a quill, a manuscript, items that will give him a "deeper understand of their novels, of course." (He surely would have enjoyed The Brontë Cabinet--having written a similar book about Brontë objects.)
There's loads of literary banter and a smidge of romance--a lark that can keep one awake well past her bedtime, and The Madwoman Upstairs does just that.
Image: Courtesy of Touchstone Books.