I really do need to up my game though, I had no idea this (or Jane Steele) were coming out this year. Unlike Jane Steele, this one doesn’t seem to be making as big of a splash. It could be because it’s a debut novel, or it could be because it’s by a smaller publisher, but I couldn’t tell you for sure what it is.
I know I stumbled across The Madwoman Upstairs after I finally got around to reading an article from The Daily Beast titled Life Lessons From the Brontë Sisters (article link). So of course I reached out to the publisher and they kindly sent a review copy*, which once I started reading I blazed through.
Writing my response a few weeks after reading the book probably isn’t the best idea, but minimal internet access while on vacation got in the way. The good (and bad) is that it made me reflect more on the novel. Looking back, I still enjoyed reading the novel and there were humorous lines,
“He would want to know what Emily Brontë ate for breakfast on December 5, what erotic poems Anne wrote in her spare time, what Charlotte had secretly tattooed on her bottom. It was my own personal curse, being related to the three most famous dead woman in all of England.” (9)
And it was clearly well researched. I guess the biggest problem is that I wasn’t exactly enamored with Samantha, and that’s putting it nicely. Some of this is colored by my thoughts on this book as a debut (last two paragraphs), but a lot of this just has to do with how Lowell wrote her character. There was nothing like-able about her to me and that clearly shows Lowell’s strengths as a writer.
The one thing I really enjoyed about the novel, and which if I remember correctly was on the one-sheet from the publisher, was Lowell’s inclusion of characters with different ideas on authorial intent. There’s a great passage in the late 200s which discusses whether a book should be read on it’s own and what is between the two covers is all there is, or whether there should be more to it like the author’s private journals, the other works of literature the author wrote, or any other number of things. Lowell closes the novel with this strong sentiment:
“I appreciate that there is a physical book in your hands, and that perhaps it once belonged to someone famous. But this makes no difference to me. I will continue to honor Anne Brontë’s novels as they are, not as she might have intended them to be. Tampering with a finished novel now will only lead to the inevitable destruction of what you seek to protect.” (329-330)
I’m torn on authorial intent and I think a lot of that comes from my love of fan-fiction, but looking back on the Brontës and knowing what little I do know about Charlotte editing/censoring her sisters works makes me wonder what we’re missing! And perhaps I’m more in favor of it than I think, especially with books like the Brontës’ that are so heavily based in biography! How can you remove the author’s own life from a story (I’m looking at you Charlotte and The Professor.
I still think this is a strong debut novel, but now I’m writing my response I can’t help but think about a comment Thomas or Simon made on an episode of The Readers (podcast link, no idea which) about debut others not really stretching themselves and too often writing about their own experiences. And then seeing this line in the above article,
“My own obsession with the Brontë legacy was unhealthy enough to inspire me to write a novel on the subject.”
And then connected that Lowell is an English major and well how much of a stretch was it? I just kept thinking, is this a fictionalized wish piece? It doesn’t really matter, obviously, but it has definitely colored my response looking back.
But I don’t want this to cover up the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. The idea, as Lowell mentioned in the article, that there are still missing works out there by any number of famous authors that gets people excited (Austen and the Brontës for me) is very enticing. And that being said, books about books will get me every time! Not only is this about the Brontës works, but Lowell mentioned 35(+ I’m sure I missed a few) actual books and any number of fictional works she created! You can see the full list of actual books at the end of this post.
Recommendation: If you love the Brontë’s and have opinions about one (or more) of them then you’ll appreciate this book. There are definite lulls at some point with the writing, but overall Lowell kept me engaged and the story kept me interested.
*I received a copy of this book in return for an honest response. No goods or money were exchanged.
Opening Line: “The night I arrived at Oxford, I learned that my dorm room was built in 1361 and had originally been used to quarantine victims of the plague.”
Closing Line: “But on this point, I think I have said sufficient.” (Whited out to avoid spoilers, highlight to read.)
Additional Quotes from The Madwoman Upstairs
“Angria and Gondal set the foundation for the central, unspoken conflict of the Brontë lives: which Brontë was best?’ At first glance, the answer was Branwell–that is, until he reached his twenties and drowned his talent in alcohol. The next-best bet was Emily, but she soon detached herself from real life, preferring her imaginary worlds to this one. That left just Charlotte and Anne. The Viking versus the Nobody. Who would be the greater success? Which one–Anne or Charlotte–would write their family into immortality? Could a small, timid child ever go up against the Great Charlotte? The competition between Anne and Charlotte was the silent struggle of their lives, and their best-kept secret.” (53-54)
“This was not a novel. It was a force of nature. Here, in my hands, was the collective imagination of a million teenage girls. Jane Eyre was one of the most famous novels ever written. It was the book that put the Brontës on the map. It wS the reason Charlotte Brontë became a celebrity who hobnobbed with Thackeray. It was the reason that women today secretly fantasized about mystery, danger, and brooding men. Jane Eyre was a twisted Cinderella story, about an emotionally brutalized child who grows up to find a job as a governess in a dreary manor.” (97)
“She was my favorite Brontë. Emily, like him, had been a singularly antisocial creature who loathed publicity, had almost no friends, and ritually burned most of her writing. It was she who invented the family pseudonyms, happily hiding behind the name Ellis Bell like it was a giant plant. Emily stayed on the moors for most of her life, refused any form of medical treatment when she fee I’ll with tuberculosis, and died at the age of thirty.” (148)
“That’s when life officially stopped, as cleanly as if someone had snapped a book shut.” (230)
“One of his students. Was that all I was? I wanted to be his best student, his only student, his wife-student.” (275)
“Reading teaches you courage. The author is trying to convince you something fake is real. It’s a ridiculous request, and it questions the sanity of the reader. The extent to which you believe the author depends on how willing you are to jump in head first.” (297)
Works mentioned in The Madwoman Upstairs (in order of mention)
- Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
- A Separate Peace – John Knowles
- White Noise – Don DeLillo
- Poryphria’s Lover – Robert Browning
- The Republic – Plato
- Agnes Grey – Anne Brontë
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë
- Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
- Shirley – Charlotte Brontë
- Villette – Charlotte Brontë
- Ulysses – James Joyce
- King Lear – William Shakespeare
- Paradise Lost – John Milton
- Brontë Juvenilia – Anne, Branwell, Charlotte and Emily Brontë
- The History of Angria – Branwell and Charlotte Brontë
- The Odyssey – Homer
- Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
- Daniel Deronda – George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
- The Epic of Gilgamesh
- Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
- The Greatest Works of Emily Dickinson – Emily Dickinson
- The Wizard of Oz – Frank Baum
- English Masterpieces – Maynard Mack
- Narrative – Frederick Douglas
- Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery
- Emma – Jane Austen
- The Turn of the Screw – Henry James
- Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
- The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar
- Tristan and Isolde
- Paradise Lost – John Milton
- The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
- The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
- Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
- Pamela – Samuel Richardson