The Madwoman Upstairs

The Madwoman Upstairs

by Catherine Lowell


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In Catherine Lowell’s smart and original debut novel—hailed by Deborah Harkness as a “charming and memorable read”—the last remaining descendant of the Brontë family embarks on a modern-day literary scavenger hunt, using only the clues her eccentric father left behind, and the Brontës’ own novels.

Samantha Whipple is used to stirring up speculation wherever she goes. Since her father’s untimely death, she is the presumed heir to a long-rumored trove of diaries, paintings, letters, and early novel drafts passed down from the Brontë family—a hidden fortune never revealed to anyone outside of the family, but endlessly speculated about by Brontë scholars and fanatics. Samantha, however, has never seen this alleged estate and for all she knows, it’s just as fictional as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.

But everything changes when Samantha enrolls at Oxford University and long lost objects from her past begin rematerializing in her life, beginning with an old novel annotated in her father’s handwriting. With the help of a handsome but inscrutable professor, Samantha plunges into a vast literary mystery and an untold family legacy, one that can only be solved by repurposing the tools of literature and decoding the clues hidden within the Brontës’ own novels.

A fast-paced adventure from start to finish for readers who devoured The Weird Sisters and Special Topics in Calamity Physics, The Madwoman Upstairs is a moving exploration of what happens when the greatest truth is, in fact, fiction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501126307
Publisher: Touchstone
Publication date: 11/22/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 523,901
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Catherine Lowell received her BA in English from Stanford University, and currently lives in New York City. The Madwoman Upstairs is her first novel.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Madwoman Upstairs includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Catherine Lowell. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

As the last living descendant of the Brontës, Samantha Whipple is accustomed to the stares, rumors, and questions that come with being a member of one of the most discussed literary families of all time. She grows up studying the novels of her long-lost relatives under the tutelage of her notoriously eccentric father, whose death when Samantha is a teenager mysteriously mirrors events that occur in both the Brontës’ novels and their lives. At twenty, Samantha enrolls at Oxford University, where she takes up residence in an isolated tower and begins finding a series of Brontë novels left on her doorstep, each one encrypted with obtuse notes from her late father. Upon further study, Samantha realizes that the clues in the books point to valuable objects from the long-rumored Brontë estate. Against her better judgment—and the rules of Oxford—Samantha enlists the aid of her inscrutable yet undeniably handsome professor to find the true nature of her inheritance. Along the way she realizes she must decide for herself what truth truly lies in fiction.

Discussion Questions

1. “He was great in the ways that only dead fathers can ever truly be great” (18). Describe Samantha’s relationship with her father, both in life and in death. In what ways does Samantha idealize her father? How does her perception of him change as she learns more and more about his life and his past through the course of the novel? How does Samantha’s unresolved grief impact her relationships and actions during her time at Oxford?

2. How do Samantha’s memories of her father differ from her mother’s and Rebecca’s recollections of his life and character? Which woman’s depiction do you think is closest to reality, and why?

3. “Questioning the reliability of a narrator was an attempt to prove that every novel written—every verb, every comma—existed solely for the sake of subversion” (73). Although Samantha hates the question of whether or not a narrator is unreliable, when we read fiction it is a question that often deepens our understanding as readers and forces us to ask critical questions about memory and truth in the narrative. In your reading of the novel, did you find Samantha to be a reliable narrator? Discuss key moments when you trusted her account, and key moments when you suspected that the real story diverged from her telling.

4. “My lack of literary talent was more a tragedy than a disappointment. The real problem was this: my father was in the grave, and I could do nothing to write him out of it” (56). How does Samantha’s failure as a writer impact her feelings toward women writers, particularly the Brontës? Do you think that Samantha would have gone to Oxford and felt the drive to search for her inheritance in her father’s posthumous scavenger hunt if she had been able to reach a sense of closure about him through her writing?

5. How does Samantha’s father leave clues for her about his true identity and her inheritance even while he is alive? Why is it so important for Samantha’s father to reveal his inheritance to her in the cryptic way that he does?

6. Samantha and Orville differ in their fundamental approach to interpreting fiction. Orville

believes that the text represents an emotional truth—that the inspiration for events depicted in a novel come from the author’s imagination and feelings—while Samantha believes that the text represents a literal truth— that the inspiration for events depicted in a novel come from the author’s actual experiences. Whose perspective do you agree with, and why?

7. Speaking about the character of Bertha in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, Orville tells Samantha, “You view ‘madness’ as wild and violent; I view it as the logical reaction to wild and violent conditions” (225). Based on this conversation and your interpretation, what does “madness” mean in the purview of the novel? Do you believe that the so-called madwoman in Jane Eyre is truly insane when she sets fire to the curtains, or do you believe that, as Samantha’s bookmarks from her father read, in the words of Emily Dickinson, “much madness is divinest sense”?

8. How does her time at Oxford change Samantha? Do you think that Samantha becomes “the madwoman upstairs” of the book’s title?

9. Sir John Booker bases his writings and career around the idea that by examining the objects of the Brontës’ everyday life and creations in other media, the reader can “find a true portrait of three of our most enigmatic authors, one that helps us unlock the riches inside their most cryptic novels” (118). What value do you see in this argument? Have you ever tried to analyze the work of an author, musician, or filmmaker in this way? Do you think we should judge a piece of writing by an author’s life or motives, or do you think that a novel should be a self-contained piece of art that gets diminished when considering too many extraneous facts and biographical information?

10. How and why do Samantha’s feelings toward the Brontës shift throughout the course of the novel? (“I looked at those books and finally understood what it must feel like to be part of a loving, dysfunctional family, the kind everyone else seemed to have,” she says on page 219.) How much of this change is due to Samantha’s relationship with Orville? Why isn’t Samantha able to have this sort of relationship with the Brontës while her father is still alive?

11. Were you surprised when the true nature of Samantha’s inheritance revealed itself? How does the search for her inheritance change Samantha?

12. By the end of the novel, do you think Samantha has reached a sense of peace about her father’s death?

Enhance Your Reading Group

1. Read a Brontë novel of your book club’s choice—select from Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. What similarities and differences do you find between the novel and The Madwoman Upstairs? If you decide to read Jane Eyre, discuss Samantha’s theory that Charlotte essentially stole Anne’s experiences and turned them into her most famous work.

2. Watch a Jane Eyre movie adaptation of your book club’s choice. See if you agree with Samantha’s negative assessment of Hollywood reenactments of Brontë novels: “An unknown actress would play Jane, and she was usually prettier than she should have been. A very handsome, very brooding, very ‘ooh-la-la’ man would play Mr. Rochester, and Judi Dench would play everyone else” (87).

A Conversation with Catherine Lowell

Where did you come up with the idea to write a contemporary novel based on the mystery of the rumored Brontë estate?

There’s a great quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that I really love—he said, “There is creative reading as well as creative writing.” The possibilities of creative reading have always intrigued me, particularly when it comes to old, famous, and heavily analyzed texts. I was especially curious to see what new discoveries could emerge from an unorthodox reading of the Brontë novels. Where is the line between reading creatively and just being ridiculous? Or is there still a grain of truth in even the most ridiculous ideas? I became very interested in the idea of a lost Brontë estate—did the Brontës just leave us with their novels or is there something else hidden within those books that is available only to an experimental reader?

Which Brontë novel is your favorite? Which novel influenced this book the most?

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, though not my favorite, was a big influence on the book. Its narration is messy and awkward (most of the book, for one thing, is a letter), to the point where it’s unclear whether Helen’s voice is actually Helen’s—Gilbert is the one who transcribes her diary and tells her story. In that sense, Helen reminded me of Anne Brontë, another woman whose voice we rarely hear directly. This book, more than any other, made me wonder what Anne Brontë was really like—and what was really going on behind the scenes at the Parsonage!

How did your time at Oxford influence the writing of this novel? Does a tower like the one Samantha lives in actually exist (and if so, did you ever live there)?

My time at Oxford did influence the novel—but not for the obvious reasons! I was having an awful bout of insomnia at the time, and the initial jetlag upon arriving in England didn’t help. I remember one freezing evening, I had been awake for nearly forty-six hours. I still couldn’t fall asleep, so I figured I might as well just get up and write a book.

At the beginning of the novel, Samantha states that she despises women writers—do you feel the same way? If not, which female writers do you most admire and why?

I love early women writers! They were incredibly brave. Since many of them saw enormous success in their lifetimes, it’s easy to forget that women like Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Frances Burney, and George Sand made huge sacrifices to practice their craft. Remaining true to yourself despite enormous pressure is a skill that will never go out of style, regardless of when you live.

That said, it was much more interesting to explore the psyche of someone who resents her ancestry rather than someone who adores it. What sort of duty do we owe to the people who gave us independence? Is Samantha wasting the freedom her ancestors fought for? Like many forms of hatred, Samantha’s resentment stems from her own insecurity.

As far as my favorite woman writer goes—I would really love to grab a beer with Aphra Behn.

Do you have a favorite Brontë sibling? Do you hope that your book will bring some new attention to Anne and her work?

I love Emily. She seemed so delightfully odd. If we put her in one of those standardized test questions—“which one of these is not like the others?”—I think she’d win each time, regardless of the topic. What I admire most about her is that despite having very limited worldly experience, her one novel showed the depth and breadth of someone who has seen everything. It’s encouraging to think that you that you don’t necessarily need wildly exciting life experiences to arrive at some universal truth—the greatest insights can often come from carefully observing mundane things.

I really do hope people start paying more attention to Anne! Her two novels are so different– in Agnes Grey, you get the sense that Anne is deliberately holding herself back, perhaps out of concern for her novel’s reception. But in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, she’s somehow developed into a fiery activist. You can really get a sense of her development between those two books. It’s easy to think of the Brontë sisters as indomitable pillars of strength, and forget that they were also human beings, fraught with the same insecurities that everyone has felt at some point. Anne is the sister who always made me remember that the Brontës were relatable people—sometimes underdogs, sometimes heroes.

Where do you stand on the argument between Samantha and Orville over how a text should be interpreted?

Regarding the debate between “literal truth” and “emotional truth,” I think the salient part of the relationship is the uncanny way in which the latter can lead to the former. The empathy we feel for make-believe characters feels real in our bodies, as if those characters were in fact long-lost friends. Fiction remains one of the only ways we can viscerally experience things that never happened to us.

If I were to weigh in on the debate over authorial intent, I’d have to give the somewhat dissatisfying “find a happy middle ground” answer. Too much concern with external information runs the risk of limiting a book’s scope, but books are so inextricably linked to history that to disregard the context in which they were written is often to waste an opportunity to better understand both the text and the era. The Odyssey is a great book regardless of any outside knowledge of Ancient Greece—but to understand its impact on Greece is to also understand how one story helped shape an entire civilization.

What about the Brontës do you think has helped their work to stand the test of time?

Most of the Brontë protagonists aged extremely well. They are still the kind of people we all want to be: confident, whip-smart, self-reliant, and able to be happy despite all the odds. The plots themselves have taken a page from Cinderella—almost all of them tell the story of underdogs, and everyone loves an underdog. Then, of course, there’s the picturesque drama of the Brontë’s lives and the courage with which they lived—both of which still inspire readers today.

What are you working on next? Do you think you’ll ever return to Oxford as a setting, or the Brontës as a topic?

The next book tackles one of my other favorite subjects, World War II. Stay tuned!

Customer Reviews

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The Madwoman Upstairs: A Novel 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Cay More than 1 year ago
Loved this book! Fun read with just the right amount of tension to keep me reading, with a great wrap up at the end. Read it!
KrittersRamblings More than 1 year ago
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings Samantha Whipple is now the last woman standing of the Bronte family and there have been rumors circling that there is a long hidden estate that will be coming her way, except she has no clue what and where it is. Samantha heads to Oxford for a few reasons, one being an education, but also to reconnect with her previous generations and maybe find what she should be doing next with her life. I loved that Samantha had her own story aside from her Bronte tie. Yes, the story circles around her connection to the Brontes, but she had her own things to deal with and she was at such a great time in life, the cusp of adulthood and the time when decisions need to be made.
Holly More than 1 year ago
The Madwoman Upstairs is the story of a woman coming to terms with who she is famously related to while trying to find out who she truly is. Samantha Whipple is the only remaining descendant of the Bronte family and trying to find out clues that her dead father left for her to figure out. As she enrolls in Oxford University, the quest to find what her father left for her while dealing with a handsome professor will leave her with more questions than answers until everything falls into place. With her new found knowledge, Samantha is left with questions answered about her past relatives while finding herself along the way! I'm torn about loving this book and just feeling like this was a ok read. It's just one of those books that keeps you interested in it long enough to finish it but i didn't get much out of it either. If Samantha was a little smarter and actually cared, that would have made this book so much better or at lest for me it would have. I do have to say that I enjoyed the Author's writing enough to want to read her next one just to see what she comes up with next! Thank You to Catherine Lowell for introducing me to your writing that I can't wait to see what is to come from you in the future! I received this book from BookSparks : Fall Reading Challenge 2016 in exchange for a honest review!
KrisAnderson_TAR More than 1 year ago
The Madwoman Upstairs is Catherine Lowell’s debut novel. Samantha Wipple is the last living descendant of Patrick Bronte (and the Bronte family). There are many rumors stating that she inherited unique family items, but they are just rumors. In her father’s (Tristan Whipple) odd will, Samantha receives a bookmark. Samantha heads off for a new life at Oxford University to get a degree in English Literature. Samantha is assigned a bedroom in an old tower (where normally students do not live and only tourists visit). There is an unusual portrait over the fireplace. They say that everything happens for a reason and it is very true for Samantha. When books from her childhood start showing up, they lead Samantha on a treasure hunt. Samantha gets help from Professor Orville (her instructor) in figuring out the clues (as well as providing a little romance). Someone else is after the prize. Will Samantha be able to figure out the puzzle before the competition? I love the description of The Madwoman Upstairs, but the final product was not as enjoyable. I found Samantha to be a complicated and immature (as well as obtuse) person (hard to like her). The novel has long (pages) discussions on books especially books by the Bronte sisters (if you are suffering from insomnia this book will help). The author provided great clues to figure out the mystery, but Samantha had trouble with them (it took her forever to figure them out). I give The Madwoman Upstairs 2.5 out of 5 stars. As you can tell, I really did not enjoy this novel. I found it an odd book. The premise was good (had potential), but I just did not like the final product. I received a complimentary copy of The Madwoman Upstairs from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review of the book.
anne40 More than 1 year ago
I liked the book although some of it was farfetched and unrealistic. My favorite part was the references to the Bronte books.
Confessions-of-Carlisa More than 1 year ago
I was approached by Touchstone to review this book, and as soon as I heard the synopsis, I knew that I wanted to be involved. And I’m glad that I did! As a fan of classic literature, I love Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by Charlotte and Emily Brontë. They’re both so dark and creepy but romantic and beautifully written. And this novel, The Madwoman Upstairs, gives a modern take on these stories. It’s about the Brontë’s last living descendant: Samantha Whipple. Talk about living in a family member’s (or three family member’s) shadow. She’s constantly being hounded by the press about an inheritance that she supposedly has…but that she has no idea whether or not actually exists. She just started studying at Oxford in the Old College and this story is basically how she comes to terms with herself, her family, and her heritage. And I really enjoyed it. The literary allusions and ideas made the English major side of my heart happy. But Sam kind of annoyed me at times, too. More so in the beginning than anything else. She came to Oxford to study literature, yet in her tutorial sessions, she bashed every single author Orville (her tutor) brought up. Like, why did you even decide to go there—one of the greatest and most historically enriching universities out there—to study literature if you hate literature? Bah, that bugged me. Also she goes to these tutorial sessions and treats them like they’re a joke. First of all, she’s probably paying big money to go to Oxford. Secondly, you can’t talk to professors like that. She’s just very sarcastic with him and doesn’t take what he’s trying to teach her seriously. But she does grow and learn through her experiences there. She comes to appreciate the authors that she used to love, then hated…but now she loves them again. But mostly she comes to know and appreciate herself and her late father and her heritage in a way she couldn’t before. All while trying to solve the mystery of the possibly-non-existent Brontë inheritance. One thing I do wish we got was more of her as a college student. Technically, this could be considered a New Adult novel because she’s 20 and in college. But we don’t get a lot of the college and new adult aspect. She makes one friend, Hans, that isn’t her tutor or a Brontë enthusiast. So we miss out on a lot of the normal experiences and thoughts that a 20-year-old (aka me) has. But I guess she’s not a normal 20-year-old, so we can cut her a little slack. Catherine Lowell is a great writer, also. This is her debut novel, but her style worked really well for me. The story felt like a modern-day Brontë novel, kind of, and I thought Lowell did a good job representing that so a modern eye would appreciate it. Here are some of my favorite quotes: “Knowledge always came with scars, and this was mine: the knowledge that the friends I knew best were those I had never actually met.” “It was a small library, two stories high, with thin ladders and impractical balconies and an expensive ceiling featuring a gaggle of naked Greeks. It was the sort of library you’d marry a man for.” “‘Your problem, Samantha, is that you are trying too hard to find a grand meaning in these novels. Usually, meaning tends to find you, in the middle of the night, and when you least expect it.” “I had an inkling that the madwoman in the attic was not quite as fictional as the world might have hoped.” “‘Groovy.’ I had never used that word before, and I took a moment to recover from its unfortunate appearanc