Rating:

madwoman upstairs book coverReviewed by Nina Longfield

Samantha Whipple is a twenty-year-old first year student at Old College, Oxford. She enters school as something of a celebrity being the final descendant of the famed Bronte family line. Her first year at Oxford proves troubling since she doesn’t work well with others, tends towards her famous father’s reclusiveness, and is charged with solving a family mystery involving her father and his ancestors.

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell is, in a sense, a late bloomer’s coming of age tale. Samantha Whipple has an attitude that is flippant, fun, annoying, and back to fun. Her cynical nature is difficult to take at times, but it becomes apparent that this is her protection. She is awkward in all social situations and uses sarcasm as a shield. A lot of Samantha’s attitude goes back to her solitary upbringing and home schooling by her reclusive novelist father. His sole obsession was delving into his ancestors’ famous novels. Deconstructing the works of the Bronte’s ends up being all Samantha knows about her father. His sudden death when she was fifteen threw her isolated life into a spin. Five years later, as her father’s marked up copies of the Bronte works begin appearing at her room in the Old College tower, she seems to be taking on her father’s obsession for puzzling out a supposed family mystery through the famous tomes.

Samantha is not alone in her studies. Her college tutor, Doctor Orville, attempts to lead Samantha through her English literature studies and away from her obsession. Feeling he is outweighed in his attempts to provide a wide branching literary study, he begins to help Samantha decipher the books beyond her father’s teachings.

From the outset, The Madwoman Upstairs is a mystery. The reader is led through the series of events that seem to be purposefully isolating Samantha. This mystery also entails a traipse through literary history, specifically nineteenth century and Bronte history. As Samantha digs deeper into the past, she begins to dig herself into her present with the help of her estranged mother and her tutor. As she progresses, it is unknown if she will let go of the past or let it subdue her as it did her father.

Catherine Lowell’s The Madwoman Upstairs is a well researched literary mystery. This is an inventive and truly imaginative story. Lowell’s writing is clean and flows well leading the reader quickly through the narrative. Her protagonist, Samantha, is an interesting character who is likable yet the reader can see that Samantha has a great deal of maturing required to bring her around to her actual life.

The Madwoman Upstairs ended up being a fun literary romp and coming of age tale. The reader doesn’t need to be an English major or even have read the Bronte’s works to enjoy The Madwoman Upstairs. This novel stands on its own while shedding a little fictional light into the Bronte’s works.


Nina Longfield is a writer living in Oregon’s fertile wine country. When she is not reading or writing in her spare time, Nina enjoys hiking in the hills surrounding her cabin.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Touchstone. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.