The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell, Book Review

In Catherine Lowell’s debut novel The Madwoman Upstairs, the only remaining descendant of the Brontë family embarks on a modern-day literary scavenger hunt (with the help of a handsome but inscrutable Oxford professor) to find the family’s long-rumored secret estate, using only the clues her eccentric father left behind, and the Brontës’ own novels.

The Madwoman Upstairs Book Synopsis

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

Samantha Whipple is used to stirring up speculation wherever she goes. Since her eccentric father’s untimely death, she is the presumed heir to a long-rumoured 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 enrols at Oxford University and long lost objects from the 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 decoding the clues hidden within the Brontës’ own works.

(Touchstone, 2016)

Genre: Historical, Literature, Drama, Romance

Disclosure: If you click a link in this post we may earn a small commission to help offset our running costs.


First up a confession… I know Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights are on practically every ‘books every adult should read’ list, but I haven’t read them. I’ve only watched their movie adaptations – the darker, moodier ones from years past. The Wuthering Heights of my memories features a young Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche and Kate Bush’s stirring debut single of the same name.

So why am I rocking the foundations of my bookish credibility by admitting this? To make it clear that you do not need to be a Bronte aficionado to enjoy The Madwoman Upstairs.

With the historic Oxford setting and the mention of a literary scavenger hunt, I approached this novel with high expectations.

A prickly character

The only remaining Bronte descendent, Samantha Whipple, is a prickly character, that I took a while to warm to. Her defensive, ‘smart’ discourse was a little too snarky (unresolved teenage angst) for my tastes at first. However, as Lowell gradually revealed the full extent of Samantha’ unusual upbringing, my feelings began to thaw. Around the same time, Professor James Orville entered stage left (a worthy combatant to that snark) and the investigation into Bronte legacy began in earnest.

“I call that creativity,” Orville said. “The purpose of literature is to teach you how to THINK, not how to be practical. Learning to discover the connective tissue between seemingly unrelated events is the only way we are equipped to understand patterns in the real world.”

The Madwoman Upstairs - Catherine Lowell

I found the academic debates and tension between the pair compelling (page-turning even), but it may not be to everyone’s tastes. This novel is not romantic in a modern sense. It is nostalgic, brooding and the weight of history and repression of feelings are central to this story… as it was in the lives and novels of the Brontes.

A bookish treat

Catherine Lowell’s The Madwoman Upstairs is filled with literary references and parallels that will delight book lovers. Looking past several points of implausibility, I admired the complexity of the mystery crafted and the way disagreements on literary interpretation are used as a vehicle to arm the reader with the information necessary to solve it.

“My father used to say that all protagonists were versions of the author who wrote them—even if it meant the author had to acknowledge a side of himself that he did not know existed. It just required courage.”

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell is an entertaining trip down literary memory lane.

BOOK RATING: The Story 3.5 / 5 ; The Writing 3.5 / 5

Get your copy of The Madwoman Upstairs from:

Amazon Bookshop US Book Depository Kobo Booktopia AU
OR listen to the audiobook FREE with Audible’s Trial (check eligibility)

More The Madwoman Upstairs book quotes:

On life,

“I realized that my life of late had consisted of far too much dialogue and not enough exposition. I imagined an angry, bespectacled English teacher slashing his pen through the transcript of my life, wondering how someone could possibly say so much and think so little.” 

on literary crushes,

“Are there any leading men in your life?”… “Several, but they’re all fictional.” 

and on women being imprisoned by society.

“If, however, we treat the madwoman as a sane woman who has been locked up, then we force ourselves to acknowledge what did exist in the Brontës’ world: generations of women, who, silent and confined, reined in their passions and lived lives of seclusion.” 

About the Author, Catherine Lowell

Catherine Lowell received her BA in Creative Writing from Stanford University, where she was awarded the Mary Steinbeck Dekker Award for Fiction and received two Stanford University Arts Grants, and currently lives in New York City. The Madwoman Upstairs is her first novel.

In her acknowledgements, Catherine refers to a much-loved author of mine, Jennifer DuBois as one of the best writers and teachers she knows.

* My receiving a copy of The Madwoman Upstairs from the publisher for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions in the review above.