Samantha Whipple, last remaining descendent of the Bronte family is a twenty year old undergrad, an American starting her first term at the fictional Old College, Oxford. It is interesting to me, as a Brit who has lived in Oxford, to see how she views the strange collegiate traditions she encounters, some of which are true to life, others overdrawn to aid the fiction that Lowell creates to fuel the environment that pushes Samantha to some edge of sanity.
The book will ring true for students of English Literature, and perhaps any student who has wrangled with a tutor or professor who starts from the position that they are irrefutably right and anything that you know already is worthless. All Samantha’s studies of literature seem to count for nothing with her tutor, James Orville. The book follows Samantha through her first two terms as she unravels her previous experience and deals with the death of her father, while wrestling with the issue of authorial intent: when reading a book, do you need to know about the author and their intentions to understand the story, or should a novel stand alone ? If you search for Catherine Lowell online, there is a scant one liner: “Catherine Lowell received her BA in Creative Writing from Stanford University and currently lives in New York City.” Lowell is giving us no clues to her intent, leaving us to understand that she follows the New Criticism belief that authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding. We have to do the work ourselves as readers. In the book, we learn how Samantha’s father, a man who sprinkles aliases into his every day life, obsessively reads the works of the Bronte sisters, looking for enlightenment in their words, the message within the story. In contrast, his old enemy Sir John Barker has thrown over an academic career and become curator of the Bronte Museum at the Old Parsonage in Haworth. His obsession is in tracking down the ‘Vast Bronte Estate’, every quill or handkerchief used by the family, every dress or painting or manuscript. These two characters stand for the different sides of the debate: does the quill or the first draft of Withering Heights tell us more than the book itself?
Samantha becomes swept up in a posthumous treasure hunt, spurred on by obscure and lateral clues from her late father. The man who taught her than she should look only at the books, draws her on to find a mystery treasure, some part of the Bronte estate that Sir John Barker has made his life’s work to find. Of course, she voyages to Haworth, and perhaps unsurprisingly finds that her ‘ancestral home’, which she imagined many times as a child, does not hold the secret she is looking for.
This is a clever book, but perhaps Samantha’s madness doesn’t go far enough nor with enough conviction. I did keep reading right to the end, keen to find out exactly what Samantha had been left in her father’s will. Do we find out which side is correct about authorial intent: I lean to the approach of deconstruction, that authorial intent is unknowable and possibly irrelevant. What we learn from a text depends on an interaction between our life experience and the words on the page. We may psychoanalyse exactly what the author intended, but we can never know the answer. When I write myself I write with one idea in mind, then see others that emerge as the text sits on the page, some of which may only be apparent to me as author months or years after writing. I have completed The Madwoman Upstairs with the sense that it is time to go back and reread the works of the Bronte sisters, which is a worthwhile gift and perhaps one that this author did intend.
The Madwoman Upstairs costs around £13.50 for a hardback and £7.50 on Kindle at time of writing and is released on 3 March 2016