The Madwoman Upstairs, Catherine Lowell (or Valancy, now forever afeard of attics….)

We are a passionate bunch here at BlueCastle. We love and loathe in equal measure.

Topping the list of most hated include:

  • Moustachioed heroes. (I may include the recently read Karen Robard Wild Orchid’s Max as my ONLY current exception to this rule.) Moustachioed heroes be like:

  • Daylight Savings. Please tell me how this is STILL a thing. (Yes I enjoy being jet-lagged, grumpy and sleep deprived whilst trying to remember how to change my car clock & microwave back and/or forwards.)
  • Burnt popcorn. I don’t think this needs any explanation…
  • Music Elitists. (I don’t care. I WILL like everything from the 80s including Tears for Fears and The Human League and no long-suffering eyebrow quirk is going to change that!)

On the other end of the spectrum are the best things in life:

  • Books.
  • Books about Books about Books.
  • Bookish mysteries  and literary versions of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (which I have written about here)
  • Clever, wry, funny quotable books.
  • All things Bronte. (which I have enumerated AT length about here)

And now I have added Catherine Lowell to my list, because in a SINGLE novel, she managed to include those 5 dot points.

Seriously. I didn’t think this was even possible. But it has happened.

Now – it is highly plausible that I was just in the right mood at the right time when this book serendipitously fell into my lap….Or it is just PLAIN good and everyone should join me in my newly started Catherine Lowell fan-club.

I will leave you to decide. (Some sort of spoilers)

Also Warning: There may be a dramatic over-use of quotes – but see 4th dot point above.)

The Madwoman Upstairs, Catherine Lowell

Samantha Whipple is the last remaining descendant of Bronte family. (Yes, THOSE Brontes).

Her father died tragically when she was young; her mother, having absconded long ago, has little to do with her. Samantha is rumoured to have been the sole recipient of a VAST and important literary estate, which is worth a fortune, but has never left the family. Samantha has no knowledge of this largesse, but it doesn’t stop the rumours from flying.

So what do potentially depressed and slightly unhinged descendants of the Brontes do? They enrol at Oxford University, of course (!).  The plot thickens however, when she starts receiving clues and old annotated novels from her father, which were supposedly all destroyed. Aided by a slightly reluctant Oxford professor (Orville), Samantha starts to run down the mystery, determined to find out the prize at end of the literary scavenger hunt.

ASIDE: If you do read this book – and don’t want to be ruined forever: don’t read the blurb – it is completely spoilerly – (Why do publishers keep doing this? These sadistic blurb-writers need to a die a thousand fiery deaths.)

How to explain Samantha: let me count the ways.

Samantha is a hot-mess of a character. I imagine in real life she would be chronically depressed and medicated up to her eyeballs. Luckily enough for us, she allowed to run rampant through Oxford. She is also pretty unlikeable. She broods. She prickles. She has less than zero social skills and apparently no filter on any of her verbal interactions. She was home-schooled. (I hear people going ‘ahhhh’)

She makes people uncomfortable.

She makes ME uncomfortable.

She is aggressive and belligerent, convinced she is always right and a little insane. And even though she professes a hostility towards the Brontes, deep down she is so intrinsically entwined with them I couldn’t tell where she started and they ended.

Yes, like cat-dog: only slightly more bookish

She is also hilarious, and vulnerable and caught between wanting to please her long-dead father, connect with her suddenly present mother and work out who exactly she is, in the midst of all the Brontes that consume her life. She is wry and acerbic, cruel and heartbreaking. She needs to be loved unconditionally and whole heartedly and more than anything, understood. An entire world takes place in her mind, that whilst we are privy to, no one else (apart from Orville, her difficult Professor) gets to see.

‘Our syllabus implied that I was studying critical theory and the masterpieces of the Western canon. What I was actually learning was the agony of speechlessness, and the exhaustion of contemplating my own idiocy.’

***

This particular morning, we were having an impromptu pop quiz on “An Essay on Criticism.” Orville had handed me the text the moment I arrived. Now, twenty minutes later, here I was, sweating dramatically.

“You’re still not telling me anything, Samantha,” he said pleasantly. I had a volume called English Masterpieces in my lap, which I had come to know as Hell: Volume I. In it was everything that I hated: “The Rape of the Lock,” “The Wasteland,” blurry pictures of Wordsworth, and four thousand and seventy two footnotes.

Orville asked, “What is ‘An Essay on Criticism’ about?”

I said, “Criticism.”

“Are you being sarcastic?”

“That depends. Was I right?”

***

‘Orville was testing me. I could feel it. My lips twitched but no sound emerged. Somewhere in my mind, Samantha Whipple was being terribly witty. It was a shame no one could hear her.’

Her counterpart, Orville is oh-so English, to Samantha’s rather awkward American. He is repressed and restrained. Handsome, yet unattractive. Demanding and maddening. At first he refuses to even discuss Bronte with Samantha. Then, when he reluctantly commits himself to the adventure, he does so with a brutally frank disbelief that forces Samantha to look further; seek more intuitively; rationalise her (fairly) subjective arguments.

I think there will be a tendency to liken Orville to Bronte heroes. But I didn’t find that the case at all. He is individual in his own right, and remember: Rochester and Heathcliffe were mostly NOT NICE people. They wanted what they wanted. They were determined to get it. They shook their fists at the heavens, damned it all to hell and then got all ropeable when it didn’t work out. Even Gilbert spent most of the time in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall trying to work out whether Heather really was a slut…

Conversely Orville CARES. He cares about his family. His job. Samantha. Also; he is FUNNY.

Orville was terrifyingly articulate. Had his entire vocabulary been limited to twelve words, I’m sure he would have found a way to include discursive.

***

‘He didn’t answer. He returned to the book. Focused men are painfully attractive.’

The romance (what little there is) is a slow-burn. But it is delicious. The way the attraction simmers between them is palpable and slightly uncomfortable. And their banter! The LINES. The WORDS. The BACK-CHAT. It’s glorious.

He was frowning. “What is the purpose of literature to you?” He might have been asking me if I believed in God.

“English is the study of what makes us human,” I said. It was a phrase I had learned from standardized tests.

“Human biology is the study of what makes us human,” he said. “Try again.”

“English is the study of civilization.”

“History is the study of civilization,” he corrected.

“English is the study of art.”

“Art is the study of art.”

I let out a flush of air. “English tells us stories.”

“If you can’t think of anything intelligent to say, don’t say anything at all.”

I shut my mouth. Orville leaned back in his chair. The waiter named Hugh returned and dumped two plates in front of us. On each one was a fish that looked like it had died tragically by drowning in its own fat. The scent was something savage—salty and prehistoric, wrought from an age in which people still ate each other. Hugh shoved a pint of ale on the table in a final act of punctuation.

***

“Have you ever been in love?” I asked. Orville looked back at me and let out a bark of a laugh. “I’m a great deal older than you are.”

“I mean, properly in love,” I clarified. “The kind of love you strangle people over.” The dishes gave a clank. I couldn’t tell whether that meant yes or no. I imagined a horde of secret lady admirers falling all over him, one by one, getting caught in the spokes of his bike as he moved around the city.

“You probably just haven’t met the right girl yet,” I said, giving a sweet smile. “When you meet someone you really want to kill, I bet you’ll know.”

***

“What are you watching?” I asked, nodding inside.

“Jane Eyre,” he said. “The new one.”

I said, “I haven’t watched a movie in years.”

“Are you asking for an invitation?”

“No,” I said. “No.”

“Was that a no or a yes?”

“No. Yes.”

“You’d like to watch it.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe.”

“Well, then, come in.”

“What?”

“I said, come in.”

“I—”

“Samantha.”

***

In the midst of this is the LITERATURE. I use capitals because if you aren’t feeling benevolent, it could feel self conscious, self aggrandising and pigeon-breasted in its obsequiousness. Lowell name-drops without remorse and throws down large literati conundrums that I haven’t thought about since school. If you aren’t completely rooting for Samantha at this point – you will HATE everything that is discussed ad infinitum.

Fortunately I loved Samantha. She is like a slightly feral cat that wants to be loved but only knows how to bite. Consequently her thoughts around these theories and ideas are uniquely thought-provoking.

I said, “Are all these books yours?”

“Of course they’re all mine.” His chin tilted up; he might have been speaking about his children….“Very well,” he said. “Let’s get on with it. Please tell me about ‘Porphyria’s Lover.’

“Sure,” I said. “It was pretty bad.”

“Pardon?”

“I thought it was a terrible poem. Really awful.”

He blinked. “Try to be more articulate, please.”

I waited. He waited. I crossed my legs. …“Bad,” I said. “It was a bad poem. Did you read my essay?”

Orville regarded me for a moment, then reached for the paper in front of him. He held my essay between his thumb and forefinger, like a dish towel. “You mean this?”

He tossed it to me. It landed with a small splat on my side of the table, like he was belching out the last of his lunch…red scribbles bled into the page. I picked it up. The first comment in the right-hand margin read, This is a pathetic sentence.

“Read me your opening paragraph,” he instructed.

“I can’t,” I said. “You’ve crossed out most of it.”

***

PLUS to make it just that little bit MORE amazeballs? There is SPECULATION about the Brontes. Their life, relationships, art. I love that it spends an inordinate amount of time on Anne Bronte – she always felt like the third of the three tenors – you know ‘Pavarotti.. Domingo.. and.. uh.. the other guy.’

 I for one, will never look at any of them the same again.

There were things that irked: Sometimes I felt like the writing was a pugnacious loud-mouthed person that was constantly criticising. People were ‘forcefully’ blonde; days were aggressively European. Things were small and absurd. Some lines were just a bit…lame (there was a bit about Odysseus and Google Maps that was plain aawwkward. But I was willing to overlook these because it was just such FUN.

TMWU hikes up its black graduation gown and runs loudly through hallowed halls. It walks on the grass. It makes me want to pick up those books and poems and stories just to see if I feel differently about them this time. It ROMPS. And at its core, it doesn’t take any of it very seriously at all.

Le Sigh indeed.

Sincerely,

Valancy: making t-shirts in all sizes for C.L Fan Club…any takers?

🙂

Header Image: Helen Sewell, Jane Eyre, Illustrated, OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS  •  1938: left to right: ‘Young Lady I am disposed to be gregarious and communicative tonight’; ‘Poor and obscure, and small and plain’; ‘It is nearly four o’clock in the afternoon sir’

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16 thoughts on “The Madwoman Upstairs, Catherine Lowell (or Valancy, now forever afeard of attics….)

  1. I love your posts, and this one is no exception, but I honestly don’t think I’m this book’s audience myself.

    (As I mentioned recently, I was not raised on English literature, which means I’m not only barely conversant on English classics, but also that I tend to be less…ah…well, just not as taken with them)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely understand – I think English Classics are an acquired taste. (Kind of like brussel sprouts really…) I had them stuffed down my throat all through my schooling years and loathed them with a vengeance; to the point that I vowed I wouldn’t touch them with a barge-pole once I graduated.
      And then one day, in 2004 I started watching BBC mini-series: Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South. It is SUCH a good adaptation. Richard Armitage as Thornton is 3 parts brooding, 1 part smouldering and 96 parts awesome in it; Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale is SO good. It made me want to read the book again. I LOVED it. And since then I have been slowly making my way back through them. Some are TERRIBLE and I still hate (*cough-dickens-cough*) but others are really good. Now I commit heresy, by usually watching the movie/TV adaptations first.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. The BBC adaptation of North & South with Richard Armitage is so utterly swoon worthy! :sigh: I have been meaning to read the novel, because a lot of people who liked the series mention that the novel is even better, because of the writing voice.

        Alas, I have probably about a thousand unread physical books (and dog only knows how many digital) already in my possession, which makes me hesitate mightily when thinking about acquiring something I feel, basically, lukewarm about.

        One of these days, though…one of these days!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I too love your posts, Valancy! This book sounds brilliant – and it could have been so different, heavy, even and ponderous. But Samantha and Orville (??) are the perfect characters with their off-beat interaction to bring that sense of not taking itself too seriously. I think reading the book would require a lot of energy but I don’t have to read it in one night, so yes, I am joining the fan club and plse send me a t-shirt!!

    Like

    1. Thank you! You are so right too – it could have been very heavy and cumbersome. But it wasn’t – it was light and deft and sweet – like a victoria sponge with lashings of jam and cream ! And it is a bit addictive – I read it through all in one go – I just WANTED to know what happens.
      (*pops t-shirt in the post*)
      🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. that cover is amazing!

    confession time: I passionately disliked Wuthering Heights. (though I have no memory of my reaction to Jane Eyre). And I’ve never read any of the other Brontes! it’s safe to say that I am most certainly not a Bronte fan. Which made me sure that this book isn’t my cup of tea. Till I read what you say about the slow burn romance which made want to AT LEAST TAKE A LOOK AT THE BOOK! Le Sigh.

    The cat-dog entwinement pic btw is PURRFECT! I am so in appreciation of the way your brain works. 😀

    this made me go both lol and arrrhhhhh: “Somewhere in my mind, Samantha Whipple was being terribly witty. It was a shame no one could hear her.” le sigh again. If only this did not happen at such a maddening frequency to me too! :p

    as always, your header images are amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t it a LOVELY cover? That was what pretty much sold me to start with…I actually just reread Wuthering Heights the other month – and I felt really different about it this time. I don’t know why I ever thought it was romantic – Heathcliffe is AWFUL and Cathy just as terrible… The whole thing is very victorian-melodrama. The second generation but: Cathy & Hareton – there was definitely a bit more of that love/hate spark – which made me wish the book had been more about them (they got like 3 measly chapters at the end!)
      The Orville/Samantha romance is really good – and funny! And there are SO MANY good lines – I had to place a quote embargo on myself otherwise it would have been COMPLETELY out of control.

      LOL – and I love cat-dog – I used to watch them years ago – plus it helps substantiate my belief that there is a comic/cartoon to explain every character and book.

      I too, suffer from the ability to be at my most witty and droll when in isolation…sigh – if only there were more people in my head (!)

      😀

      Liked by 1 person

    1. OOh – yes! I am in the same boat re Jane Eyre…died in the wool Team Rochester and all things Eyre (!)
      There seems to be a certain calibre of things involving the Brontes too that I am not often TOO disappointed…So I would love to know what you think of it!!
      🙂

      Like

  4. I’m with you on Daylight Savings but hot damn! I do love a good, fulsome mo! Think Eagles of Death Metal’s Jesse Hughes (phwoar!) rather than Brian Murphy in George and Mildred (eewwwww).

    Like

    1. LOL! George and Mildred!!! What is it about tall thin men with tall thin moustaches?? (*shudder*) I will concede to Jesse Hughes (Although it always does remind me a little of the Colonel (of KFC…)
      🙂

      Like

        1. LOL – That is HILARIOUS. And you make a very good argument..you may just have a new mo-proselyte. I was teetering on the edge with Karen Robard’s Wild Orchid – but your quotes have closed the deal: I can definitely see the bucaneer-y allure of the moustache.
          Chest hair though…? THAT is a completely different matter (!)
          🙂

          Like

            1. Whaaat?!!! (*Runs off to check immediately – promptly dies of laughter*)
              I can’t even – it was too awesome – especially the archeological insights.
              I don’t think I am ever going to look at a cover the same way again! LOL

              Like

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