There’s just something about a married man who keeps his mad wife in an attic that is so … alluring. Since Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre in 1847, it has become the unlikely favorite book of so many generations of young women.
“A new adaptation of Jane Eyre came out every year, and every year it was exactly the same. 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 Rochester, and Judi Dench would play everyone else.”
from The Madwoman Upstairs.
Capitalizing on that fascination, in The Madwoman Upstairs Catherine Lowell presents Samantha Whipple, “the last Bronte,” whose famous-novelist-father has left her the Bronte inheritance, the “Warnings of Experience.” Samantha, however, must be able to find her legacy. And as a student in love with her professor at the Old College at Oxford University, it’s hard to find time to hunt for the fusty old things, organize her social life, and survive the dreary tower in which she’s, mysteriously, been assigned to live much less the unknown “Warnings of Experience.”
Anne Bronte, author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights), Charlotte, and brother Branwell, all come in for examination in The Madwoman Upstairs as do their literary works.
Despite an undergraduate degree in English Literature, I found myself surprised by the amount of information I did not know contained in The Madwoman Upstairs. Not only Bronte trivia, but literary criticism, theory, debate, history. I suspect Ms. Lowell of having a Bronte dissertation hiding in her past. But the novel is not all Bronte. There is an original mystery here and Samantha Whipple sets out to solve it, whether her hot (think Fassbender as Rochester) professor, James Timothy Orville, wants her to or not.
Lowell’s novel supposes that much of the inspiration for Anne, Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s novel came from real incidents in their own life. She postulates that brother Branwell may have fought a fire similar to the scene in Jane Eyre.
“Was that Grace Poole? and is she possessed with a devil?” thought I. Impossible now to remain longer by myself: I must go to Mrs. Fairfax. I hurried on my frock and a shawl; I withdrew the bolt and opened the door with a trembling hand. There was a candle burning just outside, and on the matting in the gallery. I was surprised at this circumstance: but still more was I amazed to perceive the air quite dim, as if filled with smoke; and, while looking to the right hand and left, to find whence these blue wreaths issued, I became further aware of a strong smell of burning.
Something creaked: it was a door ajar; and that door was Mr. Rochester’s, and the smoke rushed in a cloud from thence. I thought no more of Mrs. Fairfax; I thought no more of Grace Poole, or the laugh: in an instant, I was within the chamber. Tongues of flame darted round the bed: the curtains were on fire. In the midst of blaze and vapour, Mr. Rochester lay stretched motionless, in deep sleep.
“Wake! wake!” I cried. I shook him, but he only murmured and turned: the smoke had stupefied him. Not a moment could be lost: the very sheets were kindling, I rushed to his basin and ewer; fortunately, one was wide and the other deep, and both were filled with water. I heaved them up, deluged the bed and its occupant, flew back to my own room, brought my own water-jug, baptized the couch afresh, and, by God’s aid, succeeded in extinguishing the flames which were devouring it.
The hiss of the quenched element, the breakage of a pitcher which I flung from my hand when I had emptied it, and, above all, the splash of the shower-bath I had liberally bestowed, roused Mr. Rochester at last. Though it was now dark, I knew he was awake; because I heard him fulminating strange anathemas at finding himself lying in a pool of water.
In the end, Lowell’s story is Samantha Whipple’s search for her own ending, through the lives of her ancestors. And quite a lovely one it is. Lots of good discussion points, both about The Madwoman Upstairs and the Bronte books. I highly recommend.
I’ve previously provided a bookclub blueprint for Jane Eyre which contains some additional information and recipes: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/08/24/plain-jane-jane-eyre-by-charlotte-bronte/. And also for The Wide Sargasso Sea, an imagined retelling of Bertha Mason’s story from her own viewpoint, also with music and recipes: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/mrs-rochesters-room-of-her-own-wide-sargasso-sea-by-jean-rhys/.
The Madwoman Upstairs’ publisher, Simon & Schuster, provides a book discussion group guide with questions should you be so inclined: http://books.simonandschuster.com/The-Madwoman-Upstairs/Catherine-Lowell/9781501124211/reading_group_guide#rgg
There isn’t a whole lot of food mentioned in The Woman Upstairs, leaving ample room for creativity. There’s a scene where Hot Teacher makes breakfast for Samantha but my book club would want a bit more. So my menu would be British pub food followed by a tribute to Jane Eyre.
Fish and Chips. Here’s a recipe from British chef Jamie Oliver: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/jamie-oliver/fish-and-chips-recipe.html
Shepherd’s Pie. One of my favorites. http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/easy_shepherds_pie/
And for dessert, what could be more appropriate than a bit of a flaming dish. Just be sure not to light the bed curtains on fire. Here’s a recipe for Bananas Foster, with video demonstration: http://foodwishes.blogspot.com/2014/11/bananas-foster-americas-favorite.html
Update: My long-time book club met last night and our lovely hostess served Shepherd’s Pie, roast chicken and a wonderful ice box cake — inspired by the cake Orville pulled out of the freezer to feed Samantha. She found the recipe on line and it was so good, I wanted to share it with you: http://www.completelydelicious.com/2014/06/smores-no-bake-icebox-cake.html
There are soundtracks available on Amazon and iTunes for multiple movie renditions of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and a BBC-production of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I previewed The Tenant music and that’s what I would use. It’s haunting, wild, passionate in places, and since much of The Madwoman Upstairs focuses on Anne Bronte, seems most appropriate.
Our book club also had some fun discussions about movie casting. The biggest problem we had in casting was Orville. Maybe Andrew Garfield? My suggestion of Benedict Cumberbatch met with resounding “nooooooos.”
Samantha – we didn’t actually discuss Samantha. But I think Hailee Steinfeld would be perfect.
Rebecca – the suggestion of Julianne Moore was made. I saw her more as Charlotte Rampling.
Sir John Booker – Ian McKellen.
Samantha’s mom – I don’t know why, but I see Helena Bonham-Carter
Samantha’s dad – Again, I’m not sure why, but when I read I was picturing Kenneth Branagh.