The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

bertha and jane

Bertha and Jane by Monro S. Orr

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.


Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester

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: And also for The Wide Sargasso Sea, an imagined retelling of Bertha Mason’s story from her own viewpoint, also with music and recipes:

The Madwoman Upstairs’ publisher, Simon & Schuster, provides a book discussion group guide with questions should you be so inclined:


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:

Shepherd’s Pie. One of my favorites.

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:

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:


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.


The Bronte Sisters by Patrick Branwell Bronte

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.

Happy Reading!








Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates


What is it about the phrase “Let’s Play a Game” that sets your nerves on edge when you hear it in a movie or read it in a book? That moment when the computer says “Global Thermonuclear War,” in War Games . . . you know something horrible is about to happen right?

In Black Chalk, it’s when university friends Chad, Jack and Jolyon attend something called the Freshers Fair, an event for students to learn about the various societies they can join for involvement in everything from tiddlywinks to socks. The three despair of finding anything worth their time and attention until Chad sees a stand labelled “Game Soc(iety).

“I have a proposition for you,” [Chad] said, “for an entirely original and inventive game.” No one from Game Soc flinched. “But I can turn straight around right no, if you don’t think original and inventive ideas are your thing.” He lifted his hands and made to leave.

“Continue,” said Tallest.

“Six people, a number of rounds, each one separated by a week. A game of consequences, consequences which must be performed to prevent elimination. These consequences take the form of psychological dares, challenges designed to test how much embarrassment and humiliation the players can stand. Throughout the rounds players who fail to perform their consequences are eliminated until only one is left standing.”

Jolene moved forward to stand shoulder to shoulder with his friend. “The game takes place in utter secrecy,” he said . . .

“So why, may I ask, are you doing to us?” said Tallest.

“Funding,” said Chad.

Game Soc’s representatives exchanged looks, then quickly and silently reached their decision. It was the first time any of them had smiled and now all three of them were smiling unanimously.

“How does ten thousand pounds sound?” said Tallest.

What could go wSEP Pranksrong? Six college students in the throes of self-actualization, raging hormones, insecurity and angst agree to play a game in which the goal is to test how much embarrassment and humiliation each player can stand.

Compare it to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or Will Lavender’s Dominance, intellectual thrillers set on and about college campuses.

In reviewing Black Chalk for NPR, Jason Sheehan said, “I don’t want to say a word.” He explains it is because he loved Black Chalk so much, he doesn’t want to ruin the surprise for any reader, but rather allow each reader to “suck it down in one breath, like a lungful of dark water,” as he did.

Black Chalk effectively pits the six players of the game against one another, against the game itself, against Game Soc and against themselves. But Christopher Yates pits the reader against Black Chalk. Even as the students play, the reader is engaged in an ever-increasingly staked battle to figure out just what the heck is going on.

To say more, as Jason Sheehan so eloquently put it, might prevent you from experiencing “one of the greatest surprise reveals I’ve witnessed. A twist that’s like screwing your head on backwards.”


The author

Unlike many novelists, Yates (trained as a lawyer at Oxford University then worked as a puzzle editor in London) treats internet visitors to his website to the first two chapters of Black Chalk, for free. Undoubtedly confident that after you’ve read the first two chapters you will be hooked enough to buy the book. I share his confidence and even if you don’t read the first two chapters free, read the book.

The website ALSO includes four Black Chalk themed puzzles, photos of himself, his wife and his adorable dog Mabel, and . . . wait for it . . . a PLAYLIST! I haven’t found any recipes though. The website:

Seriously, choose this book for your book club. You will love it!

“But it was never supposed to be that sort of game.”

(bwa ha ha ha ha ha!!!)


Given that the book’s primary locale is the fictional Pitt College, the majority of comestibles mentioned are liquid.

Champagne cocktails of Pol Roger with one sugar cube per glass

Cuba libres or rum, coke and limes

Pints of ale


Kir Royales of cava and creme de cassis

Whiskeyblack chalk

 But there is a scene early on with a meal that I can quote here without violating my pledge not to spoil the book.

Jolyon climbed onto his bed to reach his window. On the ledge outside was a jug that matched the teacups. He brought the jug to the coffee table, removed a piece of foil from the top and poured milk into the teacups. Then he poured tea. The spout of the pot extended from a hole in the tea cosy.

“If I were a condemned man,” said Jolynon, “I’d definitely choose eggs for my last supper.”

Jolene put the breakfast in front of Chad. The egg was white and pure on the perfect golden toasts. He handed Chad a fork and put a small wooden dish of pyramid-shaped salt crystals on the coffee table between them. Then Jolyon went at his own egg with a fork, mashing it and spreading it over the slice of toast. The yolk was a bright orange, halfway between liquid and set. “Now this is important,” said Jolyon. “And I’m never going to tell this to anyone but you.” Jolene gave Chad his conspiratorial look. And then he said, “It’s the twenty-seven seconds that’s the secret.” He finished by crumbling salt across the smeared egg and raised the prize up. “English bruschetta,” he announced, and took a large bite.

There is also mention of salted pistachios and pork.


BLACK CHALK, THE SOUNDTRACK from Christopher J. Yates’ webpage.

1. Everything In Its Right Place — Radiohead [New York section]   2. Everything Happens To Me — Chet Baker [Chad’s favourite]   3. I Wanna Be Adored — The Stone Roses [Oxford section]   4. Nelson Mandela — The Specials [Jolyon’s favourite]   5. New York, New York — Frank Sinatra [Oxford section]   6. Bigmouth Strikes Again — The Smiths [Jack’s favourite]   7. Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead — The Munchkins [Oxford section]   8. Every Day Is Like Sunday — Morrissey [Oxford section]   9. Hey Jude — The Beatles [Emilia’s favourite]   10. Can’t Stand Me Now — The Libertines [New York section]   11. Love Will Tear Us Apart — Joy Division [Dee’s favourite]   12. The Ace of Spades — Motorhead [Oxford section]   13. Step On – Happy Mondays [Mark’s favourite]   14. Many Shades of Black — The Raconteurs [New York section]

If you follow this link,, Yates explains the music. (YAY CHRISTOPHER!)


Jolyon – Alex Pettyfer

Chad — Jesse Plemons

Jack – Rupert Grint

Mark – James Buckley

Emilia — Bella Heathcote

Dee — Evanna Lynch

***Amazingly, this does not appear to be in development as a movie at least according to IMDB. It would make a great one!

Happy Reading!