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!








Post-Arthurian Apocalyptic Fantasy: The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Failure of Sir Gawain by William Morris

The Failure of Sir Gawain by William Morris

I’ve struggled for two days with what to say about The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel.  I guess I will begin here:  it’s a knights and dragons fantasy, an Arthurian romance, a Medieval adventure, a journey, a treatise on love and loss, an allegory, a meditation on war and peace and success and failure.  It’s beautiful, it’s sad, it’s occasionally funny.

As the best novels do, The Buried Giant begins with a journey.  Axl and Beatrice emerge from a barely-remembered and undefined term of darkness in their buried city with a plan to take a journey.

“You’ve long set your heart against it, Axl, I know.  But it’s time now to think on it anew.  There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay.”

“A journey, princess?  What sort of journey?”

“A journey to our son’s village.  It’s not far, husband, we know that.  Even with our slow steps, its a few days’ walk at most, a little way east beyond the Great Plain.  And the spring will soon be upon us.”

The journey is prompted by the couple’s wish to remember.  Not only Axl and Beatrice, but their entire country, where Britons live shoulder to shoulder in an uneasy peace with Saxons, is surrounded in a mist of forgetfulness.  “We can’t even remember [the days when we were foolish young lovers].  We don’t remember our fierce quarrels or the small moments we enjoyed and treasured.  We don’t remember our son or why he’s away from us,” Beatrice frets.

The setting of the novel is somewhere in Southern England between the fall of the Roman empire and the driving out of the Celtic tribes by the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh or eighth century.  To me, a big fan of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table, I imagine that Ishiguro chose Glastonbury as the setting for The Buried Giant.  Glastonbury has long been linked to Arthurian legend and particularly to Avalon, the isle of the dead, where the spirits of the deceased would dwell.  In a story told by Caradoc of Llancarfan, Melwas, king of the “Summer Country,” kidnapped Guinevere while she was a-maying.  It took Arthur an entire year to find her and then he and his army attached Melwas’ stronghold but it was not until Gildas, the Christian cleric said to reside in Glastonbury, negotiated a peace treaty with Melwas that she was released.  (Another version has Lancelot responsible for her rescue and thus begins their affair).  King Arthur and the Gods of the Round Table, David Dom ( 2013).

This becomes more important, perhaps, when the first person Axl and Beatrice meet on their journey is a boatman and one of his former, would-be passengers.

“Good lady, the island this old woman speaks of is no ordinary one.  We boatmen have ferried many there over the years, and by now there will be hundreds inhabiting its fields and woods.  But it’s a place of strange qualities, and one who arrives there will walk among its greenery and trees in solitude, never seeing another soul.  Occasionally on a moonlit night or when a storm’s ready to break, he may sense the presence of his fellow inhabitants.  But most days, for each traveller, its as thought he’s the island’s only resident.  I’d happily have ferried this woman, but when she understood she wouldn’t be with her husband, she declared she didn’t care for such solitude and refused to go.”

Their next stop, in a Saxon village, brings them in contact with Wistan, a Saxon soldier, and Edwin, a Saxon teenager, recently rescued by Wistan from something terrible which may or may not have involved a dragon’s unhealing wound.  Wistan and Edwin will travel with Beatrice and Axl to find none other than Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew and the last surviving knight of his realm. As they quartet commences to fulfill a quest which now includes slaying a dragon as well as finding a son, they meet crones, monks, secret fortresses, pixies, hidden tunnels, treacherous allies, and ultimately, one very sad dragon.  Essentially, one episode of Game of Thrones, I take it.

From Disney's Sleeping Beauty

From Disney’s Sleeping Beauty

Ishiguro is a master storyteller and draws the reader through the landscape with increasing anxiety for our protagonists.  First Wistan, then Galahad, claim to recognize Axl from the distant past.  Axl himself seems to remember a time before the mist when he may have been a man of some importance, a man negotiating a peace as suggested by the meaning of his name.  Beatrice, whose own name means traveler, recalls the journey of Dante’s Beatrice in The Divine Comedy, where Beatrice guides Dante through the celestial spheres of Heaven.

Or maybe I am digging too deep or imprinting my own interpretation.  Alex Preston wrote in his review for The Guardian:

It is possible to construct specific interpretations for Ishiguro’s novel. One thinks of Primo Levi in 1948, feeling that If This Is a Man, his memoir of the Holocaust, was a “discourtesy” in the forward-looking postwar world. We can view the “buried giant” as the way history has been swept over any number of genocides, from Armenia to Rwanda. It may even be an explanation for the disappearance of the Britons – killed not by marauding Saxons, but by their own guilt.

Focusing on one single reading of its story of mists and monsters, swords and sorcery, reduces it to mere parable; it is much more than that. It is a profound examination of memory and guilt, of the way we recall past trauma en masse. It is also an extraordinarily atmospheric and compulsively readable tale, to be devoured in a single gulp. The Buried Giant is Game of Thrones with a conscience, The Sword in the Stone for the age of the trauma industry, a beautiful, heartbreaking book about the duty to remember and the urge to forget.

Neil Gamian, master storyteller himself, reviewed The Buried Giant for The New York Times:

Alfred Kappes, 1880

Alfred Kappes, 1880

Ishiguro is not afraid to tackle huge, personal themes, nor to use myths, history and the fantastic as the tools to do it. “The Buried Giant” is an exceptional novel, and I suspect my inability to fall in love with it, much as I wanted to, came from my conviction that there was an allegory waiting like an ogre in the mist, telling us that no matter how well we love, no matter how deeply, we will always be fallible and human, and that for every couple who are aging together, one or the other of them — of us — will always have to cross the water, and go on to the island ahead and alone.

My recommendation:  read it.  I think you will enjoy it.  And I think there is quite a bit to discuss.  Lots of symbolism.  And meaning of life.  And if you have married couples, you can debate whether you will be able to both cross the lake and be able to stay together once you reach the island.  Just don’t blame me for the fight!


I’m choosing a menu taken directly from the pages of the book.  Beatrice and Axl are guests of village elder Ivor at the Saxon village.  He serves them bread, honey, biscuits, jugs of milk and water and a tray of poultry cuts.

Bachelor Biscuits — my favorites (and easy)

2 c. self rising flour
1/4 c. shortening
1 c. milk
Preheat oven to 450 to 475 degrees. Place flour in mixing bowl; add shortening. With pastry blender or blending fork, cut shortening into flour until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.Gently push the flour mixture to the edges of the bowl, making a well in the center. Blend the milk with a fork until dough leaves sides of bowl. Do not overmix.

Turn dough onto lightly floured surface. Knead gently 10 to 12 strokes. On lightly floured surface, pat or roll dough to slightly more than 1/2 inch thickness. Cut with 2 or 2 1/2 inch cutter, dipping cutter into flour between cuts.

 Drop dough from tablespoon onto greased baking sheet; bake 6-8 minutes til golden. Makes 12.
Bourbon-Honey Chicken
1/2 Cup Bourbon
1/2 Cup Honey
1 Tablespoon Soy Sauce
Black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
Increase marinade in proportion if necessary for increased amount of chicken.  Marinate chicken for 6-8 hours in the refrigerator.  Then grill if possible, or oven cook at 375 degrees for 20-30 minutes (without bone) and finish with a couple minutes under the broiler to get caramelization.
My choice would be the soundtrack from 1994’s Excalibur.  Trevor Jones’ compositions written for the film were a mix of post-Romantic and new age material, interspersed with and decidedly antiquated folk-based sounds, pieces for tin whistle juxtaposed with works for eerie female chorus and strange musical oscillations; other works intermingle folk and classical material of extraordinary density and power, according to reviewer Bruce Eder.  There’s also some Wagner in there!
Given that this is the 7th or 8th century, 50 would be ancient.  So . . .
AXL — Daniel Day-Lewis
Beatrice — Ah, you know who would be perfect for this?  Vivien Leigh.  Alas.  Helena Bonham Carter.
Wistan — Alexander Skarsgard
Edwin — Isaac Hempstead White (from Game of Thrones)
Sir Gawain — Sean Connery (who else?)