Friday 30 September 2016

Books: A timely reminder of the sheer brilliance of the Brontë sisters

Fiction: The Madwoman Upstairs, Catherine Lowell, Quercus, hdbk, 416 pages, €25.50

Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30

Intoxicating: Catherine Lowell has fallen under the Brontë's spell.
Intoxicating: Catherine Lowell has fallen under the Brontë's spell.
The Madwoman Upstairs, Catherine Lowell

Brontë. One word conjures up so many images. Cathy and Heathcliff roaming the Yorkshire moors in the twisted tale of love and revenge that is Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre's passion for Mr Rochester in the eponymous gothic classic.

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Emily and Charlotte are the Brontë sisters revered by so many for their masterpieces. This year, thousands more words will be written about two of the daughters of Patrick, an Anglican clergyman from Co Down, because 2016 is the 200th anniversary of Charlotte's birth and so is being celebrated as the year of the Brontës.

But what of their younger sibling, Anne, the third author in this talented family? To the unenlightened, she seems pale, colourless even, compared to her siblings with their passionate outpourings. But in her entertaining debut novel, The Madwoman Upstairs, Catherine Lowell casts Anne in a very different light.

In this, Samantha Whipple is the last remaining descendent of the Brontë family. Her father, Tristan, who was a renowned author in his own right, died in a fire when Samantha was 15 and she barely sees her mother who has moved to Paris.

Before his death, Tristan had told his daughter that she would inherit 'The Warnings of Experience'. He neglected to explain what that actually meant, however, and Samantha has since become the sole focus of the rumours about a spectacular, hidden Brontë treasure trove of paintings, letters and unpublished manuscripts.

This intensifies when she enrols in Oxford to study literature and literally becomes the girl in the tower, her living quarters disturbed on a weekly basis by Brontë fans on tour. She is the focus of unflattering articles in the student newspaper and unwanted attention from her father's nemesis.

When Samantha does finally receive her legacy, it turns out to be a mere bookmark. But its arrival seems to be the catalyst for objects from her past to mysteriously reappear, beginning with her father's copy of Jane Eyre, which should have been destroyed in the house fire along with him.

This leads Samantha to embark on a literary treasure hunt as she tries to discover the true nature of her inheritance, using the Brontë novels for inspiration. Her father spent his life analysing the books of his ancestors word by word in an attempt to decode them. But, interestingly, Samantha's main focus is Anne's two novels.

Anne's first book, Agnes Grey, took inspiration from her experiences as a governess - shades of Jane Eyre, perhaps - while The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a tale of alcoholism, debauchery and one unusual woman, was a phenomenal success when it was published in 1848, selling out in six weeks. Perhaps we might know so much more about the youngest Brontë sister if its re-publication had not been prevented by Charlotte after Anne's untimely death.

Samantha is grudgingly helped in her quest by her handsome but inscrutable tutor, James Timothy Orville III, despite their turbulent relationship. But James has secrets of his own.

Lowell researched the Brontës as part of her thesis and she has fallen under their intoxicating spell, interspersing her novel with homages to their work. But it is equally clear that she feels sorry for poor, neglected Anne, overshadowed by her brilliant, creative sisters.

The Madwoman in the Attic is an intriguing, entertaining debut, which doesn't easily fit into any one genre, thanks to Lowell's somewhat sarcastic style. Samantha could be a Brontë heroine, the lonely girl hoping that understanding her illustrious ancestors will fill the gap in her heart - and bring back her father.

Ironically, though, for a book that focuses so much on what authors really mean and how to read a novel - both Samantha's father and her tutor try to teach her this skill - it is best enjoyed without delving too deeply. There are no hidden meanings here, just a reminder of the brilliance of the Brontës.

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