Riffs on the Bronte novels seem to be everywhere at the moment. What’s a reader to do? Get reading!
Madwoman Upstairs by an impossibly young, talented writer Catherine Lowell reads like a book by an impossibly young, talented writer. It’s raw, over-the-top, and Romantic-ally intellectual. That last phrase makes no sense, of course.
What I mean is that the author can’t resist giving us some heady stuff she probably first discussed in a college lit course. Here, intellectual. literary discussions between her two protagonists forges the path for falling in love. That’s what our author knows at this point in her life.
Better though is the literary mystery that allows Samantha, the last living Bronte, to learn about herself, her relationship with her father, and the nature of reality. Yes, the book goes to these heady places by the end, as Sam understands that “The fiction is more real than the reality.”
Telling you how she comes to this conclusion would spoil the mystery, and the fun. Let’s just say it has something to do with living in an unheated tower at Oxford, a haunting painting, a long-lost diary, reading Bronte novels, and falling in love. To take any of it too seriously would be just too postmodern.
Gothic and witty? Not two words that usually go together. Unless you’re thinking of Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye.
Instead of Jane Eyre’s “Reader, I married him,” a line repeated in The Madwoman Upstairs, here, it’s “Reader, I murdered him.”
And so, we get the story of this Jane that parallels the fictional Jane Eyre (another postmodern riff). How she loses her mother and goes to live with Aunt Patience, who is anything but. How she’s told to control her passions and becomes surrounded by death. The loathsome cousin and loathsome boarding school. You remember it all, I’m sure.
The recalling of the plot structure is less interesting, until…the plot takes a big turn onto its own adventure. That first murder–the loathsome cousin–was justified, the Feminist would say, and we’re off to the races. No, no, I won’t tell you more!
This book does quite a bit of nodding to Charles Dickens, as well as Charlotte Bronte. I also think it owes something to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for its adherence to plot while simultaneously borrowing contemporary sensibilities. And the fun (even moreso the better you know the source material) comes just watching it all happen. What if Jane’s ‘true nature’ were…to murder with good intention? That’s certainly one way to deal with life’s problems!
Another big part of the fun here is the writing, approrpriating the Romantic style. With exuberance. When’s the last time you read a book that included the word ‘delinquitorious”?
Nelly Dean by Alison Case is my least favorite of the three, perhaps because Wuthering Heights is my least favorite Bronte novel.
Still looking at a well-worn plot, as over-the-top ridiculous as it is, can be fun from the perspective of another character. Here, it’s the miserable, but loyal, servant Ellen Dean. If you like the below-stairs perspective and jive on “Downton Abbey,” this book might just be for you.
Yes, Nelly basically narrates the original. Now, you can get more of her first-hand account and the story of her life, including her devotion to Hareton. The role of Heathcliff? His arrival ended Nelly’s childhood.
Her account, as imagined by the most mature author of the three and an English professor inspired by her students’ inquiring minds, will win you to Nelly’s side. Was that a convoluted enough sentence to be worthy of the Bronte’s?
The book I haven’t gotten from the library yet is Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre. After years of Jane Austen-alia, it’s been fun to immerse in some Bronte-mersion. Now back to the 21st century…