Madam by Phoebe Wynne

Blurb

For 150 years, Caldonbrae Hall has loomed high above the Scottish cliffs as a beacon of excellence in the ancestral castle of Lord William Hope. A boarding school for girls, it promises that its pupils will emerge ‘resilient and ready to serve society.’

Into its illustrious midst steps Rose Christie, a 26-year-old Classics teacher and new head of department. Rose is overwhelmed by the institution: its arcane traditions, unrivalled prestige, and terrifyingly cool, vindictive students. Her classroom becomes her haven, where the stories of fearless women from ancient Greek and Roman history ignite the curiosity of the girls she teaches and, unknowingly, the suspicions of the powers that be. 

But as Rose uncovers the darkness that beats at the very heart of Caldonbrae , the lines between myth and reality grow ever more blurred. It will be up to Rose – and the fierce young women she has come to love – to find a way to escape the fate the school as in store for them, before it is too late. 

Book Stats

Format: ebook
Length: 404 pages
Published: 2021
Publisher: Quercus
Source: NetGalley

Goodreads

Content warnings: homophobia, child abuse (sexual), suicide, racism

Review

I received a free copy of this title from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinions. 

I requested Madam from NetGalley because I’m becoming more and more interested in books set in school settings – boarding schools, universities, regular schools… The dark academia vibe is appealing (probably because I’m becoming more entrenched in academics on a daily basis…). The blurb of Madam sounded very appealing: a school with a mystery at its heart. And for the first few chapters I found it hard to stop reading. What was the mystery? What was going to happen?

But a few chapters later and the cracks in the book’s façade were starting to show. Rose, the main character, is overdramatic, and doesn’t really grow or change throughout the story. Both her complaints about the lack of diversity at the school, and her comments on society’s attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community, seem at odds with the time period Wynne sets Madam in: the 1990s. Wynne writes Rose as if she’s a time traveller from our time, looking at the 1990s as if they should be the 2020s.

It certainly wasn’t acceptable to be gay in the 90s, especially as a teacher. Wynne does mention Section 28, which was in effect in this time. However, Rose’s belief that the world outside accepts gay people is at odds with this. Wynne seems to be trying to emphasise how out of touch the school is. But she seems to lose touch with the time period she’s writing in.

Some reviewers have suggested Rose has a white saviour attitude within the book. I can see where they’re coming from. There are some Japanese girls at the school, who the school treats appallingly. Coldonbrae Hall is an upper-class British school, and so it is functioning as it was meant to function: as a training ground for upper-class girls (who are always going to be mostly white). The Japanese girls are one of the school’s attempts to ‘modernise’. The school segregates them away from the rest of the girls, putting them in separate living quarters, and at points treats like an ‘exotic novelty’. 

Some of the descriptions Wynne uses to describe the Japanese girls are a little stereotypical. But I think she’s using the girls to show just how out of touch this school is and that treating them this way is wrong. This could however be seen as a racist depiction in its own right. Rose’s attitude within the book, both towards the Japanese girls, and towards the rest of the girls, is that she has to save them (because they’re so brainwashed they clearly can’t save themselves). Rose’s concerns about racial diversity feel forced, and performative. Reading that first mention of Rose’s worries about diversity made me wonder if early readers, Wynne’s agent or editor, had criticised her all-white cast. Perhaps she felt the need to deflect accusations of racism, or defend her neglect of people of colour. 

Which leads me to question the lack of diversity amongst the school’s other students. I’m sure there would have been wealthy families in this time period who weren’t white. Wynne specifically mentions in Madam that the girls come from a mixture of ‘old money’ (aristocrats, royalty, etc), and ‘new money’ (families who have risen up the social ranks to become wealthy through jobs like barristers, surgeons, business owners, etc). It’s very likely there were families who had become wealthy, who weren’t white, and would have fitted Coldonbrae’s wealthy criteria. The only explanation for their exclusion would be their race. Why isn’t this mentioned? Wynne simply never discusses the subject, or the question, in the novel. The only non-white characters are those whom the school uses for ‘novelty’ and cultural value. 

As it says in the blurb, Rose is a Classics teacher. Wynne herself has taught and studied Classics, and this does show in the narrative. There are multiple sections outside of the main narrative which explain stories of Greek/Roman classical women. It is these stories Rose is teaching her students in the book. Wynne seems to be using these examples of women who stood up to power in the ancient world as inspiration for the girls in the book to also stand up to power. This becomes especially true later in the narrative when Rose discovers that the girls actually have little choice as to what they are going to do with their lives. 

This is the strand of the narrative that I find the most interesting. I think if Wynne had gone in a different direction with both characterisation and plot, this could have made the book really stand out as a commentary on the class system within Britain, as well as female choice within that system. Unfortunately, Rose simply becomes a screaming, overdramatic woman with little agency.

Classics as a subject is very much associated with the upper-class in Britain. It’s a subject that isn’t routinely taught at state schools but is taught to most upper-class privately educated children. It’s also a popular university subject amongst the wealthy. As such, the fact that Rose is teaching this subject, and yet gets so angry over other aspects of upper-class society, feels a little incongruous to me. Perhaps Wynne is attempting to add complexity to her character. Perhaps she does feel that the Classics should be taught to children from ordinary, working- and middle-class backgrounds. But she doesn’t include that conversation in Madam.

Rose feels horrified at the way the school separates the girls into different ‘pathways’ seemingly based on their academic (it’s never really specified) abilities, yet she never acknowledges that this is actually how society functions. We live in a stratified society that bases worth on the job you have, how much you earn, and where you live. 

Perhaps this is what Wynne was trying to represent in her depiction of Coldonbrae Hall. Yet it felt more like Rose was championing her type of ‘freedom’ over the class structure the girls are trapped in. At one point, one of the girl’s challenges Rose over freedom. She states that Rose is as trapped by her financial constraints as the girls are by their families’ traditions regarding marriage and the female role in life. Rose dismisses this, which I think is a shame. This discussion of freedom could have added a lot of depth to the story. 

Structurally, Madam does struggle, I think. The story opens with a prologue, showing the ending of the book from a more omniscient point of view. We read a letter addressed to the teacher the school sacked, whose job Rose has now taken. The story then follows Rose in a third person point of view. At the end of the book we do get glimpses of that omniscient point of view again, as the ending joins up with the prologue. By the time I got to the end of the book, I had forgotten what I’d read during the prologue. So I’m not sure what affect Wynne was trying to achieve by opening the book that way. I really don’t think the prologue was needed. 

I also didn’t like the ending of the book. Without giving spoilers, it was unsatisfying. Wynne gives us a deus ex machina ending. Rose was saved not through her own actions, but through an intervention of fate (sort of). Nothing really felt resolved at the end. It very much felt like Wynne had written herself into a corner and came up with something random to save herself and Rose. 

Wynne writes well from a technical standpoint, and I did feel intrigued for most of the novel. The questions around the secrets the school is hiding from Rose kept me reading, despite my frustrations with Rose as a character. I think Madam is a really good idea that Wynne could have executed a lot better. It seems to lack a central message and feels quite messy as a story. Perhaps Wynne will get better as she keeps writing, as Madam is her debut novel. Overall, a bit of a disappointing read, but I would recommend if you can take it for what it is. 

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