Madam: A Novel by Phoebe Wynne

“We shall need you to start impressing us, Rose, rather than having us tidy up your mess.”

Rose is stunned to learn she has been hired to teach at the grand, all-girls boarding school Caldonbrae Hall, an ancestral castle that looks down upon the world from its proud perch atop the rocky Scottish cliffs. Known for its excellence, churning out the cream of the crop, she has been chosen as Head of Classics. It all feels like a strange and yet happy stroke of luck. Her mother is pleased as punch that Rose will be earning her living at one of the most famous, prestigious schools and Rose is thrilled to be getting out from under her mother’s control. Her career is full speed ahead, even if she is more than a little intimidated and full of doubts that she is up for the challenge.

Once inside its great walls, she feels swallowed up by the great swarm of girls, all eyes upon her. Already shame rises, feeling shabby by comparison to these fashionable, fresh-faced beauties. On her first day teaching, despite her experience, she finds herself slipping with little mistakes. Caldonbrae isn’t a place that allows for failure, nor for one to question how things are done. Rose is on her own for the first time and is set on giving her all. She manages well enough until her class with the older girls, bursting into puberty, challenging her from the start. She looks young herself, at 26, and the students test her right away, madly curious of why she is teaching them when she isn’t even married. As if having a husband is a requirement. She feels like she has been thrown to the wolves and knows she must gain the upper hand, or she doesn’t stand a chance.

She takes her job preparing the young ladies for their bright futures seriously, and what is better than a top education? Yet her ideas may be a bit too liberal for the lives these daughters of Caldonbrae Hall are meant to lead. Every school has its traditions, and for 150 years Caldonbrae has produced young women who serve society to make for a better world. As a trip disrupts her teaching, Rose wonders what exactly the students are being presented for, what could be more important than their classes? What has their young, impressionable minds so preoccupied? What is it exactly they are really busy with? She stumbles across a desk drawer with a mysterious handkerchief, remnants of the former teacher she has replaced. There are traces of the woman everywhere, and the students don’t hold back in comparing her to their previous Madam, Jane. The place feels completely out of touch with time, it’s far more “old world” than she could have imagined. As she tries to gain solid footing, she learns there is no limit to the school’s reach. Caldonbrae asserts itself like a master in her entire life, everything within its walls is an old relic, it’s unnerving.

There is a student following her like a shadow, and the former teacher’s absence haunts her. Something is very wrong here. Feeding the girls a diet of classic, feminist heroines, like Dido, Rose is teaching the students to take their lives into their own hands. But will the expectations of their school, parents, and society erase any hope for freedom they may entertain? Can courage be taught, particularly by Rose whose own life has been guided by her mother? Is it possible to imagine a life outside the path laid for them? Rose’s own road has ‘diverged’ with a troubled student, Bethany. Suddenly she is preoccupied with the girl’s tortured mind and disturbed by how the school handles such a delicate situation. Rose starts making a mess of things, risking her future as a Madam, poking her nose where it doesn’t belong. How far will she go in following in the former teacher’s footsteps, will it lead her to the real story of why Jane left?

Institutions like Caldonbrae demand their staff adhere to its strict traditions-with such impressionable, fragile, young, minds it’s always best to maintain an outward display of self-control and respect of the old ways. Rose just doesn’t understand, her modern beliefs don’t fit the mold that has thrived behind these walls for well over a century. Is she really strong enough to handle the truth? More, is she brave enough to confront such a challenge? Does she know best what’s good for the ‘lucky girls’ anymore than those in charge of the place?

There is a gothic feel and with the school cut off even from the locals, it’s a world unto itself. It’s a funny question, how does a woman serve society… hmmm? I agree the tale seems so far from modernity, but the timeless feel is a way to show how sheltered and controlled everything is. How easy it is to do whatever you please when those in charge are complicit in what they believe is for ‘the greater good’. It was a decent read, and the feminist theme using classics to start a fire in young minds was clever. The ending was interesting. I think Rose is meant to be odd herself, afraid of life, seemingly unadventurous, hence she appears to be someone that would easily fall into line with the school’s rules and demands. We wonder, does she have her own flame burning? Curious what others will make of this mysterious, dark tale.

Publication Date: May 18, 2021

St. Martin’s Press

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