When classics teacher Rose Christie lands the role of Department Head at prestigious Caldonbrae Hall, the private boarding school for girls on the coast of Scotland, she thinks all her dreams have come true. For over 150 years the education institution has prepared young women for womanhood, coaching them in the various skills required to succeed in society. As the first new member of staff in over a decade, Rose feels honoured to be employed by such an illustrious organisation. But whisperings about what actually happened to her predecessor, and an insight into Caldonbrae’s real teachings, leave her isolated and detached, and at odds with the shadowy establishment.
I really wanted to like Madam, the debut novel by Phoebe Wynne. The central character, Rose, is earnest and morally sound, and I shared many of her left-wing and socialist views. It is set in the early 90s; exactly why this period I’m not sure. Perhaps to avoid the use of mobile phones, as their presence might have created difficult plot points to overcome? Who knows. There’s a strong sense of the gothic to the synopsis, and I had expected something of a Rebecca-vibe, but sadly these elements were lacking. I did enjoy the female characters from Greek studies and their stories, although the manner in which they were integrated into the narrative felt rather contrived. Most of the characters are very unpleasant, so much so that there was little suspense generated by their actions. It just felt like a long battle against a regime that was overtly conservative and backward thinking. The theme was tackled far more successfully in Peter Weir’s 1989 film Dead Poet’s Society, only that was about the railing against the oppression of individuality. As it was set in the 1950s it felt appropriate to that time; this novel tackles the oppression of feminism, but the 1990s setting makes the theme seem hardly radical. The writing is workmanlike and unspectacular – nothing wrong with that – but did little to propel the story in the absence of an interesting plot. I can’t say I enjoyed this novel, but sadly it felt like a chore and – whilst I agree with the sentiments of the central character (and, presumably, the author) – it was not enough to make for a satisfying read.