Imagine reading Picnic at Hanging Rock at the same time as The Handmaid’s Tale, and you’ll get somewhere close to understanding the experience of Phoebe Wynne‘s debut novel, Madam.
This is the story of Rose, a twenty-six year old classics teacher who is plucked from obscurity (or, from teaching at public schools) and made the head of the Classics department at a prestigious Scottish boarding school for young ladies called Caldenbrae Hall.
Caldenbrae is a 150 year old institution, referred to by all who reside there as Hope, after its founder Lord William Hope, whose family’s legacy continues to haunt the school. The appointment is a dream come true for Rose, who is seeking to honour the memory of her father, himself also a Classics teacher, and needs to support her ailing mother, who is rapidly succumbing to MS.
Caldenbrae is not, however, all that it seems; and though the book is set in the year 1992, a reader would be forgiven for thinking that Rose has time travelled back to the 1890s, as she steps into an environment where propriety and ladylike behaviour is praised above all. She is scolded for referring to teachers by their names instead of calling them Sir or Madam, for using a mug instead of a cup and saucer, and for not wearing a jacket in the halls of the school. Likewise, the students are strange and their behaviour slightly menacing; the longer Rose stays at ‘Hope’, the more she realises that something awful is going on under the polished facade.
At times, this already quite long book seemed to skip over important details (such as why Rose would be so keen to take this job) and instead tell them in summary. But, while the book gets off to a clunky start, there was already enough of a sense of foreboding to keep me turning the pages. Wynne maintains a sense of dramatic tension extremely well throughout the book and it is very difficult to put down, even when there are gaps or the protagonist’s actions don’t make sense.
There are some references to the 1990s, such as a character who is very interested in Princess Diana, or a passing mention to a Batman film; but overall I saw little reason for this to have been the chosen era for the book to take place. Likewise, while Rose’s mother is used as leverage by the school to make her comply with their strange methods, she is not given her own name, and Rose seems only to think about her sporadically, and their hot and cold relationship doesn’t ever really get explained. In fact, Rose actually seems very isolated, which makes her the ideal sort of Governess figure for this modern-day gothic.
Phoebe Wynne uses the Classics syllabus as a way to explore themes of female repression and the cumulative effects of a lack of autonomy on young women, as Rose teaches her increasingly interested classes about Medea, Medusa, Antigone, Agrippina and Daphne. Wynne’s own background as a classicist and her familiarity with these classical Greek stories shine, and provide a thematic backbone to the book. I found that reading this book shortly after having read Ariadne by Jennifer Saint enhanced my understanding of the author’s message. The development of Rose’s relationships with her students, and their transformation from sullen and disinterested which give the book rare and necessary moments of warmth.
While the stories Rose uses from Greek mythology often contain violent acts perpetrated against the heroines, or that they themselves are driven to out of desperation, the violent finale of Madam (prefaced in the prologue) seemed somewhat unnecessary. It called to mind Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Bronte’s Jane Eyre, two books which this novel seems to be actively (and unnecessarily) trying to emulate – but did not offer any real solution to the problems raised by the novel.
This is a dark, compelling and entertaining book, and one which with a bit more polishing, could have become a new feminist favourite.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Madam by Phoebe Wynne is available now via Quercus Books. Grab yourself a copy from Booktopia HERE.