Liz Bolton reviews Madam by Phoebe Wynne
Madam is the debut novel of the talented author Phoebe Wynne. At around 440 pages Madam is a robust tome, a contemporary melodrama with a feminist edge set in the early 1990’s. The story is set in an elite boarding school for girls, housed in a Scottish ancestral castle, Caldonbrae Hall. Run along the lines of a 20th century Swiss finishing school it is a beacon of excellence and claims to produce: “[…] enlightened, fulfilled and resilient women ready to serve and enrich the society to which they belong”
The protagonist is a young, middle-class, Classics teacher Rose Christie, who is plucked from a London state school and offered the prize of being the first new member of teaching staff at Caldonbrae in over a decade. Gradually, over the coming terms, the school takes charge of her life and attempts to entrap her in the ethos of its elusive objectives while Rose herself begins to doubt her own competence as a teacher. Whilst becoming increasingly concerned about the disappearance of her predecessor, who remains an enigma, and the apparent suicide of one of the pupils, Rose attempts to instil in her students the value of independent womanhood – and thought – using as examples strong female characters drawn from classical Greek mythology: Dido, Antigone, Medea, Daphne etc. The author deftly weaves these into the narrative of the story which eventually concludes in a tragedy, followed by liberation. To quote the publicity release, “Rose becomes embroiled in a battle that will threaten her sanity as well as her safety”.
Author Wynne worked in education for eight years, teaching Classics in the UK and English Language and Literature in Paris. In this novel, inspired by her reading of Rebecca, she adroitly evokes the privileged atmosphere of an expensive girls’ boarding school and her background, both as a teacher and a Classicist, are put to good use in the story.
To be published this month in both the USA and the UK by Quercus, Madam is bound for success, particularly among young female adults, a readership it appears to be primarily aimed at. Wynne is a vivid storyteller and the character of Rose Christie is well drawn. The tension occasionally feels lacking, and the use of classical female characters, while interesting and informative, at times appears a somewhat laboured device, possibly designed to fulfil a page count? However, the book’s future readership will undoubtedly relate to the feminist issues in this page-turner whilst simultaneously adding to their knowledge of the Classics.
Wynne – who has the well-deserved confidence of her publisher which likens her work to that of Margaret Atwood, Naomi Alderman and Madeleine Miller – is already hard at work on a second novel. Phoebe Wynne will undoubtedly achieve commercial success with this polished, school-set gothic debut.
Buy a copy of the book here