This gothic novel Madam by Phoebe Wynne held me captive throughout, despite some reservations about the plot and development of ideas.
The author builds a strong feeling of creepy, sinister, weird claustrophobia in an exclusive independent girls’ school on the Scottish coast. The main protagonist, Rose, has just been appointed to the highly paid post of Head of Classics in this school for the daughters of wealthy, aristocratic, privileged parents, housed in a remote castle. She has doubts about the job before she accepts it; but the school will take care of her elderly invalid mother and this commitment is linked to Rose’s appointment to the school.
However, once there, despite building a special rapport with some of her pupils, Rose begins to feel oppressed by many things including the odd insistence on calling all the female teachers ‘Madam’, and the lies and false accusations directed against her. The reader is conscious of a sense of powerlessness, of being pushed to the edge of paranoia, of being restrained, of secrets closely guarded, information withheld, and strings drawn tight around Rose. I began to see parallels with certain aspects of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Lord of the Flies, as Rose is stalked by a deeply disturbed girl, Bethany.
Questions are sewn in the reader’s mind. What happened to Rose’s predecessor, Jane, who was dismissed for some undisclosed reason? What is wrong with Bethany? What was the nature of her relationship with Jane? What exactly is going on at the school? Why is it all so weird? We are troubled by the realisation that the school’s control of Rose is closing in on her and her life.
Throughout the story we are introduced to various key female figures in Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece: both from history and from mythology. I enjoyed this, though intrigued by why some of these women should be regarded as inspirational, since many ended up committing suicide or being killed or having their fates determined by men. I studied Classical Background at university and have read translations of the Greek tragedies, Homer and Virgil, and Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars with relish and fascination. I have certainly never thought of Nero’s mother Agrippina as a heroine of feminism, though I must admit she was strong, determined and wilful!
Soon we recognise the paradox that although the school supposedly has a superlative educational reputation, the girls are not being taught academic excellence at all. That does not seem to be the goal. The standard of teaching prior to Rose’s arrival, the girls’ level of knowledge, and quality of concentration and application, is extremely poor. What’s going on?
The headmaster is a mystery and seems to hold off from a proper meeting with Rose for quite a long time. Later he becomes menacing and directly threatening. Rose realises she is trapped here: her life and integrity are constrained. She is fully locked in; coercion and blackmail are frequently used tools. Rose’s only realistic option is total conformity to the evil system.
The whole idea, we learn, is to keep women subservient for ever. The sheer corruption of this place is overwhelming: everything is directed to strengthening the power and ultimate control of those with wealth and high status in society – who are of course male – and this triumphs over ethics, social justice, personal freedom and respect for human rights. This even trumps any respect for the national academic league tables. Finally, it is very clear that Rose’s mother, is being held hostage.
I was captivated as I read this story but there were a number of flaws. First, the book is unnecessarily long, and several scenes are over-written. I felt it would have benefited from tight editing. Particularly towards the horrific end, the writing became loose, repetitive and drawn out.
There were also a number of anomalies; and set as it was in the 1990s, I wondered how such a plot really would succeed in our society. Nevertheless, this picture of a wicked attempt to reverse everything that has been so hard-won by the feminist movement, was very thought-provoking.
Despite the caveats, for its atmosphere, tension and fascinating ideas, I applaud this debut novel by Phoebe Wynne.
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