A review by thephdivabooks
Madam by Phoebe Wynne


A gothic novel with a strong feminist message, Madam by Phoebe Wynne features a young classics teacher who takes a position at a girl’s boarding school off the coast of Scotland and finds an increasingly disturbing secret underbelly at the school. Dark, unsettling, and gripping!

Setting and Structure

Madam is set in the early 1990s at a fictional boarding school set on the Scottish cliffs named Caldonbrae Hall. The school is housed in an ancestral castle and is quite remote, a quality that not only builds the gothic feel to the novel, but also serves to isolate the students and residents of the school from the outside world in a way that heavily relates to the broader story. The setting is perfect gothic fiction—a gloomy castle, the grey sea, the bleak coastline, the torrents of rain, and the cold dark expanse of the interior.

The book is narrated solely by Rose Christie, a 26-year-old Classics teacher who has recently accepted a post at the school. Rose narrates in the first person her experiences and thoughts as the story unfolds, with brief intermediary chapters that tell the stories of different classic mythological women (Medusa, Dido, Medea, etc). These are structured as the lessons Rose is teaching to her students, and tie into the plot.

Plot and Characters

Rose Christie is the newest teacher at Caldonbrae Hall and the youngest. She is hired to teach classics replacing the previous teacher Jane, whose employment was terminated under mysterious circumstances. The book may be set in 1993, but the practices at the school harken back to the original found of the school 150 years earlier.

As Rose learns more about the school and her new role, she is horrified to learn that the girls are being taught that femininity is about being docile, finding a husband, and avoiding modern feminist thinking. For Rose, who was raised by a liberal feminist, the truth at the school is unsettling. The more she learns, the more twisted she realizes Caldonbrae Hall truly is, and the more trapped she becomes at the school.

I liked Rose as a character, though I’ve seen other reviewers criticize her actions. But Rose herself is trapped at the school, and it becomes clear everyone is in their own way. On top of that, the school has moved Rose’s mother to a care facility, and updates about her mother filter through them. Rose is not only trying to understand what is going on at the school, she is also tackling the mystery of what happened to her predecessor Jane.

There are a few other teachers and staff with troubling and compelling roles in the story. Another male teacher who seems a bit taken with Rose, a fellow teacher who Rose thinks of as her only true friend there, and a disturbing set of administrators and board members. The students are sort of a collection of either those who buy into and benefit from what the school is doing, and the outcasts who respond to Rose’s subtle but intentional feminist teachings. Rose continues to assign works to the students with the hopes that they will take the lessons she intends, though at a point she is being observed and has to be careful about her words in the lessons.

Overall Thoughts

The setting and atmospheric quality made this a stand out for me. The pacing is a bit slow but that adds to the creepy gothic feel, and the mystery is compelling. The ending made me want to see what a sequel to this might explore, though I also was satisfied with the way it concluded. Wynne’s writing and imagery made this a stand out. The truth about the school is both horrifying and salacious.

I saw some reviewers criticize elements of this book that were dated, disturbing, and characters who were racist and I guess that to me was the point of this book. This school is completely dated, teaches absolutely terrible ideals to young women, and is full of stakeholders who are at their core fetishists and misogynists. This added to the disturbing horror-quality of the mystery for me.

Compelling, atmospheric, darkly feminist, and well-written, I thoroughly enjoyed this!