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A Spoiler-Free Review of Phoebe Wynne's 'Madam' - by Katrina Millett

If the Handmaid’s Tale was set in the mysterious classrooms of the Secret History, you’d have something close to this brand-new, disturbing Gothic from Phoebe Wynne. Wynne’s debut novel sees 26-year-old Rose Christie recruited as the new head of Classics at the mysterious and intimidating Caldonbrae Halls in northern Scotland, an institution whose long and impressive history intrigues both Rose and the reader from the offset. However, the heart of Caldonbrae holds a dark secret, and Wynne fantastically maintains a sense of foreboding mystery throughout, culminating in a violent and captivating conclusion.

This novel is an excellent re-imagining of the struggle and power of Ancient Greek women, translated for a modern audience, with a new setting and circumstance. Taken straight from Classical myth and history, a sense of patriarchal oppression and limited feminine agency persists through the Halls of Caldonbrae, questioning and challenging the “progress” of society. The core of the book asks what freedoms have women really achieved for themselves over the years, and how can we learn from the plight of powerful, classical heroines.

We follow Rose through all of her endeavours over the school year, and she stands as an intelligent and strong academic who embodies the feminist message of the book. However, at times, Rose displays a timid shyness that leads to situations where she is pushed around by staff and students alike, creating a slightly disjointed but entirely human narrative full of complexity. On the whole, she is a good character to focus the narrative, while also providing space to explore the feminist themes of the novel.

Caldonbrae Halls itself is an all-girls boarding school founded in the mid-1800s by Sir William Hope, and continues to stand as a supreme institution for the education of Britain’s finest young ladies. Rose is swept up and taken into the large castle perched on the edge of a peninsula just beyond Edinburgh. She is apprehensive and nervous, but is pushed on by the need to pay the medical bills of her ill mother, and justified through the impressive addition of Calronbrae Halls to her CV.

The three strongest positives of this novel are by far its imagery, its horror, and its sense of mystery. Wynne’s ability to conjure up the imagery of the magnificent halls, the brutal peninsula, and the vibrant girls is masterful and makes this an engaging read, even through some of the slower segments. The harsh Scottish weather, unsoftened by the cruel maze of Caldonbrae, really exaggerates Rose’s isolation as the first outsider in over a decade. As a result of this, coupled with her probationary period, Rose is left alone and confused on the wrong side of the horrific secret of “Hope” (the affectionate nickname of Caldonbrae). Through the snippets of gossip from teachers and students that Rose encounters, Wynne maintains a good, consistent mystery throughout the length of the tale and manages to effectively ramp up the horror with each revelation.

The only small sanctuary for Rose is her classroom, adorned with Classical mementoes and reminders of her personality, which she often uses to ground herself, and thus become much-needed symbols of warmth and safety. The content of Rose’s classes also imposes itself in central aspects to the plot; a class on Dido here, or a lesson on Agrippina there, reflect the themes of female oppression and agency as Rose attempts to enlighten the impressionable girls. In addition to this, Wynne litters the text with short biographies of Classical women (accompanied by a textual excerpt) that allows for a much richer and direct interpretation of these themes. Reading these little gems before reading their interpretation and discussion by Hope’s girls was a highlight and is perfect for a reader who is less familiar with Classics, or perhaps needs a refresher.

It is also here within her classroom that Rose builds her relationship with the three main Caldonbrae girls we follow; Freddie, Nessa, and Daisy. They are curious, headstrong, and kind, and Rose’s care for them develops naturally throughout. However, due to the isolation of Rose for most of the story, many other interactions fall a little flat with many one-note characters. This is emphasised by the lack of change to Rose’s routine regardless of the addition/subtraction of characters. This becomes particularly evident in Rose’s relationship to her own unnamed mother who, despite her feminist history, seems to have only unending meanness and indifference for her long-suffering daughter. Due to the horrific secret of Caldonbrae, Rose is also hindered from befriending any academic staff and this is the biggest hindrance to the character development. However, in the long run, it is not an unforgivable hindrance, since it makes the atmosphere and feeling of isolation so much more realistic, and is an aspect that I think Wynne absolutely nails perfectly.

Fundamentally, this story is about women and how they are conditioned to accept the control exercised over them. It demonstrates the continued relevance of a Classical education and how important it is to see more women in the Classical sphere. The quote that stuck with me the most reads: “Sometimes as women, we have to rescue ourselves, instead of expecting someone else to.” I couldn’t have summed up the message of this book better and we highly recommend this book as an exploration of modern feminism through a Classical lens. If that isn’t to your taste, it still has gorgeous dark academia vibes and an interesting secret at the end!

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