One of our recommended books is Madam by Phoebe Wynne

MADAM

A Novel


Phoebe Wynne’s Madam is a riveting, modern gothic debut with shades of The Secret History, The Stepford Wives, and a dash of Circe, set at a secretive all girls’ boarding school perched on a craggy Scottish peninsula.

They want our silence…
They want our obedience…
Let them see our fire burn

For 150 years, high above rocky Scottish cliffs, Caldonbrae Hall has sat untouched, a beacon of excellence in an old ancestral castle. A boarding school for girls,

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Phoebe Wynne’s Madam is a riveting, modern gothic debut with shades of The Secret History, The Stepford Wives, and a dash of Circe, set at a secretive all girls’ boarding school perched on a craggy Scottish peninsula.

They want our silence…
They want our obedience…
Let them see our fire burn

For 150 years, high above rocky Scottish cliffs, Caldonbrae Hall has sat untouched, a beacon of excellence in an old ancestral castle. A boarding school for girls, it promises that the young women lucky enough to be admitted will emerge “resilient and ready to serve society.”

Into its illustrious midst steps Rose Christie: a 26-year-old Classics teacher, Caldonbrae’s new head of the department, and the first hire for the school in over a decade. At first, Rose is overwhelmed to be invited into this institution, whose prestige is unrivaled. But she quickly discovers that behind the school’s elitist veneer lies an impenetrable, starkly traditional culture that she struggles to reconcile with her modernist beliefs–not to mention her commitment to educating “girls for the future.”

It also doesn’t take long for Rose to suspect that there’s more to the secret circumstances surrounding the abrupt departure of her predecessor–a woman whose ghost lingers everywhere–than anyone is willing to let on. In her search for this mysterious former teacher, Rose instead uncovers the darkness that beats at the heart of Caldonbrae, forcing her to confront the true extent of the school’s nefarious purpose, and her own role in perpetuating it.

A darkly feminist tale pitched against a haunting backdrop, and populated by an electrifying cast of heroines, Madam will keep readers engrossed until the breathtaking conclusion.

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  • St. Martin's Press
  • Hardcover
  • May 2021
  • 352 Pages
  • 9781250272041

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$27.99

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About Phoebe Wynne

Phoebe Wynne is the author of MadamPhoebe Wynne worked in education for eight years, teaching Classics in the UK and English Language and Literature in Paris. She is both British and French, and currently spends her time between France and England. Madam is her first novel.

Praise

One of “75 Debuts to Discover in 2021” —Goodreads

“Suspenseful…a gothic tale powered by bold heroines who refuse to submit.” —Booklist

“Imagine if Donna Tartt and Margaret Atwood got together to write a creepy, suspenseful novel about a school for young women in the Scottish Highlands. The result is Madam, a book I couldn’t for the life of me put down. Brooding and unsettling, Wynne paints a gorgeous picture that only serves to camouflage the dark secrets she’s hidden within.”Chandler Baker, New York Times bestselling author of Whisper Network

Rebecca meets The Secret History: gloriously dark, gloriously gothic.” —Sara Collins, author of The Confessions of Frannie Langton

“The simmering menace and mystery kept me absolutely gripped. It gave me the same feeling as when I read The Secret History and put me in mind of The Furies. I loved the clever interweaving stories of the classical women of ancient myth and history with the tantalizing reveal of the horrifying truth behind the impressive facade of the grand boarding school. This was a smoldering slow burn of a novel that I could not put down.” —Jennifer Saint, author of Ariadne

“Strange, dark, and utterly consuming… I loved it.” Katie Lowe, author of The Furies

“Chilling, eerie and very clever. I devoured it.” Polly Crosby, author of The Illustrated Child

Excerpt

1

Rose dragged a finger under one eye; the slam of the train doors and the yell of a guard jogged her forward. She held her suitcase close to her, nudging her handbag to the side, pulling her dark hair into a thick twist before tucking it into the collar of her tweed jacket. The warmth and stench of the station were suddenly invigorating; she was grateful for it.

As the train had slowed for its entry into Edinburgh, she’d glimpsed the sloping hilltop of Arthur’s Seat, surprisingly soft-looking and uneven, as if Zeus himself had pushed and molded the hills with his enormous hands. The carriage had been warm with the late summer sunshine and Rose’s eyes had wavered along with the train’s long mechanical trundle. She’d kept her hand as a bookmark in the pages of the school’s heavy prospectus, and given up on the Cat Stevens tape in her Walkman. The headphones gifted to her by a friend were no good—the ear pads were so thin that Rose worried about the other people in the carriage hearing her music.

The prospectus had arrived a week before, attached to a letter with a few kind words from the Headmaster. For Miss Christie, the first new member of teaching staff in over a decade—congratulations! It was the newest edition, since Caldonbrae Hall had just celebrated its 150-year anniversary.

The pages already scoured, she’d simply spent the journey gazing at the shining photographs, hoping to imprint them on her brain. An aerial view of the stretch of peninsula, the particular bend of the land, the brilliant sea, the rocky beach, the ruddy cliffs … and the school’s majestic structure perched above. It sat at the farthest end of the peninsula’s finger, like an extraordinary gray wedding cake, halls and towers and rows of turrets added like great ornaments, with outlines of flying buttresses to decorate. There were more photographs of sculpted stone cloisters, a greenish quad, a close-up of a merman-like gargoyle. And then inside: wood-paneled walls, the stained-glass chapel window, a library with books stacked to the ceiling. Rose blinked at the sunny pictures of the students: a tall dark-haired beauty shaking hands with the Headmaster; a very fair red-haired girl laughing with her friends on a hockey pitch; other girls filling an art studio, or set like a tableau across a theater stage. The opening pages read,

Established in 1842 by Lord William Hope, a baron and a prominent Whig within the Victorian peers. Owing to the formation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the lands and title were granted to Lord Hope’s father by King George III. Upon inheritance Lord Hope had the castle fortress rebuilt in the Scottish Baronial style, and fitted it out as a dame school suitable for his six daughters, one of the first of its kind in Great Britain.

A well-dressed man in the seat opposite Rose had stared down at the prospectus, his eyes burning into the pages as the sun slid across his face. Avoiding his gaze, she’d nudged the prospectus deeper into her lap and kicked her legs over her suitcase for security.

But now the prospectus lay idle in her handbag, heavy over the rest of her things. Rose’s anticipation urged her forward as she dragged her suitcase toward the station’s concourse. She was in desperate need of a cup of tea.

The square hall of the concourse was full of people looking harried and hurrying in all directions, while a row of taxis shunted past on the other side of the wide doors. Pulling her jacket tighter around her, Rose spotted a cafe bar in the corner, a spread of chairs and tables in front. The jacket was slightly too big for her, thanks to the tweed’s boxy shoulders. She’d found it in a charity shop and loved it instantly; it reminded her of Clarice Starling’s in The Silence of the Lambs. It was definitely too hot to wear in early September, but she wanted to look impressive when she first arrived and hoped it might boost her confidence.

Queuing behind a young family, Rose glanced over a row of newspapers clamped in stands next to the bar. A few of them flashed the same lurid picture—Princess Diana wearing a brilliant new dress, chatting to some man other than her husband. Rose frowned in sympathy: she liked Diana, even if her mother didn’t.

At the front of the queue Rose trawled her eyes down the menu, even though she already knew what she wanted. When it was her turn she smiled at the pink-faced woman.

“Earl Grey, please, thanks.” She cleared her throat. “Teabag in.”

“Milk, dear?”

“No thanks.”

A cross-looking man hovered behind the woman, pulling a glass bottle out of a small fridge. Rose’s eyes lingered over a row of flapjacks.

“You’re far from home,” said the woman.

Rose looked back at her; the woman’s face was creased in kindness. “Yes, I am.”

“What brings you to Edinburgh?”

Ed-in-bu-rruh. Rose wanted to imitate the woman’s pronunciation, to roll her tongue around those round consonants, against the harshness of her English accent.

“I’m on my way up northeast. To—”

“Caldonbrae.” The man was standing straight now, frowning at Rose.

“Yes. How did you know?” Rose half laughed in surprise, and the man glanced down at the prospectus peeking out from her bag. “I love the way you say it, with your accent. It sounds terrible the way I say it. Do you know of it, then?”

“You’re never a student?” he answered with thinly veiled contempt. Rose checked the hardness in his eyes, the draw of his face.

“No, I’m a new teacher there.”

“Ach.” He scowled. “You’re awful young.”

“I am older than I look. I’ve been teaching for four years now, including training,” Rose answered firmly.

“That’s no’ Scotland, that place.”

“Well,” the woman came in brightly, “how lucky those girls will be, to have you teaching them. I’ll bet they’ve got a load of old cranks up there.”

“Best of luck on your journey.” The man turned back to the fridge as the woman smiled at Rose.

“Will you be wanting anything else?”

“No thanks,” Rose answered flatly, preparing the change from her purse. “Just the tea.”

“Here you are.” The woman passed over the Styrofoam cup. She shrugged a shoulder at her husband and gave Rose a comforting pat. “Never mind him.” Rose glanced down at the woman’s small hand over her own.

She took a seat at the farthest edge of the cafe’s tables, her back to the couple. There, she pulled her suitcase in alignment with her feet.

Rose didn’t like being separated from her things. Only a few favorite books and a pile of her smartest outfits were stuffed into this shabby suitcase. The rest of Rose’s belongings—old volumes, clothes, bits of furniture—were packed in a small crate and would follow her, days later, to fill her new flat. Her first all to herself. The school had organized it, like they had organized her journey, her arrival, her new life.

She’d managed to stuff one goodbye card from her former pupils into her suitcase, though it was probably creased in all the wrong places now. An overlarge piece of card full of their untidy scrawl, half-correct phrases in Latin, small affectionate doodles. They’d even drawn a version of her head as a Roman bust on the front; she’d blinked with tears and laughter when they’d presented it to her at the end of last term.

She’d wanted to bring that little piece of evidence of her previous life into this new one—some soothing proof of her capability. And inside that card she’d stuffed the treasured postcards that had decorated her old classroom. Places she’d visited, places her mother had saved up for them to see together, places she’d saved up for alone: Pompeii, Rome, Athens, Ephesus. A view here, a theater there; a mosaic here, a sculpture there: to expand her mind, expand her horizons—one of her mother’s favorite phrases. And now these were places she was going to talk about, share with her new students and their fresh set of eager faces.

Rose didn’t yet have her timetable, but the Headmaster’s letter had informed her of seven classes of girls, one from each of the year groups, aged eleven to eighteen—just what Rose was used to, and had trained for. At Caldonbrae Hall there were three “Junior” years: the Firsts, Seconds and Thirds; then two “Intermediate” years: the Fourths and Fifths; and finally the sixth-form’s seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds: the Lower and Upper Sixth. Rose knew that boarding schools usually had schedules busy with house duties and sports activities, but she’d been told that she’d settle in better with a lighter timetable for her first term.

Rose pressed the cup to her lips, but the hot tea burned her mouth, dashing down her throat with a slip of pain.

She knew she would miss her old students just as much as she’d miss her old colleagues and their regular pub evenings or cinema trips. Last term, she and an Art teacher had watched Thelma and Louise on the big screen every Friday night for a month. It had been a nice life, and Rose knew that she’d think of them often, down there in the sunnier south: even the white prefab of the squat school buildings, the concrete scrap of the courtyards, the shout of the students hurtling down the corridors.

The memories squeezed at her heart, and she looked away.

Lucky, her old colleagues had insisted, to be picked out by an amazing school like Caldonbrae Hall, her career apparently speeding on ahead. Rose couldn’t have turned down this opportunity—the regret would have pursued her through her career. Now she’d have to learn to absorb the pride others had in her, to puff up this depleted balloon of self-worth inside her chest. Plus, her mother was right: Rose’s salary would cover the care she needed and more; and Rose could pay her back for all the things she’d done for her growing up, especially after her father had died. Rose smiled wistfully; perhaps in her own small way she was carrying on his academic legacy—not in his full lecture halls, but through short lessons in a brightly lit classroom in some tall building in Scotland.

A mechanical voice broke through her thoughts, calling over the Tannoy, informing her of her delayed train.

Rose’s face flushed with alarm. By how long? The numbers flipped, and Rose watched them change. Thirty minutes or more. But, she thought desperately, she wanted to see the place in daylight. It was already so late. Late in the day, late in the holiday. Term would start in two days—Rose needed more than that to settle herself in. But of course, she’d had no say in the matter. She worried about cutting it so fine—as if at any moment the school might turn around and send her away, tell her she wasn’t good enough; that it was all a mistake, just some cruel joke.

Rose hoped the car organized at the other end would be aware of any delay; she didn’t want to keep them waiting.

The sodden teabag slapped her mouth unkindly as she took another sip. It was lukewarm now and too strong—she flinched before swallowing the mouthful. Rose wondered whether she could ask the woman for a top-up of boiling water. Come to think of it, she needed the loo too. Maybe the woman could watch her suitcase while she went. Yes, she thought, she could even thrust the school’s prospectus in the front pocket and have it stare back boldly at the woman’s husband, just to taunt him.

* * *

A FEW HOURS slater Rose arrived. Barely able to acknowledge the driver and his help with her suitcase, she fell into the backseat and into the final leg of the journey.

Once the car pulled through the gates and trundled up the long drive, Rose stretched out to catch her first glances of Caldonbrae Hall—her new home. But it was only passing shadows that touched her eyes through the glass, a night fog of steeples and turrets moving high above the car windows. She thought of the pictures in the prospectus, trying to fit the gray wedding cake of the photograph onto the hulking black mass that actually met her gaze.

“Are we here?” Rose asked the driver, although she already knew the answer.

He said nothing. She felt only the gentle push of the car rolling forward, around and toward the front entrance of the school. There Rose looked up for the relief of light from several windows—but her sight deceived her still, with sharp corners and two half-faced gargoyles bathed in shadow.

“Good luck,” the driver said as he dropped Rose’s suitcase heavily at her feet, then slammed the boot of the car with such force that she flinched.

* * *

THE FOLLOWING MORNING Rose tried a walk along the peninsula, but the cold was tearing through her clothes, her jacket, nipping at the nape of her bare neck. She thought mournfully of the warm things she hadn’t packed: her knit cardigan, her favorite green blanket, at least one scarf. Even her dark hair taunted her by whipping around her face. Yes, the summer was certainly over, but the first days of September up here in Scotland were colder than she’d expected.

The night before, Rose had been met by the porters and an apologetic note from the Headmaster: complicated circumstances meant that he was unable to greet her that weekend. A band of three gruff but helpful men took her across the dim light of the entrance hall through corridors and passageways, handling her single suitcase between them as they mounted the stairs to her new flat. At the door, they stood in her way. One porter handed over a brass ring of keys, her own singled out. Glimmering with nerves, Rose thanked them, stepping aside to slip into the low-ceilinged rooms; the floor creaked as she crossed the threshold. The porters watched her curiously until she thanked them again with the close of her new front door.

Rose felt along the wall for the light switch. In the small kitchen a hamper was laden with food: a loaf of bread, butter, wrapped cheeses and meats, a box of eggs, a bottle of milk and a few tins of soup. Rose had bent to find the fridge, feeling her way around the cupboards, her heart beating with gladness at the generous and expensive gesture. In the basket was a note from Vivien, the deputy head: another kind apology at the unforeseen circumstances, a promise of the Headmaster’s introduction at assembly on Monday, and a full tour of the school led by Rose’s colleague Emma that first afternoon. The dining hall would open the first morning of term, so the food was to be enjoyed until then.

A lonely beginning, she’d thought, but a welcome one. The porters would show Rose her new classroom the next day, and she’d hoped to find Emma wandering about—in the Classics office, perhaps. She’d have to wear her tweed jacket again, for any potential first introductions.

But she hadn’t found Emma, or anyone of importance, the next day. The school was hauntingly empty, so she’d ventured outside into the bleary afternoon. She crossed ribboned playing fields, tennis courts, a pale green stretch of land interrupted by a long white pavilion. She peered over the farthest edge of the peninsula, the very tip of the broken finger and its rocky outcrops beyond. There were no others enjoying the grounds, but plenty of seabirds embedded in the ragged rock. Rose wasn’t used to the unexpected blue of the sea, the ruddy threat of the cliff—nothing at all like the bleached white cliffs and laughing sunlight of the South of England.

Pushing her hair out of her face, Rose couldn’t help but marvel now at the great monster of the school building, as if at any moment it might hoist itself up on its hind legs and unfurl, with thick turrets as black scales down its back, and crawl heavily into the waters below.

Inside its walls she could barely navigate from the wide entrance hall, the sweep of the double Great Stairs with a glass dome ceiling above. She wondered how she would learn all those corridors, those passageways, the rows of classrooms piled up on top of one another, some dug out of the cliff below like dungeons, and others—like her own—high up and lofty with a fine view of the sea. Then the sudden caverns of the dining hall, the theater, the chapel, a sports hall. All interconnected, sealed and folded into each other like dark tumors.

Rose was nervous as she ran through the lines of the speech she’d had to write for Monday morning’s assembly—a particular request from the Headmaster. A speech about knowledge and the ancient world, he’d advised, to introduce her to the girls. Rose didn’t want to consider how unusual the request was—a test of nerve in front of the whole school on her first day—and by now her printed speech was soft from the damp sea air.

The wind blasted at Rose again and she recoiled at the faint scream from the seabirds. She wanted to go back to her flat, somewhere in that mass of gray brick—her own new spot of warmth. She moved across the pitches, back toward the front entrance of the school, the grand swirl of the driveway and the majestic doors held wide open.

Open for the girls.

Rose stopped. She’d been outside long enough to miss the slow build of sleek black cars stretching far down the drive, waiting to deposit groups of girls and their trunks. There were squeals of laughter as the girls clasped each other before running into the building.

Rose watched them from her distant position, shaking with cold in her tweed jacket. She ought to have donned the old raincoat she’d seen hanging up in an alcove cupboard in her flat—from a previous resident, perhaps—but she hadn’t dared. The page of her speech shook too, its paper coming apart, the typed words blurring as she folded it smaller.

Beside the double doors one girl was standing still, separate from the movement of drivers and porters busy around her. She was a blur of dark hair and staring eyes, turned in Rose’s direction. Rose looked away, and was hit again by the cold blast of the wind.

Others soon crowded the main doors and the girl was lost among them, as well as Rose’s only way back into the school. She didn’t want her students to see her like this for the first time. Could she get to the rocky beach near the headland, or even wander down to the gatehouse of the peninsula? But then, she’d have to follow the driveway, passing each car and many pairs of young eyes. Rose resolutely turned around, held in that position by some strange force, her ears full of the furious turn of the sea.

When she looked back at the school again—was it minutes, hours later?—the last of the black cars had slipped away from the main doors, now firmly closed.

Copyright © 2021 by Phoebe Wynne