Publisher: Quercus (18 Feb. 2021) ISBN: 978-1529408720
Why is it always so hard to write a review when the book is so good? It’s as if I have to wrestle with it for ages, in the hope of doing it justice! All I can do is try and put across all of the reasons I liked it. In fact, I loved everything about this feminist gothic novel from start to finish. First the setting – the eerie, almost otherworldly atmosphere around Caldonbrae School, the strange weather conditions suggesting it’s own micro-climate, and the school’s position as an English outpost (or invader) in Scotland. It’s appearance is like a hulking beast on the coastline, something that shouldn’t be disturbed lest it swallow you up. Secondly, there’s our main character Rose, addressed at all times as ‘Madam’ and finally the dark secret her predecessor tried to uncover at the heart of Caldonbrae, before it was Rose’s turn to fight it’s terrible tradition.
For 150 years, Caldonbrae Hall has sat as a beacon of excellence in the ancestral castle of Lord William Hope. A boarding school for girls, it promises a future where its pupils will emerge ‘resilient and ready to serve society’. Rose Christie, a 26-year-old Classics teacher, is the first new hire for the school in over a decade. At first, Rose feels overwhelmed in the face of this elite establishment, but soon after her arrival she begins to understand that she may have more to fear than her own imposter syndrome. When Rose stumbles across the secret circumstances surrounding the abrupt departure of her predecessor – a woman whose ghost lingers over everything and who no one will discuss – she realises that there is much more to this institution than she has been led to believe. As she uncovers the darkness that beats at the heart of Caldonbrae, Rose becomes embroiled in a battle that will threaten her sanity as well as her safety.
This novel was incredible from start to finish. I loved it. Straight away I noticed echoes of two of my favourite books; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. The younger girls school uniforms reminded me of the aprons of Lowood School. The constant references to the previous classics teacher, and the mystery surrounding what happened to her had definite echoes of Rochester’s wife – hidden from view in the attic for being other than the perfect, meek and gentle wife he wanted. What exactly does this school expect of the teachers and how did Madam fall from grace so spectacularly? The training at the school starts to feel more sinister as time goes on. It begins to feel as if they’re trying to shape young women in a very old fashioned image; teaching them how to stay it in their place and be the 19th Century ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’. Although there’s something a lot more knowing about these girls, they put on this ideal as if its a disguise, designed to please but very aware it’s a conceit sure to reap the rewards of wealth and privilege. The previous ‘Madam’, whose name is Jane, is like the ghostly presence of Rebecca, still holding sway over the girls – especially Bethany who seems to have developed an obsession with her teacher. Jane seems to be everywhere Rose turns, but tantalisingly just out of reach. The author creates an edgy and eerie atmosphere where you feel she might be just ahead of Rose, her gown swishing round the corner.
Rose tries to understand the place she’s come to teach. There is a sense in which this school is a complete culture shock – like a child affected by poverty or a tough inner city environment being expected to thrive at Oxford or Cambridge where there’s an etiquette and language that’s alien to most outsiders. She has to muddle through this aspect of life at Caldonbrae and it makes sense to her if the purpose is to educate and prepare the girls for further education and professions like the law and politics. Yet, alongside this traditional, classical education there are hints of the old ‘finishing school’ where attributes like poise, social etiquette and deportment are deemed equally important. What exactly is she preparing these girls for?
As the secret starts to come to the surface so the tension of the novel rises. Is Rose being trained too? An outsider brought in to see if new teachers can be moulded to the school’s purpose. As Bethany’s attachment to Madam becomes clearer she seems to stalk Rose. and the reader isn’t sure whether she resents Rose being in the place of her former favourite or whether she has simply transferred her affections. When she makes allegations about Rose she threatens her whole future at the school, but is Bethany trying to harm her or warn her? A strange hierarchy operates amongst the girls who know themselves to be the elite performers and those who don’t make the grade are offered inducements to improve, but these inducements can be threats as well as rewards. The horror of a young woman having her head shaved for performing badly is enshrined in patriarchal systems and is designed both to shame the woman and act as a warning to others. Rose guesses what might be happening, before the secret is fully revealed but it’s such an alien and deviant concept in modern society that she can’t believe it could be true. Could she ever be complicit in such a scheme? I found myself wondering how far the girls are ‘groomed’ into accepting this future or how many are knowingly acquiescing to it for the rewards of wealth, status and family honour. Rose is backed into a corner, by fear of what may have happened to her predecessor certainly, but also the knowledge that the school can reward her far beyond what she’s imagined. Her mother, severely disabled by multiple sclerosis, is placed within a state of the art care facility. Can Rose be bought, or will she try and walk away? However, does anyone walk away from Caldonbrae unscathed? Could Rose, as quiet as she seems, finds a way to walk away, but also bring down the whole system in her wake. This was an incredible, unputdownable, novel full of gothic atmosphere, and dark, patriarchal, purpose. However, there is also a feminist heroine ready to shine a light on long held secrets, even at the risk of that light becoming a burning flame.