The Governesses

Anne Serre’s The Governesses, her first novel to be translated into English, begins with a description of two of the three title characters walking towards the large country house where they are employed. It will be one of many instances where the narrative acts like a camera focused on the governesses, like the telescope of the elderly gentleman across the way who watches them intently. The detailed description suggests a primness which is restraining some diabolic energy underneath, from the “hair held firmly in place by black hairnets” to “the ten pearl buttons which keep the sleeves of her blouse stretched tightly about her wrists.” This hidden primal force is literally revealed in flashes:

“A gleam from her yellow leather ankle-boots lashes the grass by the path, then jumps up like a startled hare.”

The governesses – Laura, Eleonore and Ines – all have a past, but one which been expunged in coming to work for Monsieur and Madame Austeur:

“Where are they from? It’s hard to say. But it’s safe to assume that, in spite of their young age, they had experienced some sort of tragedy in their life, at least once.”

Eleonore – we are told – “lived with Tom for six years, Laura had seven love affairs and Ines a similar number.” Now, though, their behaviour, in the most conventional of settings, is stripped of convention, and their character of antecedents:

“The governesses are like those clockwork toys that start walking when you wind a key in their backs.”

In questioning what control the governesses have over their actions, the novel asks more generally, “who can be said to possess free will?” In particular, the governesses are slaves to their physical desires. These they assuage by hunting strangers in the grounds of the house:

“They’re not going to let him vanish like that… He can’t be far. Over there is a patch of green darting between the leaves. The hunt begins.”

Once caught, they make use of him until he has “been bled dry, his handsome, open hands lying lifeless beside his body.” For all their grace (they are frequently compared to the Three Graces), the governesses’ instincts are animal, though something of both is suggested in comparisons to butterflies and swallows, a description ultimately centred on their sex. Lying naked in the sun, they “surrender to the dragonflies who have begun their assault on their gleaming fleeces;” the same “gleaming thatch of hair where pale yellow butterflies alight.” Continuing the same association, the strangers “walk into the silky trap that was the secret of his own desire” and “being tucked up in their silky soft cocoons is a homecoming.” (Being placed together these images may seem rather forced, but in the novel such connections have to be teased out, and indicate how beautifully Mark Hutchinson has translated Serre’s work).

Cumulatively these images suggest something fairy-like about the governesses, but for all their power, the governesses are also limited by, for example, the house itself, seemingly unable to leave the grounds:

“All three are wearing yellow dresses as they stand pressed up against the garden gates at dusk.”

Men are attracted to them as they stand there, like moths to a flame one might say, except they are the butterflies drawn to the male gaze:

“Sometimes he cries, so they offer him a bottom or a breast, a mouth, a few hands.”

The male gaze also makes itself felt in the novel in the form of the little boys who, when the governesses strip naked:

“…gaze at them in silence, petrified. For the rest of their lives, they will love only governesses naked in a soft green meadow.”

Above all, the elderly gentleman with his telescope keeps a constant watch on the governesses, something they seem fully aware of:

“…all of a sudden he’ll see her staring back at him, opening her mouth to poke a snake-like tongue at him.”

If we were uncertain before, the novel’s conclusion suggests that the power which the governesses gain from their unrestrained sexuality is still contained within a masculine world, a reading consistent with Monsieur Austeur’s role:

“By noon, Monsieur Austeur had turned back into a man, and the house once more had a centre – wherever Monsieur Austeur happened to be located.”

The Governesses is a strange, unsettling tale, at times comic, at others disturbing. By dressing in the well-worn fictional costume of the nineteenth century, only with everything at a different angle, it shocks and provokes the reader, creating something entirely new.

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4 Responses to “The Governesses”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It certainly *does* sound very unusual Grant – not your usual literary take on the governess by a long chalk! 😀

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    A new name to me so thank you for the introduction. I couldn’t help but think of some of Slivina Ocampo’s strangely unsettling stories as I was reading your review. That said, Serre’s novel appears to have another dimension, an additional charge of sexual tension.

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