Review | The Governesses by Anne Serre, tr. by Mark Hutchinson

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In a large country house enclosed by a gold-gated garden, three young governesses are responsible for the education and general well-being of a group of adolescent boys. Inside, the governesses are willed into reason, order and a melancholic calm by the authorial Monsieur Austeur and his timid wife. But in the chaos of the ethereal garden, the governesses are free, wild and untamed, running around in a state of frenzied desire. Every evening they lie in wait for an opportunity to devour a passing stranger who strayed from the beaten path — all the while spied upon by a neighbouring old man and his inquisitive telescope.

Those who enjoy a surrealist fable are in for a treat with the English publication of The Governesses, with credit owed to author, translator, and publisher for crafting such a pleasurable read.

Led by editor Cécile Menon, publisher Les Fugitives has one clear aim — to disperse “short, new writing by award-winning francophone female authors previously unavailable in English or in the UK.” In this instance, we are gifted with Mark Hutchinson’s excellent translation of Anne Serre’s 1992 novel Les Gouvernantes. While many translations can often seem fragmented, losing the essence of the original prose, the great success of Les Fugitives has been to capture the crispness, spontaneity, and immediacy of the source material. Here, as with last year’s Now, Now Louison, Hutchinson’s translation of Anne Serre’s delicious French fable feels effortlessly satisfying.

“They took another taste of the governesses’ mouths
and found all the seasons there.”
— The Governesses, p.89

The Governesses opens a discussion on sexuality, orchestrated by a female triad whose chaotic energy inspires nervous lust in those who gaze upon them. The transgressive fantasy perfectly appeases our growing desire to liberate female sexuality from its status as a taboo and unspoken topic. It acts as a rebellion against male domination over female desire, with the governesses’ sexual encounters with men resembling a predator stalking its prey, and strips traditional patriarchal ideology of its power by placing these wild women into the world of the aristocracy. What is most unique to the narrative is that it is not just an expression of female sexuality, but a healthy exploration of lust and desire from all perspectives — a complete surrendering to passion. This inclusivity enables all readers to reexamine their personal relationship with desire.
Define desire.
Do we feel free to express our desire?
Are we a slave to pleasure?

Can we separate lust from love?

“They’ll love him, yes, but only while he’s inside them.
The moment he’s outside, they’ll hate him.
They’ll pretend to love him, to make sure he comes back,
but behind their sweet nothings and tender glances
will be two frenzied nymphs who will tear him to pieces
if he doesn’t hurry up.”
— The Governesses, p.26

The book has been described by the New York Times as “a John Waters sex farce told with the tact and formality of a classic French fairy tale”, and it is this other-worldliness —bordering on the uncanny— that makes the novel so fascinating. Though it is a novel imbued with sensuality, everything about The Governesses is so powerfully symbolic that it would be wrong to view the book as simply erotica. It is the chaos we need. Beyond the surface level eroticism, the narrative serves as both a timeless and archetypal reflection on class, gender, loneliness and isolation. It comes as a pleasant surprise to discover that the original transcript was published in 1992, as it feels so fresh and relevant to a contemporary reader.  

“By clipping their wings, arranging a lock of hair,
correcting a facial expression, adjusting their bodies
and persuading them to rein themselves in
and be a little more accommodating,
Madame Auster is hopeful of securing a happy future for them.”
— The Governesses, p.58

We find ourselves helplessly trying to compartmentalise Serre’s women, try to figure out what it is they are exactly, but in doing so we struggle to embrace the book’s enchanted nature. In order to fully appreciate the governesses, we must adopt an open mind, viewing them as mysterious devices resembling Greek nymphs or the Sirens from the Odyssey, rather than judging their actions as if they were real human characters with moral and social duties. 

By the time we reach the conclusion of the book, everything is seemingly pointless as to define the book by traditional narrative structures would be to miss the point. Serre diverts away from the tradition fairy-tale as there is no clear moral to the narrative — in fact, there is no distinct structural arc throughout. Instead, there is a vague past and an intangible future, as the characters exist only in the mystical world of Monsieur Auster’s Chateau, and his enchanted garden. Most – if not all – of our questions and curiosities are left unanswered (Was this just an intensely wayward and sensual story? A dream masquerading as fiction?). The Governesses is nothing more than a witnessing of the scenes of everyday life, a reality that exists outside of plot dynamics.

“The golden gates will open suddenly, as if by magic,
and another stranger will succumb to their spell,
trapped in the warm night of their private world.”
— The Governesses, p.23

Like all fantasies, The Governesses is not designed to make sense. Rather, we devour Serre’s literature as the governesses devour their men — draining it of its sweet honey until nothing remains.

Words by Briony Willis.
Click here to read an exclusive extract from The Governesses


The Governesses, Anne Serre, trans. by Mark Hutchinson, Les Fugitives, 2019, pp. 108, £10.00.
For more information and to purchase, visit Les Fugitives


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