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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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Review | Promising Young Women by Caroline O’Donoghue

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This year has truly brought to the fiction scene some of the most stunning and powerful female characters. From the extreme – such as My Absolute Darling’s Turtle Alveston – to the proudly millennial – such as Sally Rooney’s characters – there is now an abundance of female leads holding up a mirror to today’s society, reflecting many, often as of yet unarticulated observations and feelings.

In her debut novel, Caroline O’Donoghue has decided to tackle some of the most relevant issues concerning young women of the twenty-first century: gender imbalance at the workplace, career versus personal life, growing degrees of separation from friends and family, and grappling with adulthood in an era that demands that girls become women at an increasingly young age.

Jane Peters is a 26-year-old young woman living in London. She has worked for an advertising agency for around two years – largely unnoticed – and has been in a happy relationship with her boyfriend, Max. We meet her when all this is about to change. After embarking on a romantic relationship with her married, much older and more senior colleague, Clem, everything Jane knew begins to crumble. As her career advances, Jane cannot help but wonder whether this is solely due to her involvement with Clem – and as the relationship inevitably deteriorates, some darker secrets begin to surface. Jane will be tried both physically and mentally before she can emerge on the other side.

Promising Young Women starts out very promising indeed. The initial plot direction – that of a young woman having to balance her love life and her career, especially when the two are confined to the same space – is common enough for readers to be able to understand and sympathise. It has all the ingredients to become a solidly romantic story. O’Donoghue also gives Jane’s friendly relationships stage time: her best friend, Darla feels spiteful and jealous as Jane advances up the career ladder, and her co-worker, Becky, is desperately trying to make a friend out of Jane as her childhood friends all drift towards husbands and babies. It is really in this first half of the book that the ’promising’ angle is explored, and where O’Donoghue succeeds in creating a realistic world for many London-living women of age 25 and up.

In addition to her working life, Jane also runs an online agony aunt blog, where she anonymously dishes out life advice to those willing to listen. This is where she really thrives, although as is often the case, she is unable to take her own advice. There is context to this throughout the book: growing up with an absent father, Jane becomes the pillar of moral and emotional support for her mother until she later remarries. O’Donoghue does not let the absent father issues become a cliché, however, and her sharp language veers towards the satirical when Jane decides to unload her past onto Clem in what is deemed (at the time) a romantic moment. The entire book is written in an engaging and often satirical voice, which only occasionally suffers from over-explaining or repetition.

As the book proceeds to explore further Jane’s workplace affair, things become quite muddled, and take a turn for the dramatic. Introducing magical realism and thriller-esque elements, the novel veers towards a mix of genres where no single thread can really emerge as dominating. The original realist viewpoint is lost to what feels more like commercial women’s fiction. Characterisation suffers greatly – apart from Jane, none of the characters are truly explored, leaving them feeling somewhat shallow and one-dimensional. Jane often does not read like a 26-year-old. Clem is pictured as a villain; Becky, the loyal supporter, and Deb, an older co-worker as the mentor figure. There is no real spectrum between black and white characters.

How Do You Like Me Now by Holly Bournepublished earlier this year, is comparable to O’Donoghue’s novel in that it also actively aims to tackle early adulthood; but while Promising Young Women regularly skips between genres in the second, more fast-paced half of the novel (bringing the book to a thriller conclusion and abandoning its original, realistic tone), Bourne sticks to painting a convincing picture. Saying this however, it would of course be detrimental to expect the same thing of two contemporary writers, both fine writers who each demand different expectations, and are both enjoyable in their own way.

The author clearly has an original and engaging style, and the book is helped endlessly by the wit and humour in her writing. While at times Promising Young Women can feel like a writer finding their voice, this is part of the experimental energy of reading a debut author. From what we can see from this particular debut, O’Donoghue’s literary horizons are looking very promising indeed.

Promising Young WomenCaroline O’Donoghue, Little Brown Book Group, 2018, 352pp, £16.99 (hardback)

Words by Vera Sugár.

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Essay | Re-reading Frankenstein by Alice Dunn

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It is tempting to read Frankenstein as a means of understanding Mary Shelley. 200 years after the novel was first published, Alice Dunn asks, is that a bad thing?

Things most of us know about the novel Frankenstein: that its author Mary Shelley first thought of the idea for it during a ghost story competition among friends (Lord Byron, Dr John Polidori and husband Percy Shelley). And, perhaps after a quick slip of the tongue, we remember that the name ‘Frankenstein’ does not refer to the monster pictured on the cover (who is actually unnamed throughout), but to Victor Frankenstein, the monster’s creator.

Our thoughts then turn to Mary Shelley. It is tempting to approach Frankenstein, her first and best-known novel, for insight into her life. Leafing through my dog-eared copy, my eyes land on a single line addressing this query in the Introduction, which Mary Shelley wrote 13 years after the book was first published. She writes: “I shall thus give a general answer to the question, so very frequently asked me – How I, then a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?” How indeed? Re-reading Frankenstein swiftly followed by Mary Shelley’s biography, the similarities spookily emerge.

After many miscarriages and stillbirths, Mary Shelley had harrowing dreams about her lost children. Her own mother, the famous writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, died ten days after giving birth to her. So Mary was raised by her father William Godwin, the political philosopher and writer. He remarried when Mary was four, but she had a problematic and cold relationship with her stepmother. She met and fell in love with Percy Shelley, who was already married. They would reportedly meet regularly at Mary’s mother’s grave. She eloped with him and they travelled around Europe together, and she became quite alienated from her father and stepmother. Percy’s wife committed suicide and Mary and Percy married. Mary wrote Frankenstein and published it anonymously in 1818.

Now, to the story of Frankenstein briefly (warning – contains spoilers): Victor Frankenstein, weak and ill, is found by the captain of a ship and tells him about his life, his studies at university, his fascination with science and philosophy. He makes a creature out of old body parts (from “among the unhallowed damps of the grave”) and when his creation comes to life, he is repulsed by the sight of it. He has a series of nightmares about his mother as a corpse and the monster walks off into the night. He later meets the monster, who tells him about his battles with loneliness, constant rejection and need for companionship. The monster has learned to speak by observing a family living in a cottage and entering their house at night to read the books in their library. When Victor refuses to make a partner for him, the monster threatens to be with Frankenstein on his wedding night. Victor marries, and finds his bride murdered. Desperate for revenge, Victor catches sight of the monster just before meeting the captain, who finishes the narrative through letters: Victor becomes worse and dies. The monster vanishes into the distance to die.

If we look for traces of Mary Shelley in Frankenstein then we might see her in the monster: he is isolated and rejected, just as Mary was estranged from her family. His education in the cottagers’ library is reminiscent of her own: as a child, she had free reign of her father’s vast library. In her Introduction, she explains: “I am very averse to bringing myself forward in print”. The Monster is similarly shy, worried about putting himself forward until he has acquired conventional communication skills. But we can see Mary Shelley in Victor Frankenstein too: his travels in the novel, to Scotland and Geneva, mirror her own excursions. The thematic concerns with motherhood and creation reflect Mary’s tragic experiences.

Should we feel guilty for drawing these comparisons? It echoes criticism frequently (but not exclusively) discussed in relation to Jane Austen’s novels; that when we read work written by a woman, we are, by proxy, reading about their lives.

But if we see Frankenstein as broadly a work of autobiography, then aren’t we undermining the power of Shelley’s imagination and knowledge while doing a great disservice to her intelligence and skills as a writer? We know that Shelley was well read in contemporary science (she explains that the way Victor brings his creature to life was inspired by the experiments conducted by Dr Erasmus Darwin as he animated vermicelli in a glass). She attended lectures on science in London.

Although it’s surely wrong that women’s writing is so readily assumed to be autobiographical, we also can’t help but feel that it’s only natural that the author should write from personal experience. Perhaps one way round this problem is to broaden our understanding of ‘personal experience’. So in Shelley’s case, we should consider how her personal experience of literature and science shaped her writing. That way we are not ignoring the parallels between Shelley and her literary creations at the same time as taking into account her genius.

Whatever your stance, I think this debate only makes for even more colourful reading. And after 200 years, that is a wonderful thing.

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