The Governesses
by Anne Serre (Les gouvernantes; 1992)
translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson (2018)
US: New Directions (2018)
UK: Les Fugitives (2019)
112 pp

Who had inseminated Laura? Heaven only knows. An audacious suitor? A stranger? The elderly gentleman across the way, breathing into his spyglass as though it was a pipette? The eldest of the little boys? The possibilities, alas, were legion and the investigation Madame Austier had entrusted to the little maids turned up nothing. Laura denied having been impregnated by anyone. She had woken up one morning certain that she was expecting a child, and that’s all there was to it.

The Governesses is a wonderful book: an erotic fairy tale, barely 100 pages long, but every sentence finely honed, a credit to author, translator and publisher. The story tells of three governesses who work in a large country house and grounds for Monsieur and Madame Austeur, hired by the former:

When they hired the governesses the house had been peaceful. A bit too peaceful, perhaps.

It was chaos he needed. He was there to govern opposing forces, to conjure up sweet sounds and muffle shrill ones, to lead the orchestra with his baton, to blow on the embers and put out fires, to dispel darkness and raise the sun. Instead, here he was with a Madame Austeur who’d become an open book to him, obedient to his dreams, leaving him with nothing further to desire.

The day the governesses walked into the garden, Monsieur Austeur was standing behind the net curtains in the salon, keeping an eye out for their arrival. They advanced in single file: first Inès in a red dress, weighed down with hat boxes and bags, then Laura in a blue skirt, and, bringing up the rear, Eléonore, who was waving a long riding crop over the heads of a gaggle of little boys. He was amazed: it was life itself advancing. He rubbed his hands together and began jumping up and down in the salon. Into the garden they came, and with them a whole bundle of memories and desires, a throng of unfamiliar faces clutching at their dreams, their future children, their future sweethearts, the interminable cohort of their ancestors, the books they had read, the scents of flowers they had smelled, their blond legs and ankle boots, their gleaming teeth.

The Governesses can at times be serene and calm, but at other times their sexually voracious appetite leads them to offer men pressed up against the gates to the garden “a bottom or a breast, a mouth or a few hands,” and if any stranger is foolish enough to wander into the garden he “will be tackled head-on, licked, bitten and devoured in a ladylike manner.”

It’s obvious there’s a secret in their past. Nothing out of the ordinary perhaps, but something that has molded their character and shaped the way they move, the sound of their voices, their dreams, their habit of roaming around the garden with their hands pressed to their temples. The presence of that secret somewhere between the heart and the womb could also be said to have deprived them of free will, but then who can be said to possess free will? The governesses are like those clockwork toys that start walking when you wind a key in their back. Each morning, a key turns in their slim, aristocratic backs, and away they go, clapping their hands, rolling hoops, devouring strangers, spinning round, three little turns, each faster than the last. Every evening, they come home tired and a little more gentle. It’s at times like these that you can talk to them and be heard. For a few hours, the machinery has wound down. At times like these they don’t understand a thing about their gargantuan appetite. It horrifies and shames them. At times like these, they dream of being someone else and think it possible. They’d just need to jump around less, wear pale dresses perhaps, and change hairstyles. They vow to imitate Madame Austeur, to go out with her tomorrow gossiping about womanish things as they saunter past the clipped rosebushes, gathering up the wilted petals. Yet when tomorrow comes, they leap out of bed with a wicked gleam in their eye, grab their red dresses, break a window, lash out at the maids, run over to the gates, race across the lawns, sense an unfamiliar form hiding behind a dark tree, go over and start to pursue him, get dirty and tear their clothes.

Although the narrator is keen to emphasize the innocence of their “sport”:

That said, there’s nothing venal or flighty, nothing in the least bit unsavory, about the governesses. No unfortunate rumor has ever tarnished their reputation.

The set-up of the house is very stylized, with different groups, each playing their defined role. Monsieur and Madame Austeur (and their largely off-stage children), the three governesses, their wards, the hordes of “little boys,” the “little maids” who staff the house, all watched over by the “elderly gentleman” in the neighboring property through his telescope. And, in a largely closed system, those who come in from the outside seeking the governesses, the strangers, seeking pleasure only to be used and discarded. Indeed even the (unidentified) narrator and the reader play out their part.

What’s strange, even miraculous in a way, is that when you stay on your own side of the fence you manage to get on much better than in circumstances where you have to step out of your own skin, as it were, and inhabit someone else’s world; or, conversely, when someone gets it into their head to pay you a visit and comes in through the passageway you’re not so sure you wanted to unlock for them.

Occasionally the governesses threaten to leave, often going to far as to pack their bags and walk out of the house, but they never pass through the gates (and in one telling scene where they do attend a nearby society wedding, they are much diminished in confidence and physical appearance outside of their familiar world):

What is the point of parting? To live? And to live where exactly? In a livelier household than their present home? Yet someone in that far-off place would start to resemble Monsieur Austeur, someone else the elderly gentleman, the strangers, the suitors . . . . Everywhere you’d have the same gates, the same gardens, the same world woven with the same threads connecting a face to a secret room, another face to a second room, and all those scenes they’ll never be able to forget but have nevertheless forgotten.

It is at that point in the narration that, as the quote which opens my review suggests, Laura falls pregnant — almost the opposite of an immaculate conception given the number of potential suspects. Initially this threatens to disrupt the set-up, and change Laura, but she soon returns to her old-self and her son becomes just one of the many little boys.

But one of the novel’s point seems to be that the governesses, for all their apparent control over the men in the story, lack autonomy (the “clockwork toys” of an earlier quote), and exist mainly in the male gaze. And when the elderly gentleman decides to turn his telescope elsewhere, their world starts to disintegrate.

A wonderful novel.

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