‘The Governesses’ by Anne Serre

Fiction – paperback; Les Fugitives; 120 pages; 2019. Translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Originally published in 1992, Anne Serre’s novella The Governesses has just been translated into English for the first time.

This quirky, dream-like tale is akin to an exotic and erotic fairy tale for adults. Strange and beguiling, it tells the story of three young governesses — Eléonore, Inès and Laura — who live in a grand country estate where they are employed to educate a bevy of little boys for Monsieur and Madame Austeur.

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.

This trio of alluring young women swan about doing very little except to act on their wild sexual urges, flinging off their clothes and running about the grounds as if on fire. Often they pursue innocent would-be suitors, who have wandered through the golden gates of the secluded estate, and run them down as if they are prey to be devoured. Once caught, they are then used for the governesses’ carnal pleasure.

Observing this from afar is the elderly gentleman who lives across the road in another grand house. He has a telescope and spies on the shenanigans next door, mistakenly thinking that the women don’t know what he is up to. But they are very much aware of his voyeuristic tendencies — and play up to them.

Once more they were jumping around on the lawns, soliciting his gaze and signalling to him, clapping their hands when they discovered the reflection of his telescope once more playing over their dresses and the wall of the house, or climbing into the trees like a butterfly in summer.

This might make the story seem little more than a succession of erotic romps, but the dream-like quality of the writing married with a series of rather exquisite metaphors makes it feel like an enigmatic fable. Scratch the surface and there’s a lot going on here, about nature, sexual repression, romantic love, desire and the male gaze.

I loved the dark sensuality of the tale, the ripple of black humour that underpins it and the gorgeous, languid quality of the prose, so expertly translated by Mark Hutchinson.

The Governesses has been released by independent press Les Fugitives, which is dedicated to publishing Francophone authors, mostly female, previously unavailable in the UK.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault’ by Angela Carter: This slim volume features 10 of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, translated from French (in 1977), to which Carter has added her own distinct twists and tongue-in-cheek morals.

3 thoughts on “‘The Governesses’ by Anne Serre

  1. Oh, I like the sound of this, Kim. I can imagine it working well as a film too. The story seems very visual, if that makes sense – full of striking imagery.

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  2. Oh yes, it’s a really visual book. There’s a big focus on nature so there are lush descriptions of the grounds in which the governesses frolic and there’s a real sense of the changing of the seasons. It would make a terrific film but they might have to tone down the sexual elements!

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  3. I’ve never heard of a family having more than one governess, but I suppose that’s part of the fantasy. I’ve read and enjoyed some Angela Carter and I will add The Governesses to the long list of books I would happily have read if it had popped up in front of me.

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