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Anne Serre: Les Gouvernantes (The Governesses)

I am not sure whether you describe this book as a classic French fairy story or, rather as an anti-fairy story or, better still, a post-modernist fairy story. Whatever you call it, Serre is not Charles Perrault and this story is not Cinderella.

Our governesses are Eléonore, Laura and Inès. They work for M. and Mme. Austeur. The name is no accident as the couple are fairly austere. They are clearly well off but not particularly happily married. They have four young sons but their sex life has not been particularly exciting. They clearly represent stability, order and convention. Indeed, M. Austeur’s role is defined as regulating the breathing of the household with his heart, and, with his solitude held firmly in place by his large square armchair, counterbalancing the chaos that streams in from the bedrooms, prowls on the landings, pokes its nose out from under the doors. She is described as ever so respectable.

The three governesses, however, are the antithesis of their employers. What they represent can best be defined as chaos – M. Austeur hired them because he needed some chaos in his life which he certainly did not get from his wife. They also represent nature, the force and power of nature, as well as the joy of nature and, of course, to go with that power, they represent sex. They have no family or parents, and not much of a past either, which well and truly died the day they entered the service of Monsieur and Madame Austeur.

It is not clear where the three came from but M. Austeur hired them because he needed chaos and also someone to look after his sons. But they are not your conventional governesses. They are not demure and well-behaved, knowing their place and behaving in a ladylike manner. They are not bad or wicked or badly behaved but they are a force of nature.

We first meet them when they are organising a party. Again, this is not your usual party. The Austeur family are out at the seaside for the day and will return that afternoon, when the party will officially start. But Eléonore and Laura have got things going (Inès, to her annoyance, is looking after the elderly gentleman over the road). The guests seem to consist entirely of unruly young boys who run wild, breaking vases and a window in the greenhouse, but nobody really seems to care.

The party itself seems to be somewhat symbolic of life. We have the unruly boys and then we have the boys who are frightened of the unruly boys. The unruly boys are also allowed to dance naked, drink naked, and expose themselves all of a sudden on the front porch. This carries on, despite the fact that the party does not officially start, as the Austeurs do not turn up.

Unbridled activity is key to the natures of the governesses but so is sex. They flirt with the young men who appear at the gate of the the house and even let them them fondle them inappropriately. However, let any young man who strays into the garden ha better beware. He is seized upon, taken into the wood and raped. Even with their young charges, sex is apparent as they take them on a walk and then sunbathe in the nude. For the rest of their lives, they will love only governesses naked in a soft green meadow.

The elderly gentleman over the road, whom Inés was looking after, also enjoys them. He watches them continually through his telescope. They are well aware of this and expose themselves to him. At times, they’re frankly obscene, and the elderly gentleman, though very distinguished, revels in it. They even have love affairs. A young man seems to be shared among the three. He comes to the house and is adored but then gets tired.

It is not only sex. Sometimes they will go off for log – three day – walks and will come back after almost freezing to death, getting burned, cutting themselves on the razor-sharp grass and bleeding.

Things change when Laura gets pregnant. She denies having been impregnated by anyone though we are aware of at least one man she has raped. Mme Austeur had thought of marrying the three governesses off but they were having none of it. Laura has a baby and he soon grows and mixes in with the other boys.

So who are they? More than once they are likened to the The Three Graces, described in the link as goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity, goodwill, and fertility, which these three certainly are. In many respects they are human or, at least, anthropoid, The only real oddity about them is their arrival and departure. They are also one of those type of people, of which there are numerous examples on this site, where an outsider comes into a small group and completely disrupts it, their departure as mysterious as their arrival.

Examples include Ivan Vladislavic‘s The Folly, Hilary Mantel‘s Fludd, Ali Smith‘s The Accidental and Simone de Beauvoir‘s L’invitée (She Came to Stay), though the best-known is a film: Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s film Teorema (Theorem).

However you take them, this a most original novel and Serre manages to transport us to a fairy-tale world which is not your conventional fairy-tale world, giving us an unusual and, in many ways, unsuspected tale of love, lust, sex, fertility and life.

First published 1992 by Champ Vallon
First published in English as in 2018 by New Directions
Translated by Mark Hutchinson