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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Governesses

Anne Serre

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To purchase The Governesses

Title: The Governesses
Author: Anne Serre
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 110 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Governesses - US
The Governesses - UK
The Governesses - Canada
Les gouvernantes - Canada
Les gouvernantes - France
  • French title: Les gouvernantes
  • Translated by Mark Hutchinson

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Our Assessment:

B : appealingly otherworldly

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times . 28/11/2018 Parul Sehgal
Publishers Weekly . 30/7/2018 .
TLS . 25/10/2019 Catherine Humble

  From the Reviews:
  • "It’s a rawboned little story -- a novella, really -- prim and racy, seriously weird and seriously excellent; a John Waters sex farce told with the tact and formality of a classic French fairy tale. (...) This novel’s ideas about shame, constraint, lust and abandon are as subtle as the sex is frank, conveyed through insinuation and metaphor. The Governesses is not a treatise but an aria, and one delivered with perfect pitch: a minor work, defiantly so, but the product of a significant talent." - Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

  • "Serre’s wistful ode to pleasure is as enchanting as its three nymph-like protagonists." - Publishers Weekly

  • "As it is, however, Serre’s women remain ciphers. The book’s power instead rests on its enigmatic affect: the novella exerts a strange and memorable ambience. But the sense of mystery begins to irritate, and, despite its implicit critique of male fantasy, Serre’s novella fails to wrest its women from their sexual stereotypes (...). Fabular it might be, but modern fairy tales work best when they have one foot in reality." - Catherine Humble, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The governesses of the title are a close trio -- distinct individuals (named Eléonore, Laura, and Inès) but close-knit and, much of the time, acting much as one. They are employed by Monsieur and Madame Austeur (with hints of both austere and author in that name, in both the original French and English), and look after a gaggle of boys; the Austeurs have four children, but the kids are barely distinguishable, the governesses (very loosely) watching over an indistinct herd.
       The governesses are hardly paragons of the profession, and when first introduced it's suggested:

     Were you to base an assessment of the governesses' professional skills on this particular evening, you would conclude that Monsieur and Madame Austeur had been most remiss in hiring the services of such a scatterbrained band of young women. You would even wager there was something fishy going on.
       Subsequent events and behavior would not change that impression .....
       The Austeurs' home is a world unto its own, behind its gates. Outsiders come in -- including strangers who venture onto the grounds and find themselves ravished by the governesses -- but the governesses live in a weird sort of semi-isolation -- for better and worse, as: "in a house as cut off from the world as theirs is, nothing seems astonishing anymore". So also life here is filled various forms of game-playing -- with and for the boys, certainly, but also adult variations for themselves.
       Life also feels largely unchanging, and though the governesses contemplate change -- they occasionally pretend to pack up and leave their positions, for example, playing: "their parts so well that everyone is taken in by their little game, including themselves" -- nothing ever seems to come of it: the couple, the boys, and the governesses themselves continue to move around in their familiar orbits, time hardly even marked by any obvious passing of the years. So also, while they contemplate uprooting themselves and settling in elsewhere, they understand that the fundamentals would remain unchanged:
But 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, and all those scenes they'll never forget and have nevertheless forgotten.
       It's not that life is uneventful -- one of the governesses even has a child over the course of the story -- and yet there's a dreamlike same- and vagueness to their lives that enveloped them as soon as they arrived, leaving them without: "much of a past either, which well and truly died the day they entered the service of Monsieur and Madame Austeur". And, indeed, one wonders:
What bomb would need to be dropped on the house for life all of a sudden to change direction ?
       While the governesses have some power and control -- amply on display in their handling of stray strangers who they have their way with when they fall into their hands -- they're also role-players for the story's two dominant males.
       It's made clear that: "Monsieur Austeur is the master of the house", and hiring the governesses was his solution to a domestic situation that had grown too calm: "It was chaos he needed", and the governesses, the irresistible young ladies, brought just that -- Monsieur Austeur immediately recognizing that he'd made the right choice when he observes them arriving, behind a curtain in his salon: "He rubbed his hands and began jumping up and down in the salon". Some tension remains: discovering the pleasures to be had with strangers, the governesses recognize that: "with Monsieur Austeur around, there was no room in the house for another male presence" -- and hence, it's suggested: "the governesses are inevitably going to think, sooner or later, of ridding themselves of Monsieur Austeur". He, meanwhile, goes along with Madame Austeur's plan of trying to marry them off -- though: "he can't really be said to throw his full weight behind it" --; needless to say, while the governesses enjoy the game ("The governesses love attending the parade of suitors"), nothing can come of this.
       At greater remove, but no less significantly, the governesses are also under the watchful eye of an elderly gentleman, a voyeur who trains his spyglass on them and keeps close track of their doings:
It's as though, with the onset of old age and the infirmities that come with it, he had decided to devote himself exclusively to the governesses across the way. They know this and enjoy it.
       His gaze is even some comfort to them, another hold against their fear, of the gossamer delicacy of their very state of existence and how easily it could all collapse:
They would look round and everything that had made up their past, their entire life to that point, would have vanished. What keeps them there is that all of them have the impression -- separately, in secret -- of underwriting its reality. Were one of them to go missing, everything would disappear ....
       The elderly gentleman doesn't just observe, he keeps a close record of their lives and doings, in a notebook -- in which: "he doesn't simply describe things, he draws conclusions, makes suppositions, mulls things over, double-checks". There's a sense that his record is in some ways like the detached narrative itself -- though an example from his notebooks is presented, to clearly differentiate the two.
       The governesses are aware of their status as subjects -- overtly, under the constant, penetrating (if not completely -- "If only I had a telescope that could see through net curtains !" he complains) male gaze of the elderly gentleman (and, in a slightly different way, that of their master, Monsieur Austeur). But they are also subjects of the narrative itself, characters in this imagined story, completely dependent for their very existence on the whims of the author/observer/narrator, who ultimately exerts complete control. And the novella builds to an unusual little final twist, suggestive of just how at the mercy of observer/recorders the governesses are .....
       In a way it feels like The Governesses is all elaborate scene-setting for that final strange twist, a story (over-)elaborated on just to be able to get to, and make, that one point; as such, it feels a bit overdone, a neat little point made with entirely too much rambling preamble. Yet much of the appeal of The Governesses comes in that rambling, capturing and mirroring the almost aimless drift and uncertainty of the characters, and all in a beautiful tone, elusive and mysterious and playful, just as the governesses themselves are.
       If not entirely successful, The Governesses is nevertheless an enjoyably odd piece of work, all along its strange ways.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 May 2019

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The Governesses: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       French author Anne Serre was born in 1960.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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