The Governesses is easily one of the stand-out books of 2018 for me. I love everything about it – from the playful and mannered prose to the cinematic and stylized storytelling. The fenced in house and garden remind me of an elaborate glass terrarium like you might find in a Victorian parlor… a whimsical, shrunken down version of the Temperate House in Kew Gardens. And all the eccentric characters! I imagined herds and herds of children, boys and “maids” (I never quite figured out whether the maids were meant to be little girls or the domestic help) stampeding through every scene. The entire effect is magical.
Below is an excerpt from my review. The Inhumanity of Isolation: Anne Serre’s The Governesses, translated by Mark Hutchinson at Vol. 1 Brooklyn (October 31, 2018).
The Governesses by Anne Serre teases its readers with elements of allegory and fairy story. Three young women stroll through the gates of a manor house, the kingdom of M. and Mme. Austier and home to innumerable little maids and boys. Eléonore, Laura and Inès, the titular governesses, are entirely lacking in their roles. It is immediately clear to even the densest of readers that no one would hire this trio to watch over a pen of guinea pigs, let alone a houseful of children. As the narrator tells us – “You would even wager there was something fishy going on.”
Fishy, indeed. This “scatterbrained band of young women” seldom do the work for which they are employed: i.e. – educating the little boys in their identical sailor suits, who are forever rolling hoops up and down the stairs and looking for all the world like the faceless figures in an M.C. Escher drawing. Instead, the governesses prefer to spend their time lolling around naked in fields, performing lewd pantomimes for the elderly gentleman who spies on them from across the way, and ravishing the strange and anonymous men who innocently “stray into the garden”. They behave and are treated more like pampered princesses than employees. Shallow and vain, if cell phones existed in their sheltered little world (and there is no indication that they do) Eléonore, Laura and Inès would be posting an endless stream of selfies to Instagram – #BlessedLife.
All through the house, on the stairs and landings, little boys march up and down, passing each other in silence. Sometimes a hoop trundles down the stairs and bounces across the wide hall. Only once does it go all the way through the wall without stopping and on into the salon, catching on a vase on one of the side-tables. Whereupon children arrive half a dozen together to pick up the pieces.
You can read the full review here.