The Governesses


Something is happening in French-language literature right now that makes me dearly regret stopping at GCSE. In the last few months I’ve devoured three short and piercingly acute new translations from French that have made me think hard about animal and human nature: Little Beast, To Leave with the Reindeer, and now The Governesses.

These particular governesses change colour like crystals catching the light. In fact, with them, you never quite know where you are.


Why do there have to be three of them after all, in an upper-middle-class household with an indeterminate number of little boys in their charge? How on earth were they employed in the first place, and how long will they stay, since the boys don’t seem to be growing up particularly rapidly? These and other rather practical questions never get answered.

This is not exactly Austen or Brontë territory. They don’t seem to suffer many of the usual consequences such behaviour as theirs has in Victorian novels. Even the appearance of a baby, not to be unexpected really, is but a hindrance that turns the household temporarily upside-down, before it stops being interesting altogether. The governesses are not hunted, they are the huntswomen.


The governesses might be witches, in fact. They are undoubtedly aware of their own power, and prepared to use it. But also prepared to let go of it for a while, when it suits them.


I will definitely be looking to get my hands on more Anne Serre in translation, or writing to Mark Hutchinson to hurry along the next one (Fortunately The Fool is scheduled for publication, also by New Directions, in September) if I can’t find enough. Or maybe taking French A level – all things considered, lessons with a governess might be a bit of a risk…

Translator, editor, writer, reader

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