Reckoning with Woman’s Body: On Anne Serre’s "The Governesses"
Anne Serre | The Governesses | New Directions | September 25, 2018 | 112 Pages | Translated by Mark Hutchinson
In Anne Serre’s The Governesses, skin is laid bare as women are used as canvases for beauty. Depending on their temperaments, Ines, Laura, and Eléonore take the form of noble figures from an Ingres painting, ethereal Artemises, or obscene Graces. Indifferent to the modest relationship a nineteenth-century woman is expected to have with her body, these governesses lie out in the sun until their skin turns a pinkish hue and sweat trickles down their necks and armpits to the folds of their groins. Within their bodies, a transformation occurs unwaveringly and indomitably at adolescence. No one, not even the women themselves, is present to signify all that these changes entail for them. Inès, Laura, and Eléonore experience this entrance into womanhood, this gestation, in the confines of the Austeur household. The Governesses presents three women as they attempt to reject traditional prohibitions of womanhood while remaining complacent within larger systems of power. In doing so, the girls reveal the fragility of gendered systems of power and the danger of submitting to superfluous social roles.
The governesses joined the Austeur household at sixteen years old, on the threshold of their sexual awakening. Before beginning their work as the Austeur’s governesses, we know only that the girls left their families behind to work for this family soon after finishing school. Governesses are responsible for the children's’ education, so one would expect the girls to uphold Victorian values. Instead, from the onset they are enigmatic, with no history to ground their characters. What they wear influences their behavior, and the reader can only ever understand them as carnal, corporeal figures. In a green evening dress, Eléonore becomes a woman “quite capable of devouring a stranger,” and not ashamed to expose her “icy butt to whoever wishes to see it.” Yet earlier the same day, while strolling through the garden, a blue dress had rendered her “a thousand times more romantic.” In blue, Eléonore becomes much more self-composed. Blue distances her from unseemly urges and turns her into a “true governess.” These dramatic transformations establish the governesses as more akin to mythical creatures than to regular women. It quickly becomes clear that what is directly expressed in the narrative will barely reveal the governesses beyond these facades.
If the governesses’ temperaments are mercurial, their desires are unchanging. The three girls routinely stand pressed up against the garden gates at dusk, waiting for vulnerable men to come near the estate—preferably on foot—to be seduced. When a man strays near, he acquires a furious desire to enter the gate and possess the young women. This trap precedes a game in which, to play with the man, the governesses offer him “a bottom or a breast, a mouth, or a few hands” through the metal bars. The ritual reduces them to disembodied figures, mere parts of a woman offering herself for the pleasure of a man. Yet the governesses do not seem to mind. More men flock to the estate, and the girls pass entire evenings in this way.
Other times, the golden gates of the estate open—seemingly of their own volition—to let in one of these strangers. The governesses leave the confines of the house to hunt for the man in the gardens. An animalistic frenzy ensues, in which the girls become fury-like creatures as scratches appear on their arms, their legs drip with mud, and their skirts fill with primal odors. When they finally catch a man, they lick, bite, and devour him in what is ironically described as “a ladylike manner.” When he’s been bled dry and lies frozen from the cold, they put his clothes back on, leave him in the dirt, and retreat quietly back to their rooms. This ceremony happens once a month, as though the governesses have cast a spell that lures men into the boundaries of the estate.
The complexity of feminine desire and longing consumes the governesses. By instigating sexual encounters with men, the girls appropriate their own places in the social contract between the sexes. They reject prohibitions placed on women’s bodies: if they must watch the Austeur children in the gardens, they do so only while lying down and smoking, pulling their skirts above their thighs, and unbuttoning their blouses. Only in an unexpected pregnancy does Laura nearly become a tractable maternal figure. For a while, she enjoys the attention she receives from the other women, and wonders if she had only become pregnant to change her role in the household. During her pregnancy she does not dream of leaving the estate, nor of going to the gate to tease men.
Comparatively, Laura’s pregnancy unnerves Monsieur Austeur. Due to her newfound motherhood, he loses his ability to maintain order in the household. Before the child was born, he would stay up late to make sure the other members of the house went to sleep peacefully. He believed that without his late-night vigilance, his boys would fly out the windows, his wife would expose herself on the porch, and the walls of the house itself would crumble. When the child arrives, the house falls into disarray as the women leave bottles out, stay up late, and give all their attention to the baby. The women are completely unaffected by Monsieur Austeur’s presence.
The patriarch no longer presides over the house and, for nearly two years, maternal instinct dominates. Monsieur Austeur becomes a deadweight among the feminine toiling and wonders how his authority could be so effortlessly usurped by an infant. He shuts himself in his study, and when he must walk by the nursery, he does so only on tiptoe. Dethroned by a child, he quietly realizes he only keeps order until the next man can take over. He eventually returns, of course, to his former role, but the change is a stark reminder of the fragility of social order.
As Monsieur Austeur resumes his paternal role, Laura falls back into her former self. As the baby grows older, she sees him as she would any other man, and no longer as the creature she had borne into the world. In his gaze, she recognizes both the look of “a man dying” and “the face of someone who loves her but must leave.” This cryptic reaction is indicative of the style of the novel, which tells reveals little of the characters’ motivations and feelings. Grieving what she perceives as the loss of her child, Laura delegates the responsibilities of motherhood to the other women in the household. She cannot live within the confines of womanhood and cannot bear to love a child that may not reciprocate this love. This is the most telling moment of The Governesses: Laura, just like Inès and Eléonore, is not satisfied with a perpetually-assigned role of maintaining, developing, and preserving the socio-symbolic relations between men and women. She seeks to appropriate her own space in the Austeur household, but to do so, she feels she must reject traditional spaces of femininity.
Throughout all these events, an elderly neighbor watches quietly from his window. Each of the characters is aware of his presence—the governesses even put on a show for him by flashing their bare bottoms, sticking out their tongues, or playacting marriage before his telescope. Sometimes they go so far as to strip and play as the Three Graces, putting their hair in buns and covering their sex absentmindedly with their hands. In this way, the neighbor’s gaze compels the governesses to actively take on roles of the classical women they so often embody. By relishing in his gaze, the governesses are permanently reduced to women who exist for male pleasure, even if they seek to live out their own. Their interest in being watched shows that the governesses have not broken free from the underlying asymmetry between the sexes.
After years of watching the events of the household unfold, the elderly gentleman stops watching. Without an audience, the governesses feel they are disappearing and retreat into nonexistence. The abrupt end to their story suggests that despite all the governesses did to subvert the traditional roles delegated to women, they failed to carve out a new identity unaffected by traditional gender relations. As their actions were secretly driven for the pleasure of one man’s gaze, they remained implicated in the social order. Perhaps true social revolution requires something much more radical than the subversion of sexual desire or the rejection of motherhood, especially if it is done for the pleasure of the male gaze. By yearning for an audience, the governesses remained reduced to the role of an exotic other.
Surreal and erotic, Anne Serre’s writing explores woman’s powers, potency, and regions of femininity. Her writing advances notions of women’s sexual pleasure and produces a portrait of feminine consciousness that rejects a classic understanding of womanhood. She does not write in platitudes, nor does she dig up worn-out fairytales of women to depict the intimate lives of her governesses. Instead, Serre’s writing is shaped by a forceful return of a female libido that refuses to be put down and yearns to exist outside culture’s preconceptions. In her book, Serre finds language to describe women that is savage and yet makes itself understood. Even if the governesses do not succeed in carving out their own space in the Austeur mansion, their story warns of a downfall women face when they become complacent in reductive gender roles. In Serre’s economic writing, there is a need to decipher what cannot be said, what is expressed implicitly yet nonetheless arouses the desire for words: that is the drama of The Governesses.