The Governesses by Anne Serre

Translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson.

The child grew. Scarves and little cardigans were knitted for him, and such enormous quantities of miniature socks that no one knew what to do with them. The women in the house were all at it, from Madame Austeur in her white salon, her workbasket at her side, to the little maids unspooling cherry-red and sky-blue balls of wool under the porches. Every time Monsieur Austeur walked through the house, he had the impression of a nest being built. There were scraps of wool everywhere: on the rugs and mantelpieces, dangling from the wainscoting or wound round the banister posts on the stairs. Everywhere he went women would be knitting away without so much as a glance in his direction.

It was starting to get on his nerves. Miniature clothes were piled up on the dressing tables and commodes, and on one occasion he even found a pair of pretty red booties on his desk, which certainly didn’t belong there. He lost his temper and called for a semblance of order in the house. He even employed the word ‘respect’. But nobody was listening. They continued to toil away blindly like ants, avoiding him whenever they crossed his path, making him feel like an obstacle, a deadweight, a sort of menhir whose founding role had long been forgotten. So he shut himself away in the smoking-room, lonelier than ever. Even his midnight vigils had ceased to serve any real purpose. No one needed him to put them back on orbit any more, to soothe and direct their sleep. His ministerings were in vain. The center of the house had shifted. It was now located in the room adjoining Laura’s on the first floor, behind a cloud of muslin, screaming, crying, laughing, fresh as a baby waterfall.

It was this still unformed voice and consciousness that henceforth regulated the movements of the household. To Monsieur Austeur it came as a shock. What! His age and experience and all the hardships he had endured could simply be usurped by this tiny creature with next to no knowledge of life? Was the child’s arrival in the world really enough to unthrone him—he who, on account of his age and experience and the hardships he had endured, had always felt entitled to run the house? It was as though his whole life up to that point had been weighed on some strange scale and judged of no more worth than the featherweight of existence enjoyed by this piddling little infant.

Madame Austeur could sense her husband’s confusion. She would have liked to come to his aid but had herself been swept up like a wisp of straw on this powerful new tide, and had no sooner turned to him with open arms than she disappeared from view, as though swallowed up by the room on the first floor.

Had the governesses been more thoughtful, they might have shown him more respect. But what a fool he had been to count on their support! They no more knew what they were doing than Madame Austeur did; as tenderhearted as the little maids, they sank down in this ocean of softness, bouncing happily about in a kind of zero gravity.

And to think he’d expected them to rally round at the first puff of smoke from his cigar! That, whatever the circumstance, whatever the temptations, it was to him they would turn, him they would support with their powerful young love.

Wounded, Monsieur Austeur spent more and more time out of doors: in the orchard, where he would clip the trees; in town, where he suddenly had things to do; or on long walks that led nowhere and only brought him back to a house where life had withdrawn to a spot that was off-bounds to him.

Nobody prevented him from entering that room, and yet he couldn’t help tiptoeing past it, removing his shoes on the landing when he came in late. And were the door to start open while he was standing there, he would hurry back to his living quarters, hugging the walls like a burglar, without once finding the slender, austere silhouette of Madame Austeur waiting there to console him.


Anne Serre was born in 1960, her first novel, Les Gouvernantes, was published in 1992, and praised by Michel Crépu in La Croix for its “remarkable economy of style.” She is the author of fourteen novels and short fictions, and the recipient of a 2008 Cino del Duca Foundation award.

This excerpt from The Governesses is published by permission of New Directions Publishing. Copyright © 1992 Anne Serre. Translation Copyright © 2018 Mark Hutchinson.

Published on September 5, 2018.


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