It’s No Fun to Be a Governess, and Other News


On the Shelf

Jean-Simeon Chardin, The Governess, 1739.


  • Most writers need day jobs. I recommend the Charlotte Brontë approach: become a governess. It’s your destiny. Yes, it will leave you feeling lonely and downtrodden, and it will nurse a sense of righteous indignation in your soul. But it’ll furnish all the “material” you need for your sensational debut, and isn’t that what really matters? John Pfordresher, who has a new book out about the writing of Jane Eyre, notes that Brontë’s various stints as a governess brought her nothing but heartache, even as they informed her work: “Charlotte’s first ‘situation’ as a temporary governess began in May 1839, at an estate named Stonegappe, a large house of three stories set on a hillside surrounded by woods, enjoying a vista in the distance of the valley of the River Aire. Charlotte was to care for a young girl and her brother—the stone-throwing son of the Sidgwick family we have seen as a model for John Reed. For the socially awkward and impoverished Brontë, at age twenty-three, the inferior position of governess in a wealthy family was an almost intolerable position, far worse than teaching at Roe Head. She was ignored by adult family members, charged with insolent and rebellious children, and denied respect by all, though she considered herself not only more than their equal in terms of intelligence and ability but also a potential writer of genius … Winifred Gérin, in her beautifully written biography of Brontë, pictures Charlotte in the Sidgwick’s handsome country home during a ‘long summer evening when she sat alone, her lap filled with Mrs. Sidgwick’s “oceans of needlework” … no one from the noisy self-absorbed house-party below to share her solitude.’ ”

  • Porter Fox remembers the late Larry Fagin, a poet who taught him at the New School—not just about poetry, but about the art of being a weirdo: “Fagin transmitted lessons he’d learned from Jack Spicer, Ginsberg, and others, mixed with his own: use ego as a ‘cutting tool’; create simple ideas in complex relationships; use ellipses; beware of airplane poems and writing about dreams; beauty gets in the way; keep the reader off balance; kill modifiers and metaphors (unless they’re really good); strive for ‘strangeness.’ He told us to write every day, but only a little bit; to ‘be more in the world’; to look up when we walk down the street; to avoid distraction; to never talk about real estate … If a piece was particularly bad, he folded it into an airplane and sailed it across the room. After a lesson, he assigned personal reading lists from his nine-hundred-and-thirty-five-title ‘Mandatory Prose List’ according to what he thought a student needed. He opened lessons with short lectures on art, music, dance, film, and a list of ‘bests’ he had compiled: Best Soap: Little Dutch Girl; Best Sonny Rollins Album: Way Out West; Best Cheeseburger: Silver Spurs; Best Worst Composer: Johannes Brahms; Best de Kooning Quote: ‘Content is a glimpse.’ ”
  • Moira Donegan celebrates the twentieth anniversary of The Watermelon Woman, the first feature film ever directed by a black lesbian. Funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, Cheryl Dunye’s movie caused such a stir that a Republican congressman singled it out as “patently offensive”—though by today’s standards it’s tame, Donegan writes: “The movie follows Cheryl, played by Dunye, as she attempts to make a documentary about Faye Richards, better known as the Watermelon Woman: a gay, black 1930s actress whose roles as mammies and housemaids did not do justice to her elusive and complex life … Dunye came up with the story of the Watermelon Woman when she was in graduate school: She was travelling back and forth between the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York and the Library of Congress in D.C., trying to learn about black women in early cinema, only to find that many of the actors were credited by racist monikers or not at all. She began to feel frustrated by the lack of documentation, by the lost lives and unacknowledged gifts of actors and filmmakers whose stories she couldn’t access. In the film, the Watermelon Woman becomes a stand in for all these people, for the talent, humor, and courage that our culture misses out on when we determine that some people aren’t worth paying attention to.”