INTERVIEW WITH THE GOVERNESS
A Review of THE PETTICOAT DOMINANT, or, Woman's Revenge: The Autobiography of a Young Nobleman as a Pendant to Gynecocracy
by M. Le Comte du Bouleau.
Paris and New York, 1898; London, Delectus Books, 1994
Review Copyright © 1994 by William A. Henkin
Originally published in Spectator
Victorian England generated a large quantity of erotic literature devoted to Petticoat Punishment or Petticoat Training. Novels in this genre generally purported to be written by aristocratic young men who were compelled, by parental death or decree, to submit to the harsh, fetishistic, erotic demands of one or more beautiful, dominant women. No one really seems to know who the authors were of the best of the Petticoat books, because they were all written pseudonymously and published in very limited editions for private circulation among small coteries of monied men who shared their special interests. Bouleau, for instance, the pen-name used by the author of The Petticoat Dominant, means, in French, birch tree, or, more briefly, birch: that bundle of green twigs wrapped together with ribbon and used as a scourge, which dominates late-19th century English flagellation literature.
Gynecocracy, one of the most famous Petticoat novels, concerns a young man's coming of age under the stern hands of a governess, her maid, three female cousins, and a female-to-male transvestite. Michael Goss, publisher of Delectus Books, proposes that, like Gynecocracy, The Petticoat Dominant was probably written by an attorney named Stanislas Matthew de Rhodes, although, also like Gynecocracy, it has been attributed to several of Rhodes's contemporaries who were equally interested in humiliation, forced cross-dressing, erotic submission, and urolagnia piss-play including the great English sexologist Havelock Ellis, some of whose other writings suggest that he shared a taste for these sorts of activities with both books' heroes.
Well, in this case perhaps "hero" is not exactly what Flaubert would have called le mot juste the precisely right word. At the outset of The Petticoat Dominant, Charles, Lord Linwood, determines to set forth his autobiography beginning with the private tutorial studies he was embarked upon at the age of 16, regular prep school having been "too much for my constitution." Happily, his tutor was a woman named Laura, ten years his senior, on whom he developed a lustful crush.
Whenever I could do so politely, that is whenever I thought she was not observing me, I let my eyes rest upon her and drink in, as it were, her beauty. Every movement of her form possessed an indescribable, fascinating charm and grace how elegant how admirable were its full round contours, how luxuriously, voluptuously moulded. I envied the flowers the frequent touches of her white dimpled hands.... What exquisite mystery, pondered I, do those garments envelope?
Sixty-something years later Henry Pussycat, the poetry character created by the late John Berryman, would wonder something similar in one of the Dream Songs about a young woman seated at a distant table in a restaurant: "What wonders is she sitting on over there?" But Henry never does find out, whereas Charles finds out rather more than he first bargains for.
Longing to press Laura's
ripe cherry coloured lips with my own, to repose my head on the full bosom, clasped by the firm round arms, feeling that in no other way could I obtain the satisfaction of my vague and indescribable yearning, and rest for my troubled soul,
Charles pretends to faint. Concerned about her charge, Laura holds him and wipes his brow, and when he appears to revive she accedes to his desire that she stay with him awhile. The two flirt coyly until Charles asks permission to be in her dressing-room while she is getting ready for dinner. Excited and flustered both at once, Laura protests a little, then agrees.
Like a textbook good girl of her era Laura then pretends she has forgotten the favor she has granted the young noble. He, however, is not noble that way, and arrives on time to find that she has already taken off her dress. He stares at her partly-clad form while she goes about her toilette, and when he asks to help her dress she permits him to change her stockings for her.
The glimpse and touch of Laura's leg is too much for the virgin but not-so-innocent Charles. One thing leads to another, as those of us who were once 16 may remember, until the boy is lying between his tutor's legs, kissing, licking, fondling, and biting her flesh while she at first reluctant kisses back. Then,
Beside myself, I threw away all restraint, I endeavoured with my hands to remove her clothes and unfastened my own. My hand slipped up her body. What was it, wet soft and hairy, that I had touched?
The moment I had touched it and I had done so accidentally, after all she was suddenly transported with anger.
"How dare you?" she demanded in a low furious tone, "how dare you? Go away. I will have you whipped." And she sprang up. The word thrilled me oddly. I found myself overwhelmed with confusion kneeling at her feet.
If Charles is baffled by the thrill he feels at the idea that Laura may have him whipped, he is no less baffled by the coldness with which she treats him at dinner, and when he is shipped off the next day to one of his family's many estates, Holywell Hall, "where some cousins were being educated by a clever and very accomplished French governess," he is baffled as well by his exile. It is only some years later, by the time he is writing this autobiography, that he has come to understand "that ladies love to be wooed. I had been too precipitate, too brave, and at the wrong moment."
How Charles learns to woo ladies is, after a fashion, the story of The Petticoat Dominant. To begin with he finds the whole notion of being "packed off to a governess"
an indignity, a humiliation, and disparagement of my native worth, a diminution of the importance and invasion of the prerogative of my sex. Was I not bound to resist as a representative of male humanity? ... A governess! A thing, a female thing in petticoats to order me about, to restrain me with her petty views and puerile, feminine discipline! The mere idea, apart from the reality, made me wild with indignation, gave me a keen sense of abasement.
Therefore, for his first few days at Holywell Hall, Charles goes about his loutish, self-important ways, coming late to class, doing his work indifferently, trying to impress his 19-year-old cousin Barbara, "half-flirting" with the 28-year-old governess, Mademoiselle Diane D'Erbe, and generally behaving with snobbish condescension and contempt toward the other people all women in the house.
Then the beautiful, imperious, and resolute governess abruptly reins him in.
"You cannot go fishing this afternoon, I cannot allow it, you have had too much freedom as your behaviour has proved."
I looked at her in amazement. She quietly seated herself. "Kneel down!" she continued, pointing to the ground at her feet and looking full at me.
"Kneel down!" I echoed, stupefied.
"Yes; kneel down there and put your hands behind you."
"What joke what nonsense what tom-foolery ... " I began as, to humor her, and half dismayed and frightened, I set about obeying.
"Joke nonsense tom-foolery are these words to use to me?" She asked looking down very seriously at me.... To me, your governess!"
Mademoiselle strips Master Charles; she binds him, pins him, and whips him; letting him know that she's learned all about his impertinence with her cousin yes! her cousin! Laura, she takes the most indiscreet liberties with his own private parts, "viciously pressing and pinching my virility and not stopping at that, but slipping down her hand pushing it right through between my crossed legs, and pinching me vigorously...."
About the spanking and birching follow, Charles is chagrined.
The idea of my bottom which was not safely hidden being exposed, and exposed to her! To her, a girl. Just think of all that she would see. Consider the shame. And consider her whipping it. The most shameful, most animal part of me flogged by a girl. What degradation. ... The worst part of being whipped by a woman was clearly not the suffering; it was the power she thence derived over one.... She could never again regard one as of any importance when she had made one twist and turn under the anguish of her lashes over whose bottom she could always brandish the rod.... I was helpless in her unscrupulous hands, she might, she no doubt would outrage me in a way that would be far worse than death.
Far worse than death! A whipping! The boy clearly protests too much: you can almost hear him smack his lips, for appalled as he is, Charles is equally titillated: he has fallen in love with his first true humiliations. Sans trousers, sans drawers, sans even socks and shoes, sans everything, there lay poor Charles, "in shameful nakedness before Mademoiselle d'Erbe."
Dozens of birch strokes down the line, most delivered by his imperious governess, some by his blushing cousin, and others by fellow (female) students, Charles is delivered to the Holywell Hall classroom stark naked, there to be dressed in and padlocked into a lady's corset. A chemise follows, then stockings, suspenders, petticoats, and a even new name: Jenny. Later the governess breaks Charles's fishing rods and sells his guns, and adds a sleeveless bodice and "long, very tight" suede twelve-button gloves to his costume with which her own maid, Lisette, creates new havoc in Charles's life.
But Charles's trials are not yet over. Before his training in female superiority is through he has been pissed on by every woman in the house and drunk more than his fill of their golden nectar as well, and has been forced to learn the devotional arts of cunnilingus and, for Mademoiselle, analingus. When he has once stepped beyond even Mademoiselle's training expertise she has brought in an outside consultant, one Miss Digwell, who has finger-fucked him and compelled him yes, compelled him to place his organ in her mouth. These, he feels, are the two most humiliating of all his tortures.
One of Charles's more dubious charms is that he is not a very self-reflective or insightful man. On the one hand, as he himself observes, he has been thoroughly emasculated by the lessons of his trials:
Our passions play tyrants in our breasts.... Why, when I had to clean my governess's gloves, polish her boots, brush her dresses, was there something thrilling about the work? Why ... did I revel in my bondage, grovel in my subjection, hug my chains.... It is not too much to say that I sometimes sought punishments because of the pleasure I had in receiving it at her hands.... I asked as a reward to be shut up amongst her skirts in her wardrobe.... To such an extent did I love her flesh and all that had contact with it.... My schooling had been going on for many months now, and I had quite forgotten I had ever been a boy.
On the other hand this novella-length masturbation fantasy was, after all, written by a heterosexual man a few pages later he and his governess enjoy sexual congress: a good job for someone who has forgotten he was ever male.
I rarely ask so much of a masturbation fantasy that I need all the story-line i's to be dotted and all the story-line t's to be crossed, but I think it''s not too much to ask that such care be taken in editorial matters. The Petticoat Dominant, billed as one of the great lost books of Victorian erotica, is unfortunately spotted with errors of typography and grammar that may have been present in the original book, but which even the most exacting standards of scholarship would approve correcting with relevant notes in a modern edition. As it stands, the text sometimes stumbles on a missing comma, and sometimes speaks an utterly confusing sentence. These sorts of problems could easily have been repaired and only improved the read. Nonetheless, even as they stand they do not diminish the charm of the text, or the value of its alleged reappearance in print nearly 100 years after its first publication.
London's Delectus Books, publisher of The Petticoat Dominant, has been in business just a few years. Chiefly a dealer in rare and antiquarian erotica, it has taken as its principal publishing mandate the reproduction of repressed Victorian erotica, including The Romance of Chastisement, or Revelations of School and Bedroom; A Guide to the Correction of Young Gentlemen: The Successful Administration of Physical Discipline to Males by Females; and the forthcoming Memoirs of a Dominatrice, as well as Nick Hedges's contemporary award-winning stage adaptation of de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom. The Delectus catalogue is so appealing it was reviewed last year approvingly by the crisp gay male SM 'zine Checkmate.
Liberal times may lead to liberal expressions of hopes, dreams, and desires, but repressive times often lead to far more radical themes because the energies they restrain must find outlets somewhere. If the incorrectly named "conservative" policies which conserve nothing but a few people's privilege England and the United States have increasingly followed for the past quarter-century prevail, perhaps we'll see a good deal more radical erotica fulminating underground. For as Victorian England seemed to demonstrate, given a little bit of leisure the misery repression breeds can yield, as a silver lining, remarkable art, remarkable science, and other creative productions of those sublimated energies, including remarkable sexualities.
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