Like the Oscar Peterson Trio, I get requests. Many come from those seeking information on the great Brian Moore or the tragic Maria Monk, but most concern Harriet Marwood, a woman who never existed. Was the English governess modelled on a real person? When, if ever, did she use a birch? How might I meet such a woman?
The most common query comes from folks hoping for more Harriet Marwood stories. For those with the hunger, I have very good news: the beautiful, brunette disciplinarian exists outside the pages of The English Governess and Harriet Marwood, Governess. We find her first in The Augean Stable, a 124-page, three-act play that Glassco composed in 1954. Unproduced and unpublished, you'll have to consult his papers at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa to read this alternate, rather polite version of Harriet's romance with Richard Lovel.
Much more accessible is "The Black Helmet". Published in The Fatal Woman (Anansi, 1974) as one of "Three Tales by John Glassco", this is the novella that Glassco struggled with – forever revisiting and revising – for most of his 71 years. Here Harriet is mentioned frequently, if fleetingly, by her former charge, Philip Mairobert. In this passage, our hero recalls the the arrival of the governess at his family's estate in rural Quebec:
Today I will think of her as the person to whom I owed everything, not as a woman I loved – and think of my life here before she came, with no one but those two old servants in the twilight of dotage who were so terrified of me. I must have been like a wild animal then, with those fits of rage – screaming, biting, breaking things, rolling on the floor. I remember almost nothing of that time: it seemed to be mostly walking through these ruined gardens and in the woods where I set my ineffectual little traps for birds and rabbits, hoping to catch them alive. How desolate and wild a life! Yet when mother left to live in Paris for good, and Miss Marwood came, I was furious. I thought I would lose me freedom. Freedom! As if it ever mattered to me.Well I lost it certainly – the child's freedom to be lonely, bored, idle, frightened. And I found, quite simply, happiness. A week after she arrived I could sleep without nightmares; and I had stopped stammering: I simply hadn't time! As for my rages, I really think she enjoyed them. as if they offered a challenge to her methods and muscles, to the very strength of her arm.
Though The Fatal Woman enjoyed just a single printing – likely 3000 copies – for a good many years it seemed quite common. No more. I note that only five, one a crummy library discard, are currently being offered by online booksellers.
Fans of the governess are advised not to hesitate. Strike now!
Trivial: The author's biography on The Fatal Woman errs in stating that Glassco won "the Governor-General's award [sic] for both poetry and non-fiction." In fact, he received only the former.
I'll step out on a limb here and say that Anansi's mistake is borne of a common misconception that Glassco won a Governor General's award for Memoirs of Montparnasse (his only "non-fiction" book). No Governor General's Award for Non-fiction was awarded for 1970, the year in which it was published.
Incredible, but true... and oddly appropriate.
Cross-posted in a slightly altered form at A Gentleman of Pleasure – less flippant, more images.