20 February 2009

Canada's Olympians (Part III)

The English Governess
Miles Underwood [pseud. John Glassco]
Paris: Ophelia, 1960 [sic]

In his seventy-one years, John Glassco produced five books of verse, eight volumes of translation, and the prose masterpiece Memoirs of Montparnasse, but not one approached the sales he enjoyed with The English Governess and its sister book Harriet Marwood, Governess. Both stories of flagellantine romance between a boy, Richard Lovel, and his beautiful governess, Harriet Marwood, they're easily confused and are often described as being one and the same. Harriet Marwood, Governess, though published second, is actually the older of the two. In 1959, it was offered to Maurice Girodias, but the publisher thought it too tame. Glassco then rewrote the novel - apparently with the help of his wife - slashing it by more than half and ramping up the sex. Made to order, as The English Governess it was quickly accepted and appeared within ninety days under Olympia's Ophelia Press imprint.

The English Governess was a immediate success, a favourite in a market that relied almost exclusively on word of mouth. Reprinted after just three months, on 10 January 1961 it was suppressed by French authorities under a decades-old decree targeting 'périodiques et ouvrages de provenance étrangère'. As was his practice, Girodias reissued the banned novel using a different title: Under the Birch: The Story of an English Governess. Not much of a disguise, but more than enough to baffle the brigade mondaine. The novel has since appeared as The Governess (a pirated edition) and the misleading The Authentic Confessions of Harriet Marwood, an English Governess.

Trivia: Glassco chose not to be identified as the author, selecting Miles Underwood as a nom de plume. He kept his secret for over a year, and only began to reveal himself when seeking legal advice from F. R. Scott concerning Girodias' non-payment.

Object: My copy, printed by Taiwanese pirates, is a cheap reproduction of the first edition. I'm assuming that the novel was divided in two so as to enable the rusty staple binding.

Access: Typically found only in academic libraries, though the enlightened citizens of Toronto and Vancouver will find it on their shelves. Used copies are plentiful and inexpensive. The first edition isn't often offered for sale, and can't be had for anything less than C$300. While British and American editions are currently in print, the Canadian is recommended. Published in 2001 by Golden Dog Press, it includes a very informative Introduction by Michael Gnarowski.

Related posts:
Pictures of Harriet
Canada's Olympians (Part I)
Canada's Olympians (Part II)
Canada's Olympians (Part IV)


  1. An accomplished eccentric. How dull the rest of us appear.

  2. Designed an eccentric. How boring the rest of us appear.