In Notes On A Scandal, Zoë Heller presents a novel narrated by Barbara Covett, a history teacher in St. George’s, a comprehensive school in north London. When Bethsheba Hart joins the staff as a pottery teacher, Barbara realises that a special person may just have entered her life.
Sheba seems to be much that Barbara is not. She is younger, attractive, apparently free-thinking, married, has children, and is irretrievably middle class. What she is not, unfortunately, is an experienced teacher, having trained only after bringing two children into adolescence. She is thus going to find life at St. George’s rather tough.
For reasons best known to herself, the sixty-ish, self-assessed “frumpy” Barbara decides to keep a journal. Sheba figures in its pages and eventually comes to dominate them. It is an out of character pastime, perhaps, since Barbara seems to have little but contempt for her colleagues, and survives her educator’s role by constantly keeping her students at arm’s length. Perhaps this is what Barbara has done with every aspect of her life, despised it and shunned it in one. Strange, then, that Sheba, her character, her actions, even her words come to dominate Barbara’s thoughts.
Like many who meet this new teacher, Barbara becomes apparently infatuated with this elegant, apparently free spirit. And also, we learn, does one of her pupils, a 15-year old boy called Stephen.
Sheba, of course, is not the confident, satisfied, fulfilled dominatrix that others invent. She is a vulnerable, not quite organised mother of two. The elder daughter is a difficult teenager, the younger son disabled. Her husband is considerably older than her. Like Barbara, she also suppresses emotion, suppresses it, that is, until it takes over her life with abandon as her relationship with the boy simultaneously fulfills both reality and fantasy. It lasts for several months before it inevitably comes to light.
Barbara’s role, throughout, is central. She is in the know. She is watching. She is not in control, of course, but exercises considerably more power than an onlooker. And when, eventually, the muck hits the fan, Barbara, who has done her share of the slinging, gets hit by some of the fall-out. The denouement is both surprising and logical. Though it is Sheba’s motives that the police, the national press, and her colleagues want to dissect, it is Barbara’s that most interest the reader. She has been an informed, motivated diarist, it seems.Powered by Sidelines