Schoolteacher Barbara Covett has led a solitary life until Sheba Hart, the new art teacher at St. George’s, befriends her. But even as their relationship develops, so too does another: Sheba has begun an illicit affair with an underage male student. When the scandal turns into a media circus, Barbara decides to write an account in her friend’s defense–and ends up revealing not only Sheba’s secrets, but also her own.
Another novel in what I’m tentatively labeling the “pedophilia genre,” Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal reads much less perverse than previous entries in the genre mostly because Heller shifts the focus from the relationship between the adult sexual deviant and his or her child lover to the relationship between the adult deviant and her older, possibly also deviant friend.
The tone here is sanitized, careful. It’s narrated by Barbara, a senior teacher at a London school where she befriends Sheba, a younger teacher who meets Connolly, a fifth-year schoolboy who becomes her lover. Barbara is erudite and constructs her reconstruction of the events almost as if she is writing a British comedy of manners. Explicitness is explicitly ignored, recounted briefly and factually to provide a narrative frame but nothing more. In fact the most libidinous moments occur not between Sheba and her boy nymphet but between her and Barbara.
There’s also just something decidedly less sinister about a female criminal. We are more likely to laugh and jeer at a woman who breaks the laws of sexual consent than we are to curse and spit at her. Is it because women are more prone to seek love? Although the book is subtitled What Was She Thinking, it’s difficult to say what Sheba was thinking, her thoughts being filtered through Barbara’s recollections and biases. But there is a strong averral that Sheba was in actual, unadulterated, genuine love with Connolly, which shouldn’t complicate matters but seemingly does. Sheba becomes a pitiful character, someone to sympathize with even as she awaits her trial for obvious wrongdoing.
And in that unwanted but undeniably sparked sympathy lies the question: do books that discuss the intimate lives of pedophiles glamorize them? I.e., for all of its eponymous hubbub, Lolita is a book about Humbert Humbert. Notes on a Scandal accomplishes an even weirder trick: it’s not about Connolly, the 16 year old boy lover; it’s not about Sheba, his 40-something-year-old pottery teacher and lover; it’s about Barbara, Sheba’s senior citizen friend, confidante, and keeper. In adding a third level of displacement from the real victim, Heller suggests that Sheba may be just another victim. The age difference between Sheba and Barbara is nigh equivalent to that of Sheba and Connolly. And despite the absence of sexual perversion in their relationship and the admittance that they are both fully acting adults, it’s just as controlling, one-sided, and desperate.
Who is the victim here? Connolly? Sheba? Barbara? Connolly is excused by pleading immaturity. Sheba knows her relationship with Connolly is forbidden but is helpless before her own vast emptiness. So Heller forces us to ponder: can the guilty also be victims? Is prey and predator but a human imposed dichotomy? Criminalize Sheba, punish her, chain her we must; but blame her gently, softly, with a kindness that comes from being happy and knowing better. We are left then to assign most of our rage to Barbara, Sheba’s jailer if Sheba were wise enough to see the lock and key. If we strain our eyes, we can see how Barbara might be just another victim in a long chain of victims, of prey and predator, of people who hurt others because they are hurt themselves. But there is no god hovering above Barbara manipulating her strings. We can imagine one, of course: a vicious mother, a bygone lover, a society that condemns spinsterhood but condemns lesbian relationships even more vehemently. Heller hasn’t provided a perpetrator to Barbara’s victimhood, however, so the blame rests there, with the oldest, the wisest, and the loneliest.
Books like Notes on a Scandal complicate issues that we don’t want to see as complicated. They interrogate questions that we don’t want asked and tell us that victims are not isolated, even in black and white crimes like an adult sleeping with a minor. Open your eyes to the chains of guilt but know that the blame will always and must always come to rest in one place and on one person.