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Notes on a Scandal

Notes on a Scandal (What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal in the United States) is a 2003 novel by Zoë Heller. It is about a female teacher at a London comprehensive school who begins an affair with one of her underage pupils. The novel was shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize.

A film version was released in 2006 and stars Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.

Plot introduction

The novel is presented to the reader in the form of a manuscript written by Barbara Covett, a history teacher in her early sixties who has set herself the task of minutely recording all the details of the criminal case against her friend and colleague, Sheba Hart. The manuscript spans a period of almost two years, starting in Autumn 1996, when Barbara first meets Sheba, the new pottery teacher at St. George's, where Barbara herself has been teaching for more than two decades. The report ends some time in June 1998, following Sheba's arrest, bail and subsequent separation from her husband.

Plot summary

Barbara is neither a reliable nor a disinterested first-person narrator. A lonely, unmarried woman in her early sixties, she is eager to find a special, close friend. However, she reveals that she has been unable to make a previous friendship last as she was accused of being possessive, domineering and demanding. Her former friend, teacher Jennifer Dodd, even threatened her with an injunction if she tried contacting her again; incidents like this gradually reveal just how emotionally unstable Barbara is.

When upper middle-class Bathsheba "Sheba" Hart joins the staff of St. George's, Barbara immediately senses that they might become close friends. Barbara gradually learns biographical information about Sheba: she is almost 41 and married with two children - her 11-year-old son, Ben, has Down syndrome, and her 17-year-old daughter attends an exclusive boarding school. Her late father was an important academic and economist. Sheba is well-off and leads a seemingly fulfilled personal and family life. After a false start, Barbara and Sheba do become acquainted when after eating lunch together several times, Sheba invites Barbara for Sunday lunch with her family. Barbara is ecstatic and the lunch date is given enormous significance. ("I wondered if I ought to make some nod to the notion of having to consult my diary. But I thought better of it. I didn't want to risk her glimpsing the white wastelands of my appointmentless weeks.")

Initially unknown to Barbara, at Sheba's very first term at St. George's, she falls in love with a 15-year-old pupil, Steven Connolly, who, like the majority of his peers, is from a deprived background and has literacy problems. Although they frequently have sex right from the start of their relationship, including at school and in the open on Hampstead Heath, the unlikely couple successfully conceal their affair from colleagues and family. The first time Sheba invites Barbara to her family home for dinner, she tells Barbara a highly expurgated version of what has happened between her and Connolly, claiming only that he has tried to kiss her and that she stopped him from doing so. Barbara offers her some advice on how to cool the boy's ardor, and considers the matter closed.

Sheba confesses to Barbara that despite her apparently charmed life, she feels intellectually and artistically unfulfilled and that her life has somehow been wasted on child-rearing. Sheba has a difficult relationship with her rebellious 17-year-old daughter, whose youth and beauty only intensify her own feelings of aging and waste. Her lecturer husband, Richard, is significantly older than she is and their relationship sometimes has a father-daughter feel to it. Barbara cannot understand Sheba's complaints, believing her to have an exciting and full life. Sheba's comments on child-rearing particularly irk the childless, partnerless Barbara.

When Barbara eventually finds out about the affair on Guy Fawkes Night after seeing Sheba talking to Connolly on Primrose Hill, she feels betrayed that she was not Sheba's confidante in the early stages of their friendship. She is also angered and hurt by Sheba's obsession with Connolly and her relative neglect of their friendship. The power dynamics in the relationship between Connolly and Sheba are changing, with Connolly's interest in the affair waning as Sheba's grows. Sheba becomes needier and starts to write love letters to Connolly. Connolly behaves insultingly to Sheba during a liaison in his childish bedroom in his parents' council house, yet Sheba does not break off the affair. Barbara becomes increasingly angry with Sheba's behavior.

Some weeks after Sheba's confession to Barbara, Brian Bangs, a mathematics teacher, asks Barbara to have Saturday lunch with him. Barbara, feeling lonely and neglected by Sheba, accepts although she has always considered Bangs to be a "cretin", and realises that his interest in her is not sincere. During the lunch date, Bangs confesses his infatuation with Sheba. Barbara realises that he is using her as a means to discover information about Sheba's private life. Barbara's anger and bitterness at her position in life, and her treatment by Sheba get the better of her and she alludes to Sheba's secret. ("'Sheba likes younger men, you know. Much younger men.' I paused a moment. 'I mean, you are aware of her unusually close relationship with one of the Year Eleven boys? '") Afterwards, she is wracked with guilt but cannot summon up the courage to tell Sheba what she has done. Rather, she hopes Bangs will not report what she has told him.

Sheba's relationship with Polly, her difficult teenage daughter, deteriorates further. Polly's unruly behaviour results in her expulsion from her boarding school. At home, and later at her grandmother's house, she accuses Sheba of having an affair. Sheba is furious about the accusation, believing that she has covered her tracks successfully.

In early January 1998, however, the headmaster is somehow informed about the illicit affair - it is implied that the culprit is Bangs. Sheba is suspended from her job and charged with indecent assault on a pupil. Her husband demands that she leave the family home and prevents her from seeing her children, especially Ben, except on rare occasions and only if supervised by a chaperone. Polly refuses to have any contact with her. While Sheba's life is quickly disintegrating, Barbara thrives on the new situation, which she considers her chance to prove her qualities as a friend, even when the headmaster, glad to rid himself of one of his severest critics, forces her into early retirement. Barbara gives up the lease on her own small flat and moves with Sheba into temporary accommodation in Sheba's brother's house.

Sheba finds Barbara's manuscript and discovers that she has been writing an account of her relationship with Connolly. She is distraught and furious, not least because Barbara has written about events she did not personally witness, and made judgements about people close to Sheba. The novel ends with Sheba, trapped and demoralised, resigning herself to Barbara's presence in her life. We do not find out what happens in Sheba's trial, whether she reconciles herself with her estranged husband and children, or what ultimately is the fate of her friendship with Barbara.

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