Book: Notes on a Scandal
Author: Zoe Heller
Publisher: Penguin Books
Ephebophilia, the distant cousin of Paedophilia, has been a topic of much debate and controversy for many years now. The gist of any debate regarding this topic is largely determined by the power relation between the people involved, which is again, narrowly and arbitrarily determined by the gender of the older partner. While a marriage of a much older man with a teenage girl remains largely acceptable in the society, the opposite scenario, that of a relationship between an older woman and a much younger man, becomes immediate fodder for scandals and controversies. Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, is a direct and vocal attack at this hypocrisy based on the socially created norms of gender and propriety. However, at a much larger scale, it is also the story of dependence and betrayal.
Narrated by Barbara Covett, now a retired school teacher, the story involves an extramarital relationship between Bethsheba Hart, a close friend of Barbara from school, and Steven Connolly, a student of Barbara’s with whom Sheba falls in love. The complexity of this situation is made even denser by Barbara’s refusal to accept the relationship as she repeatedly coaxes Sheba to end the affair. Sheba, in her lovesick state, could not even begin to consider the probability of ending the relationship with Connolly, as he repeatedly seeks her out through some reason or other.
Barbara’s narrative is neither reliable nor unbiased as she has a considerable role to play in the state of affairs regarding the whole relationship. Yet, she does not approve of the kind of controversy that is created when the “scandal” breaks out and says this in as many words in the novel:
“I might as well admit here and now that any notional damage done to Connolly’s psyche by his affair with Sheba has never been of much concern to me. I don’t argue with necessity of there being a law against teachers doing what Sheba did. Clearly, it is not good for any institution’s morale to have staff member’s fraternizing – fornicating – with their juniors. But I certainly don’t subscribe to any sentimental notion about the innocence of everyone under the arbitrarily imposed age bar of sixteen years. The people of Britain danced in the streets when the thirty-two-year-old heir to the British throne became engaged to a nineteen-year-old. Is there so much difference between nineteen and fifteen – between thirty two and forty one – to warrant the profoundly different reaction in this case? The sort of young person who becomes involved in this kind of imbroglio is usually pretty wily about sexual matters. I don’t mean just that they are sexually experienced – although that is often the case. I mean that they possess some instinct, some natural talent, for sexual power play. For various reasons, our society has chosen to classify people under the age of sixteen as children. In most of the rest of the world, boys and girls are understood to become adults somewhere around the age of twelve. They enter puberty and then start doing whatever the adults in their part of the world happen to do – work in factories, hunt bears, kill people, have sex. We may have very good reasons for choosing to prolong the privileges and protections of childhood. But let us at least acknowledge what we are up against when attempting to enforce that extension. Connolly was officially a ‘minor’ and Sheba’s actions were officially speaking ‘exploitative’; yet any honest assessment of their relationship would have to acknowledge not only that Connolly was acting on his own volition, but that he actually wielded more power in the relationship than Sheba. I don’t think for a minute that he has suffered lasting hurt from his experiences with an older woman. On the contrary, I believe that he’s had a rather thrilling ride. Heresy, I know. But there. It’s what I think.”
Is it a reflexive argument in support of the actions of her friend, or is it truly a critique of the subjective moral standards of the society with regard to the relationship between the two sexes? One is left to judge for oneself.
Sheba’s relationship with Connolly starts displaying its negative effects with regards to the matters at her family. Her daughter Polly suspects that she is having an extramarital affair and doesn’t listen to her advice or command. Her husband (whom Barbara describes as a “pretentious fool“) is always condescending in his behaviour. Things with her Down’s syndrome afflicted son are not quite, in the conventional sense, okay. For Sheba, rather than being a source of all these problems, the relationship with Connolly provides an escape from this everyday hazard of emotional distress.
However, after a while, things with Connolly begin to wane as he starts losing interest in her. In her bid to prevent herself from losing him, Sheba ends up riding in cold winter afternoons to his house on a bicycle, frantically messaging him on his pager (yes, pager) a dozen number of times and spending most of the time of her day fretting about the status of their relationship. Barbara is not pleased. For an old school teacher who has got just one close friend in Sheba, she is a person who loathes the relationship the most. Distraught by the diminishing importance in Sheba’s eyes, she ends up spilling out the secret to a fellow teacher and all hell breaks loose.
Brilliantly written and superbly narrated, the 2003 Booker prize nominated Notes on a Scandal is an unputdownable thriller that will leave you wondering even after the last page.