Made into a hugely successful film starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal is, on the surface, a potent tale of loneliness, need and jealousy. But beneath that strangely captivating veneer is a deeply disturbing tale of abuse and sexual misconduct.
Veteran history teacher Barbara, with more than 30 years teaching to her name, is captivated by the newly appointed art teacher, Sheba Hart. In her 60s and disliked by colleagues and pupils alike at the north London comprehensive school, Barbara is lonely and in desperate need of friendship and company. With her need to be liked by everyone, the attractive, somewhat flighty fortysomething Sheba appears to be the perfect candidate.
In spite of a few obstacles, mainly in the form of other female teachers, Barbara inveigles her way into Sheba’s affections. An invitation to Sunday dinner with the family – husband and two kids – at their large, rambling Hampstead home puts Barbara in seventh heaven and she seizes the opportunity to become Sheba’s mentor, friend and confidant.
Only Sheba has already embarked on the perilous path of an affair with one her pupils – 15 year-old Stephen Connolly.
But this is no Nabokovian immersion into the somewhat questionable delights of illicit flesh.
Sheba is facing trial, having lost her job and her family: the tabloid press is having a field day. Moving in with Sheba as a trusted and supportive friend, Barbara is in her element. And, in an attempt to balance the malicious and salacious media reports of the tabloid press, she decides to chronicle events from her perspective of events leading up to the fall of Sheba.
“This is not a story about me” she states. But of course, it is. And what follows is the sad tale of a lonely spinster who places massive significance on the smallest kindness or slight, blowing things out of all proportion. Interspersed with stories of the staffroom or meals at the Hart family home – with Barbara always centre-stage – is the development of Sheba’s relationship with the spotty, lank-haired Stephen. But always from Barbara’s matter-of-fact judgemental perspective.
What motivates Barbara beyond that need for friendship is unclear – frustrated maternalism, sexual desire or just out-and-out madness (the film version implied Barbara as something of a predatory lesbian). But it makes for a wonderfully addictive read. As Barbara awards gold stars for the early days when her friendship with Sheba evolved, so the unreliable narrator leads us into her sparsely furnished life, the vitality of the Hampstead home and her absolute delight in finding herself, finally, useful and needed.
Notes on a Scandal was shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize – but lost out to D B C Pierre and Vernon God Little.