Across the Page (March 2007)

What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, by Zoë Heller (Picador)

Much has been made of the depiction of lesbianism in the film version of Heller’s book, originally titled What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal. For the most part, the criticism is fair: The film resorts to a familiar stereotype of the pathological lesbian stalker. The rebuttal is also fair: Not every lesbian character needs to be a good person because, well, not every lesbian is a good person. 

There are several differences between the book and film, but the basic premise is the same: Notes on a Scandal is the story of two women — Barbara Covett and Bathsheba ( Sheba ) Hart — who work at the same school and become friends. When Sheba enters into an intimate relationship with a 15-year-old student, Steven Connolly, Barbara becomes her greatest and most dangerous confidant. The primary difference between the two works, however, is that the book develops and actually relies upon Barbara’s humanity. 

Notes on a Scandal is narrated by Barbara, a reserved and brilliantly unreliable misanthrope. Unlike the film, in the book Barbara does not write in a diary. Rather, she chronicles the story of her friendship and of Sheba’s relationship with Steven in a manuscript of sorts. Also unlike the film, Barbara does not discover Sheba’s illicit affair and then hold it over her head to garner loyalty and companionship. In fact, Sheba tells Barbara of the relationship and is perilously open about her devotion to the boy despite — or perhaps because of — her deteriorating family life. 

Though there is certainly more than enough evidence in both versions of the story to suggest that Barbara is a closeted lesbian, the book focuses more on her loneliness. In a particularly poignant scene, a male teacher at the school, Bangs, asks Barbara out to lunch on a Saturday afternoon. The date comes after a disagreement with Sheba, and Barbara spends the entire day getting ready.

In the film adaptation of this scene, Bangs randomly stops by Barbara’s apartment, but in the book the invitation takes on great significance: "He had noticed me. He had chosen me to share his Saturday lunchtime. And who was I to pick and choose? For a few days, I’m afraid I let my imagination run away with me. I pictured myself shedding my old, unfortunate self and stepping forth into the light and air of the regular world." 

The "regular world" that Barbara longs to join is not necessarily a "heterosexual world," but one where she becomes a person who spends her "weekends having dates" and carries photographs in her wallet. It is a world away from her relentless solitude. When Bangs reveals that he asked her out to lunch only to discuss his crush on Sheba , Barbara finally betrays her friend. " Sheba likes younger men," she tells Bangs. "Much younger men. You are aware of her unusually close relationship with one of the fifth-year boys?"  

When Barbara and Sheba first become close, rumors circulate that they might be too close. "The implication was that Sheba and I were engaged in some sort of Sapphic love affair," Barbara writes. "I have been on the receiving end of this sort of malicious gossip more than once in my career, and I am quite accustomed to it by now. Vulgar speculation about sexual proclivity would seem to be an occupational hazard for a single woman like myself, particularly one who insists on maintaining a certain discretion about her private life. I know who I am. If people wish to make up lurid stories about me, that is their affair." 

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