"I can never lay eyes on the boy without wanting to give his face a good going-over with a hot flannel." So speaks the voice of sexual repression in the person of Barbara Covett, the narrator of Zoe Heller's novel, Notes on a Scandal. (Judi Dench plays the role with such authority in the movie she was nominated for an Academy Award.)
Not so Barbara's fellow teacher, subsequent friend, and finally tragic victim, Sheba Hart. (These symbolic names!) Sheba finds the same 15 year-old boy alluringly fresh and clean. She proceeds to have sex with him.
As readers, we ally ourselves most uncomfortably with Barbara, sublimely unaware of her existence as a sexual being. Which is worse for a teacher, the novel asks: to hate students or to desire them? As adult readers in higher education, does the question get more comfortable for us since the students are older, and therefore have more agency? (Such agency is usually the case in academic novels, ranging from J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.) Or does Heller's narrative pose the question of sex with students -- any students -- so bluntly that our official mandates against it seem evasive, joyless, and disingenuous?
Interestingly, Barbara will have none of "any sentimental notion about the innocence of everyone under the arbitrarily age bar of 16 years." Although she has no quarrel with the law, she maintains that students who become involved with their teachers "possess some instinct, some natural talent for sexual power play," and in this case she supposes that the boy actually wielded more power than his teacher. Usually such wisdom is dramatized rather than argued in academic novels where students and teachers have sex. Notes on a Scandal sits rather oddly alongside these novels, because simply the fact that it is set in a secondary school makes a college setting appear more adult.
Furthermore, the student-teacher sex in a college setting appears more, if not consensual, at least less in need of "sentimental notions," either about the innocence of students or the mysteries of sex. Sheba herself is married to a former professor. "But you were 20!" he exclaims, after she attempts to ally the affair the two of them once had with the one she has been having now. No further argument. Compared to 15, 20 seems a lot older. Notes on a Scandal makes us realize that the narratives of academic novels where the "innocent" is 20 are strangely implicated in quite other narratives where the same student is in fact 15, or younger.
Have the explicit sexual harassment rules and sexual conduct codes of recent years in higher education come about at least in part because of their incomparably less elaboration in secondary education? Probably not. And yet, in fictional terms, we know far less about what is going on between students and teachers in high school than we do between them in college. Heller's narrative is cleverly situated, looking down to a period of life when students are presumed to be "innocent" and when sex by an adult with them is a criminal offense, while at the same time glancing up to the next period of life when students are not so innocent and when, legally, they are adults.
Why in the first place is Sheba married to her former professor? So that Heller can include a bit of mockery derived from the behavior of his friends, most of whom, according to Barbara, are "academic types ... all terrified at the thought of being 'cheesy' or insensitive.... Even if they told you that your dress was nice, they put it in quotation marks in case you took offense and slapped their aces." We poor academics! We have been so careful during the past decade or two not to get our faces slapped! (We males, that is. Barbara speculates on how different the public reception of Sheba's affair would have been had she been a man and the boy a girl. "In the end, I suspect, being female will do nothing for Sheba, except deny her the grandeur of genuine villainy.") Result: our sexuality -- at least on the evidence of fiction -- gets displaced onto students, where in the end we only get variously slapped anew.
Notes on a Scandal is set in an England no different in its sexual mores or gender dispensations than the United States. How different in other countries! I chanced to read the novel while teaching in Spain. One day a young Spanish colleague wore a particularly attractive dress. "Maybe I can say that's a nice dress,"? I hazarded. "But you know that if you were an American woman I'd be afraid you might accuse me of sexual harassment." She laughed. "You don't have to worry about that here. Have you ever heard of piropeando?" I hadn't. It seems the male practice of "throwing compliments" extends from mild remarks on dress to more emphatic catcalls. To this woman, and to many Spanish women to this day, the practice is not pejorative.
Back home, we are only allowed quotation marks. And so it's no surprise that Notes on a Scandal can be understood as the latest in a stream of academic novels where an affair between student and teacher is at the center. The affair never comes to any good. Indeed, it's a scandal, each time. However, since Heller's narrative is set in secondary school, its difference from narratives set in college is that the scandal gets to be public, complete with vulgar television reporters and sensational newspaper headlines. We are, through Barbara, revolted. Trouble is, given her own severe sexual repression, on what clear basis can we distance ourselves from the scandal?
Academic novels don't put the question this way. And yet if we read these novels from the perspective of Heller's we can understand why: There abides in them the presumption that sex between students and teachers is exciting, transgressive, liberating. Of course this is why it must ultimately be punished. But first the sex can be explored, and not only through irony. (For an irony-only example, see Francine Prose's novel, Blue Angel.) Heller, on the other hand, can't really explore the sex between the boy and Sheba. (Mediated through Barbara in the novel, not mediated through her in the movie.) So Heller becomes finally complicitous with her narrator.
That is, the sex between student and teacher in Notes on a Scandal is too scandalous -- which is almost the same as being left with no other position than the following one: sex itself is scandalous. This would be Barbara's position. We can't see around her enough to be able to form another, although we certainly can see through her enough to be able to understand the sexual repression that drives Barbara into her own "sentimental" relation with Sheba. And if we insist upon having another view of sex? In the novel, we have only one alternative space available: the quotation marks of Sheba's husband and his friends.
These, in turn, have one especially ironic consequence, which the setting of academic novels explores in more detail: the sex between students and teachers may in fact be caused by the very codes that aim to police it! Far from being a imperious, irrational force, these codes comprehend sex as a negotiable, rational behavior. The excitement of sex? It has to transpire exclusively within legal boundaries. The power of sex? It must be equal, and take place only between- -- or among -- equals. Never mind that to much of the rest of the world such notions about sex are fatuous. (How many other countries have produced even a handful of novels about affairs between students and teachers?) These notions are what our own social and political sexual history has given to us.
Sheba's affair is a product of this history, especially, I would argue, its development within the academic culture whose end result is the quotation marks of her husband and his friends. The novel never clarifies such an explanation. But it suggests it (and is arguably more provocative for only doing so). The foundation of Sheba's affair has to do with something that threatens to burn quotation marks away: passion. Compare when at one point Sheba tells of one of her
husband's colleagues -- from Finland -- who once made a "fairly unambiguous" pass at her. At her failure to respond, the man becomes nasty and accuses Sheba of being a "tease." How well feminism has taught us to know this male ruse! As Heller writes, it was "as if he begrudged her for having the power to attract him."
I take the author rather than her narrator to be making the point because the narrator is blind to the possibility of her own placement (later made manifest) in this same dynamic. In any case, we're not blind. We know all about the ruses of sexual power -- including how women act to efface the ruses as well as how men act to condemn them. We know it's better to hate students than to desire them if the choice comes to that, although we have the considerable resources of our irony to forestall such a painful choice. Indeed, we know everything about sexual power -- “ours as well as theirs -- except, well, its power, which is of course the very thing that Notes on a Scandal is all about.
No male, Finnish, or academic nonsense about Sheba's 15-year-old, who is in thrall with his own sexuality and feels no need to be apologetic about it. He was, Barbara reports Sheba as maintaining, "either too young or too obtuse to appreciate the outrageous of his ambition." Moreover, she continues, "he didn't tie himself in rhetorical knots trying to be equal to her beauty. When he looked at her, it was as if he were gobbling her up," Barbara reports Sheba as adding "like a peach." We might ask: how dare he? Or: how dare she? But it seems to me we might also ask: how dare we ignore the human cost being exacted each time we ourselves look at our own students and, if we look with desire, reach instead for a rhetorical hot flannel?