What Was She Thinking? Notes on Class

My book club meets tomorrow. It's usually quite a drunk-fest, and frankly we rarely get around to discussing the book, but I want to be prepared this time because they actually let me pick the book. It's the first time they let me pick since I picked Confederacy of Dunces last year, which Did Not Go Over Well To Put It Mildly. In fact, it went over so badly that I hear about it pretty much every time we meet ("...well, that one sucked but at least it didn't suck as hard as Confederacy of Dunces," is a typical remark you'll hear two or three times on a given evening.) It's only with large reservations that they were willing to give my current suggestion, What Was She Thinking (Notes on a Scandal) by Zoe Heller, a try. I've got a lot on the line, so I've got to get organized.

I don't want to bore you with the same old summary you'll find in everyone's Amazon.ca (or .com, if you prefer) reviews, but I'll just give you a super-duper quick synopsis to put you in the picture before I get to my main point. The story is set in modern England. Barbara, the narrator, is a teacher and is usually described as a bitter old spinster (or something worse) which is a bit narrow I think but I'll let it go. She is formidable but lonely, and she latches onto a bright, beautiful, upper class teacher called Sheba who is new at the school. Barbara is obsessed with Sheba and her life, and this topic makes up the bulk of the narrative. Sheba starts an affair with a teenaged boy at the school and this is the scandal referred to by the title (or is it? hmmm....I'll let you decide). Of course, it all comes out in the end—Barbara plays a key role in this—and Barbara records every detail in her notes.

What really struck me about the book—and I've been surprised that I haven't seen much written about this elsewhere—was how much class came into the story. Barbara is middle class and she is critical of those that she perceives to be above or below her social class. She also is an intellectual snob (does that go with being middle class? Not sure). The book has plenty of revealing examples of her feelings about this.

Barbara's snobbery is not surprising; it's pretty consistent with what you learn about her character throughout the book. What does come as a surprise, at least to me, is Sheba's snobbery. This is only revealed at the very end of the story, when Sheba finally explodes at Barbara after discovering that she was the one that spilled the beans about the affair and has been keeping detailed unflattering notes of the whole business. Up until this point, Sheba is portrayed as wonderfully accepting and nonjudgmental—this is part of her charm—but of course this could be because we are seeing her through Barbara's eyes and hearing what Barbara chooses to tell us.

So, here is what Sheba says near the end. (Keep in mind that Sheba is unspeakably furious at Barbara. She blames Barbara for the loss of her family, her reputation, her lover, her job, her home...everything. And this is the worst insult she can come up with. Very telling.)

"You have such delusions of grandeur, don't you? It's fascinating.
You actually think you're somebody. Listen. Let me tell you something. You're nothing. A bitter old virgin from Eastbourne."

OK, this is going to be my angle for Friday night. Wish me luck. And if I'm looking for a new book club on Saturday, you'll know why!


rwp said...

So you're saying my book club shouldn't read Confederacy of Dunces? :-)

Good comments on this one -- work this interesting angle hard, and sound as committed there as you do here. It'll be fine!

fiona-h said...

well, I liked it (more than they did, anyway). Go for it.

Darren said...

Nice catch on this one, such geographical snobbery *would* be jarring in Canada, and that's a good thing.

And what the hell is wrong with Confederacy of Dunces? I thought it was great.

Zootenany Hoodlum said...

Um, Surrey anyone?
We're just as snobby here, folks. We don't talk class, we hide it behind "economic" differences or "education" differences or "dress" differences (sweat pants out in public leap unfortunately into mind), but we're as classist as the next folks. We just don't admit it.