Tuesday, 13 May 2008


It is inevitable that any book where a pupil and teacher have a dalliance will be compared to Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal. William Coles' novel The Well-Tempered Clavier wouldn't suffer in such a comparison - but it is rather more. Notes on a Scandal meets Othello, if you will. Let me explain.

Set in the most famous school in England, Eto
n (which the author attended as a pupil), The Well-Tempered Clavier sees seventeen-year-old Kim fall in love with his piano teacher, India. This simple love story is the central thread through an engaging and revealing narrative of Eton life - the customs and vocabularly; the friendships between boys and the near absence of girls (I didn't realise before that masters' daughters were allowed to attend). Oddly, something which really impressed me in Coles' writing was how he gave the impression of heat - the stifling temperatures, especially under the layers of Eton uniform, was described so evocatively that I needed to fan myself while reading... But The Well-Tempered Clavier is never less than compelling. Documenting the Eton life from within, as it were, gives those of us who attended their local comprehensive a fascinating glimpse, without treating the boys like zoo animals. Having been to Oxford, goodness knows I understand what it's like to have my home and place of work treated as a tourist attraction... but nothing like Eton. Personally, I can't think of anything crueler than sending a child to boarding school, especially from the age of six, and can't think of any situation, other than an orphan's, where it could be thought the best option. I wonder whether any of you attended one? Or, even if not, what you think?

Anyway, that's an aside. So why the title to Coles' novel? Kim first hears India while she is playing from Bach's 'The Well-Tempered Clavier', a selection of Preludes and Fugues for pia
no which range from approachable to impossible. Each chapter of the novel is subtitled by one of the Preludes, and in some way relates to it - usually Kim is playing it, or hears India playing. Since I have a copy of the piano music, I thought I'd play along with the chapters, which is a nice way to do it. If you can't play the piano, try playing a CD or something, while reading the appropriate chapters. I was just very grateful that Coles hadn't used Fugues for chapter headings... much more difficult.

Comparisons with Notes on a Scandal aren't really just. There is nothing needy or sordid or demoralising about the nature of Kim and India's relationship. It is a beautiful romance, in the true sense of the word 'romance', which takes only a frisson from the fact that they're pupil/teacher. More sex than you might like in a book, but it is certainly secondary to the romance and genuine love. Sadly, this is where Othello steps in. The comparison is made quite overtly - Kim's class are reading Othello, and Kim has more than a little in common with The Moor of Venice himself. An ineluctable jealousy stalks him - even his self-awareness cannot prevent it corrupting his relationships, and it looks as though it might infect even his reciprocated love for India...

The Well-Tempered Clavier is a beautiful book, managing to use a simple narrative voice without a consequently bland style - honesty, beauty, and passion pervade the novel, but so do humour, youthfulness and energy. Do go and get a copy, and pick up a Bach CD while you're there.


  1. I went to an all girls school, where I boarded. I decided at the age of 9 that I wanted to, because I had read the two series of Enid Blyton novels on the subject, and thought it sounded like the best plan ever. I was sadly disilusioned!

    I think if young people are forced to go away and board, it can be the worst thing for them. If you have made your own choice ... well that's a whole different kettle of fish!

    Strangely, I went to boarding school that was a mere six minutes away from my home by car!

    Thanks for that detailed description of the novel - it sounds intriuging and I shall have to hunt it out!

  2. This sounds good - and I have the music!

  3. I used to think I'd have liked to have gone to a boarding school - yes, based on Enid Blyton's books. I'm glad I didn't and I simply could not have sent my son away from home at such a young age.

    The book does sound interesting, though. I've only visited Eton in the winter - it was freezing!

  4. I too read Enid Blyton, Phyllis Matthewman, Angela Brazil, Dorita Fairlie Bruce and L. T. Mead (and many more of the kind) and wanted to go to a boarding school. Looking back I'm grateful that we couldn't afford that. It was perhaps different when those books (the oldest of them) were written. I knew a woman who was born in 1899 who assured me that her school years were just as in those books.
    who enjoyed her school years in a Waldorf school

  5. I hadn't come across this book, but it's certainly one I want to read. Have you come across a YA novel by Robert Westall, 'Falling into Glory', that treats the same theme? He was a very fine writer and it's well worth looking out.

  6. I just wanted to ask - I've set up a new blog, and I was wondering if I could link to your blog? I'm looking to create a bookish world with this new blog, so it'd be great to have you as part of it! (previously known as mistressdickens)

  7. Like a lot people i wanted to go to a boarding school when I was a child up to my eyes in books set in such exotic places, but as an adult I am very glad I never did. I cannot imagine sending my child to one either. if a child wants to go, and especially if it is to a specialist school (ballet or music or something) that might be different, but I doubt many children really do want to go.

  8. I'm a big fan of this book, too - but its cover worries me deeply. The author's daily blog on the subject is very amusing.


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