Sometimes you have a huge stroke of luck with a novel.
Anatomy of a Scandal was written between January and September 2016, and sold at the start of October, a full year before the allegations broke about Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual harassment and a slew of revelations about actors, media stars and politicians.
Reviewers have talked of it “riding the curve of the zeitgeist” or capturing a mood that quickly saw the burgeoning of the #MeToo movement as women seized the opportunity to speak out about sexual harassment.
“Did you know?” friends asked, particularly since, as a Guardian political correspondent, I used to work in Westminster, where two Cabinet ministers have been sacked following allegations of sexual misconduct. And no I didn’t. The germ of the idea came, back in November 2013, when I was unsettled by the coverage of a woman in a rape trial and conscious that I didn’t want my daughter – then eight, now 12 – to experience the difficulties my generation experienced.
Anatomy of a Scandal details what happens when a charismatic government minister is accused of raping a parliamentary researcher with whom he’s been having an affair. The court case and its aftermath explore male entitlement and power, consent, perceptions of truth, and the difficulty of ever knowing someone completely, despite years of marriage.
Told largely from the viewpoints of James’s wife, Sophie, and Kate, the prosecuting barrister, I wanted to challenge and provoke the reader. Did James think his one-time lover had consented to the act? Was doubt cast because she was a sexually confident young woman who’d embarked on an affair and agreed to risky, public sex before? Was a husband who made love to his wife tenderly and was a good father capable of such behaviour? And what of his past? Were there clues that might cast him a better light – or reflect on the present?
I also wanted readers to question if we cut people slack if they’re physically beautiful. James is an intensely good-looking man. A former rower, he’s 6 ‘3”, with chiselled good looks and the ability to turn heads when he crosses the room. It wasn’t stranger rape I was interested in but relationship rape: a far murkier, greyer, more complicated area. Whether James was innocent would come down to whether he, or Olivia, was more credible. In this courtroom sparring of he said/she said, it really was his word against hers.
This was always a novel – something to move, provoke, preoccupy, if not entertain readers – rather than a polemic. But as I wrote it, I was conscious of my bubbling anger, not just at the entitlement of male politicians – and this was written in the run-up to and aftermath of the EU referendum – but at what I’d now call my own #MeToo experiences. I’ve put my characters through far worse than I’ve endured, but still: like most women my age, I’ve experienced enough to unsettle me, to shame me, to make me wish I’d spoken out at the time. Instead I did what most of us did: try to laugh it off, to dismiss it, to internalise it as just something that was part of being a woman.
In the wake of the Weinstein allegations, and the tsunami of revelations engulfing other dangerous, powerful men, early readers are flagging up the timeliness of the story – and the questions it poses. I’d be thrilled if Anatomy of a Scandal somehow added to the debate on sexual politics and consent that’s now been started.