A short, exquisite book, On Chesil Beach gently unfurls its secrets with its minutiae of secrets, misunderstandings and tensions.
It’s 1962 England and Edward and Florence are spending their wedding night in a small suite in a Georgian hotel overlooking Chesil Beach on the Dorset coast. As they are served supper in their rooms, events unfold that, by early morning, have changed their lives forever.
The opening sentence indicates exactly what is to come:
They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.
Both are just 22 years old, he a high-achieving history graduate, Florence a first-rate violinist in the process of establishing her own quartet. The country is on the cusp of change – the post-war unrest, the youth ‘revolt’ of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and sexual liberation, political and moral dissatisfaction with the country’s innate conservatism. But personal change lags. In spite of their youth and aspirations, both Edward and Florence are innocents of the world and of their emotions.
In spite of more than a year of courtship and sharing, they find it impossible to talk of their deepest feelings and fears. And Florence is partly terrified, partly disgusted (a visceral dread) by the thought of the act of sex and lovemaking with its associated bodily fluids, ‘muscus membranes’ and ‘penetration’. In spite of her love for her husband, she fears the moment after supper when their marriage will move towards its consummation.
…sex with Edward could not be the summation of her joy, but was the price she must pay for it.
Problem is that Edward has fervently dreamt of this same moment for several months. Any attempt on his part to ‘move things forward’ prior to the wedding had been rebuffed. Florence’s virtue had remained intact.
But through discomfort, embarrassment, call it what you will, anxieties, concerns had not been aired. From an academic, privileged background, Florence lived in isolation within herself. Living in a decrepit country cottage where his father struggled to keep the family together following an accident that had left his mother brain-damaged, Edward colluded in the household lies to cocoon his mother from the outside world. Even his choice of University College London over Oxford was part of his sense of a concealed life.
The result of their lack of meaningful communication is that assumptions are made on things that remain unsaid by both and the consequences are tragic and devastating.
On Chesil Beach is a deceptively light novella that, on the one hand, talks of Florence and Edward’s honeymoon night. But it is interspersed with details of their childhoods and courtship that, in telling their story, captures aspects of conservative 1950s and early 1960s England. It’s raw in its telling, but McEwan’s prose is, as ever, beautiful and descriptive.
Nominated for the 2007 Booker Prize, McEwan was one of the favourites (alongside Lloyd Jones for Mister Pip) but lost out to rank outsider Anne Enright and The Gathering.