On Chesil Beach

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,

lying together there goes back so far,

an emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.

Outside the wind’s incomplete unrest

builds and disperses clouds about the sky,

and dark towns heap up on the horizon.

None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why

at this unique distance from isolation

it becomes still more difficult to find

words at once true and kind,

or not untrue and not unkind.

–Philip Larkin

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan, struck me as a novella-length meditation on this poem. The book takes place in 1962, in a world that is gathering itself for the sexual revolution but has not fully arrived. Edward and Florence, the two protagonists, are newlyweds. Both of them are young, just 22. Both are university educated, Edward to history and Florence, much more ambitiously, to music. Each is deeply, tenderly in love with the other, planning for a future together. And both are paralyzed with fear about their first sexual experience.

For Edward, the fear is one of failure — of “arriving too soon.” The experience is one he longs for, rapture and terror of humiliation mixed together. For Florence, however, emotions are darker and more serious.

…she experienced a visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness. For much of the time, through all the months of merry wedding preparation, she managed to ignore this stain on her happinesss, but whenever her thoughts turned towards a close embrace – she prefered no other term – her stomach tightened dryly, she was nauseous at the back of her throat.

The two are absolutely unable to discuss these apprehensions, mostly because they live in a time that has given them no vocabulary for it. They don’t want to disappoint each other, but they don’t have the faintest notion what disappointment — or, really, fulfillment — would look like, and they cannot ask.

The description of Edward and Florence’s wedding night — their ghastly, painful, almost-but-not-quite farcical wedding night — is interpolated with descriptions of their background and courtship. These bits I found less effective, if only because in comparison with the sheer reality of the couple’s pain and love in their wedding bed, their courtship seemed tiresomely lacquered. Edward comes from a messy, bumbling, but loving schoolmaster’s house; Florence from a stern, disapproving, wealthy background. Are we supposed to cry, No wonder they react to sex so differently!

Worse than that, though, was McEwan’s hint — or perhaps more than a hint — that Florence had been sexually abused by her father. I felt very strongly that this was a cop-out. Why hint this at all, as an explanation of Florence’s dislike of sex? There are complex questions here, not just about female desire (or the lack of it) in general, but about every couple: what happens when one partner, male or female, doesn’t match the other’s libido? Talking in bed should be easiest, but it’s not. Explaining this away with even the merest hint of abuse makes all that complexity unnecessary, and allows McEwan to swim in the shallow end. These questions are not limited to the 1960s.

I wondered, too, why McEwan chose to end the book only from Edward’s perspective. All along, the story is told from both points of view, though we hear less from Florence than from Edward. Then at the end, it is Edward’s story alone. Does this have something to do with the diminished complexity of Florence’s sexual story?

Still, even with that caveat, I thought this was a gem of a book. One of my favorite novels by McEwan is Amsterdam, which is also very brief; I think he works well in this short format, when he doesn’t have time for his ideas to be lost in the execution. The prose was brilliant, and, as I said, the relationship between the lovers was beautifully, painfully real. This is the story of two people who were unable to find words both true and kind, or not untrue and not unkind; actions not taken, movements not made. I’m grateful to have read it.

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17 Responses to On Chesil Beach

  1. Ellen Rhudy says:

    Predictably, Atonement is the only work I’ve read by McEwan. I’ve been wanting to read something else by him for years but am never sure where to start, and though your review of Chesil Beach is mixed I am a little intrigued. Maybe I’ll go for Amsterdam first, though.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I loved Amsterdam, but others have found it gimmicky. Read Teresa’s recent review of it, and the comments, before you try it. This one was beautiful — I just had some reservations, which isn’t a negative review, for me.

  2. Sylvie says:

    Oddly enough, I just read this last week. I, too, was perplexed by the one-sided conclusion, but more so by the abuse hints that I assumed would be fully revealed at some point; so I was left wanting at the end. However, I agree that there is a great beauty to this small work, and that it is, as you say, painfully real. Although their scope is very different, the regret for what might have been reminded me a great deal of Atonement.

    (Thanks for the poem, I did not know it.)

    • Jenny says:

      I agree that those regrets about the path not taken are reminiscent of Atonement (a book I liked but did not love.) The writing was the best part of this novella for me. When he didn’t edge slightly into the purple, it was so controlled, so lovely.

  3. I have had this one on my TBR list pretty much since it was published. Your review reminds me of how much I want to read it.

    • Jenny says:

      It comes most definitely recommended. It wouldn’t have been on my radar much if Teresa hadn’t adored it — I always trust her taste!

  4. Colleen says:

    I read On Chesil Beach back in December and was similarly floored by the phenomenal writing. I was so floored, in fact, that I couldn’t find the critical distance to see where McEwan’s take on things might be problematic, so I really appreciate your insights into it.

    My only doubt is whether or not gesturing towards Florence as victim of sexual abuse is a cop-out. Given how commonly women appear to be victims of such abuse, and at the hands of family members, I wonder if, rather, McEwan’s vague gestures towards it reflect how normalized it can become – to the point of it never occuring to people to identity it as such or talk about, especially in the tight-lipped early 60s. That said, I have no proof for this – but it is a thought, and I wonder if McEwan has been called out on it, and responded to it, anywhere.

    • Jenny says:

      I can see what you mean, but abuse is so commonly talked-about now that it has become almost the first thing people think of if women aren’t happy with their sexual lives. Imagine if it wasn’t abuse. What if Florence just… didn’t like sex? What if a modern woman, in 2011, said to her partner, “I love you, love your company, but I don’t like sex, I don’t like touching you”? The implication is that it must be damage, not difference, that makes women this way. To me, it takes out a lot of the possibility.

      • Colleen says:

        True….but as this book is *set* during a period when discussions about female sexuality, any aspect of it, were difficult or impossible…I guess the question is: does the novelist reflect chosen setting or the context from which he or she writes? How does one choose? In either case, there will be (on a book of this topic anyway) complications as a direct result.

      • Jenny says:

        You’re right that it causes complications. I think you can’t quite choose one or the other. It’s impossible to reflect a historical time period without *any* consideration for our own; after all, McEwan lives now and is inevitably affected by his own time’s prejudices. And, I suppose, my point was that difference in sexual desire existed just as much in 1860 as it did in 1960 and will in 2060. He might just as well have done that as abuse.

  5. I don’t think the abuse hint is a cop out. I think it highlights how unknown factors can impact interpersonal relations. I hadn’t thought about the fact that the novel shifts to a singular perspective. I think I should re-read the book with both of these things in mind–it would be interesting to see if my perceptions shift.

    • Jenny says:

      I agree that unknown factors impact every relationship, but *simply* the fact that Florence hates and dreads sexual interaction would have been enough to show that, without the hint of abuse, in my opinion. I’d like to hear your view on it if you do re-read it!

  6. Kathleen says:

    This has been on my list for a few years ago. Your review has tempted me to read it much sooner than I had planned.

  7. Teresa says:

    I’m glad that you liked this. I’m kind of like Colleen in that I found it so devastating that I couldn’t get any critical distance from it. I cried and cried when I listened to the audio.

    I do get what you’re saying about the abuse, and I think the same idea fleetingly passed through my mind when I read it. As Thomas and Colleen say, it’s certainly a common occurrence, and one that could have such an effect as it does on Florence—and the lack of vocabulary that you mention makes the effect all the more difficult. Still, lack of libido can stem from so many things that I think I would have preferred it to be unexplained. Abuse seems obvious.

    I did like the romance, though. I think the contrast between the sweet, somewhat predictable love story and the profound awkwardness of the wedding night is so striking–and it feeds back into my readings of similar romances from that period and earlier, where so much isn’t talked about.

    • Jenny says:

      To me, it would have been more interesting either unexplained or — how about this — reversed; what if Edward had disliked sex and been disgusted by Florence’s ardent nature?

      But I completely agree with you about the romance. They were trying so hard, and failed, which is really, to me, the source of all real heartbreak.

  8. Alex says:

    Read this one right after Atonement and it confirmed that McEwan writes in a style right up my alley. I agree with you that the could have done without the hints of abuse. I really appreciated the feeling of isolation that is created, like they are the only people left in teh world and so are forced to face each other.

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