When Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach came out last year, I was immediately put off by a review which gave an impression of uncontrolled and frequent sexual detail which didn’t seem at all attractive; this feeling of disinterest was compounded by my recently having read Amsterdam, which was intermittently convincing but which left me feeling unsatisfied.
So why did I read it last week? Well, I found an abandoned copy on a late night train and, picking it up rather disdainfully, I noticed that the critical scene – by no means the whole book, but absolutely the pivot of the whole plot – was set in a fictitious hotel near Abbotsbury in Dorset. And only a week ago, I had been at Abbotsbury, more famous for its swannery, and walked painfully along Chesil Beach (with fine views of Little Egret, a lovely white bird with yellow feet, a dainty heron which has recently started to thrive in Britain). This seemed to be a sign, so I did my duty, pocketed the book, and read it in almost a single sitting on a later railway journey.
In fact, I loved it. I thought it was carefully and delicately written, a fact which “sex shocker” reviews had completely obscured for me, and which made the occasional explicit passages more forceful. And though they are explicit, they are much more embarrassing and explanatory of Florence's horror than they are titillating. I guess everyone knows the story now: two nice young people, Edward and Florence, from different social backgrounds but sharing virginity and not noticing the increasing permissiveness of the fifties they were living in and the sixties burgeoning ahead, become engaged. They have a blameless period of love and dalliance, with walks and music, although he is increasingly frustrated by the lack of sex, while she is repulsed by the prospect of it.
On their wedding night, it all goes horribly wrong, through inexperience and ignorance, and a terrible humiliation for them both escalates into cruel and bitter words, and then into a rupture which never heals. You share their love and their joy in each other, and you know that what is coming is difficult and awkward, but the final horror is postponed by a series of gestures which inflame his desire, but which are largely neutral or even negative on her part. The train crash is coming, it is inevitable, and yet could so easily be avoided with honesty, patience, tenderness. Indeed, for one tantalising moment, you think it is going to be averted, but he misses a faint signal which she is too proud to mention.
The title, On Chesil Beach, is if taken literally, only an accurate description of a few pages’ action, but the wearisome trudging along the beach, with its energy sapping shingle, feeling of getting nowhere, is a powerful metaphor for the feeling of entrapment they both feel. At the end, they try and find a key back into their secret garden, but almost wilfully turn the chance away. Both their lives are unutterably, tragically different, although they both appear to achieve fulfilment of sorts in other ways. I am left with the impression that Edward’s wounds, though just as deep, healed more quickly and more thoroughly than hers; she – although well into the twentieth century, she may stand for whole generations of women for some of whom at least, sex was a nameless horror which brought no joy. I am reminded of the Count in Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo, who complains to the priest that although he has been married for decades, he has never even seen his wife’s navel! But the opening sentence of On Chesil Beach can stand as an epigraph for the whole book, and all those women:
They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and ... a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.