Set in 1962, “On Chesil Beach” tells of two young people, Edward and Florence, on their honeymoon night. If this isn't enough make you rush off to your nearest bookshop to buy it, the following thoughts I penned about it, should:
Although it's 1962, Edward tells Florence she carries on as if it's 1862. The irony is that if Edward and Florence had been born 100 years earlier, and had married in 1862, their marriage would almost certainly have survived.
While Florence, with her visceral abhorrence of sex, would have been considered in 1962 (not to speak of today) to have something wrong with her, she would have been thought normal in 1862. Then, a woman liking sex was thought a strumpet, a nymphomaniac, and worse.
The normal respectable woman of 1862 - inculcated from girlhood with the belief that marriage and everything that went with it was a patriotic duty - heroically lay back, closed her eyes and thought of England in order to make bearable those brief moments during which her husband exercised his conjugal rights.
Despite being repelled by sex, Florence was progressive enough in her views to suggest to Edward that they have an open marriage. Edward, by rejecting this idea out-of-hand, showed how old-fashioned he was.
However, people being what they are, open marriages seldom work. So, Florence's and Edward's marriage was doomed from the start. Better, then, to end it on the wedding night, rather than much later.
What was the genesis of Florence's dread of sex? Was it to do with her father? Think of the out-of-town journeys he used to take her on when she was a child - just the two of them – when they stayed at the grandest hotels.
When Florence, lying on the honeymoon bed, hears the sound of of Edward undressing, she suddenly remembers when she was twelve years old, and lying on a bunk, listening to her father undressing, and trying to blot the image out by closing her eyes and thinking of tunes she liked. Did anything else happen?
For me, the sadness of “On Chesil Beach” is not so much the collapse of the marriage after only a few hours, but that Edward and Florence couldn't have remained dear and lifelong friends. Had they been born twenty or thirty years later, they may have. 1962 was, however, a foreign country; they did things differently there.