Thursday, October 25, 2012

Thoughts On "On Chesil Beach"

I recently read Ian McEwan's “On Chesil Beach” and enjoyed it hugely. Since I can't imagine anyone reading it not enjoying it hugely, I do hugely recommend it.

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.


  1. Interesting. I never thought about Florence and her father (or the influence of Edward's brain-damaged mother) because the book works better for me if I think of both of them as normal people with unexceptional pasts. (Though perhaps having distinctly weird parents is unexceptional.) Otherwise, their problems are not really mine.

    I mentioned to my parents (born in 1939 and married in 1959) that I was reading "On Chesil Beach." They are both extraordinary readers and had already read it and liked it, but both of them murmured something about how difficult it is to imagine that anyone was so naive in 1962. I didn't pursue the conversation because talking about this book with my parents could get uncomfortable very fast, but I thought their focus on the dramatic innocence of Edward and Florence led to a very different reading than mine. Again, it produces distance.

    I was haunted throughout the book by the second sentence of the first chapter--in other words, the second sentence of the whole book. You might remember that the first sentence sets out the problem that Edward and Florence lived in a time when talking about sex was plainly impossible. And then comes that deceptively simple sentence that seems to attract so little attention to itself: BUT IT IS NEVER EASY. I thought about that throughout the book. It is never easy. Not in 1962. Not ever. It is never easy. I believe that.

    And in any event, I have a (joking, but, you know, there's some truth to all jokes) theory that no matter what people purport to talk about, they're really talking about sex. And the only exception is when they talk directly about sex (as McEwan purports to do here). Only then is there a possibility that the real topic is failure at love, or failing to understand each other, or loss or some other sad thought that this book aroused in me.

  2. Talking with one's spouse or lover about painful matters pertaining to sex is indeed never easy. However, it is easier if the relationship is a close and loving one.

    Did “close and loving” describe Florence's and Edward's relationship? Perhaps it did after a fashion, but it obviously wasn't sufficiently so, else they would have have talked in an adult fashion about what happened, and tried to resolve what led to it, even if it was 1962.

    Florence being only 22 and Edward 23, weren't they then too immature to have a close and loving marriage, even if what happened hadn't happened?

    And, even had they been older, would they have been capable of having a close and loving marriage? Since neither grew up in homes where the parents had a close and loving marriage, it's likely that any marriages that Florence or Edward got into, would have the same emotional tone as the marriages of their respective parents.

    Consider also that Florence's mother was physically distant towards her, barely touching her, never kissing or embracing her even when she was small. Could this have been the genesis of Florence's sexual frigidity, rather than anything to do with her father?

    All this said, Florence did seem to like what she and Edward did together of a sexual nature, short of “penetration”. It was only the “penetration” bit that Florence absolutely didn't like, and it included her mouth being penetrated by Edward's tongue.

    But, wasn't what Florence and Edward did together when no-one was looking, as much “sex” as anything involving “penetration”, which is how "sex" is usually defined? Why this restrictive definition of “sex”? Is it that the male view of everything, including “sex”, still dominates our values?

    It would have taken Edward only to shout “come back” as Florence walked away from him for ever on Chesil Beach, for her to turn around and return to him.

    If, though, she really wanted to return to him, why didn't she just do so? I suspect it was because in 1962 (a time I remember well) it was men who were the pursuers and women the pursued. At least this was so in the English culture then, of which I was a product. Was it like this in America?

    I thought about the meal that Florence and Edward were eating in their hotel room - the roast beef (his piled twice the height of hers) the thickened gravy, the potatoes.

    All this, so soon after they'd eaten so much at the wedding banquet, would put anyone off romance. However, Florence and Edward continued eating because, well, it would have been untoward not to.

    The unappetising food aside, the overall atmosphere in the honeymoon suite - filled with unspoken “oughts”, and Florence undoubtedly feeling like an animal about to be led to the slaughter - couldn't have been more unromantic or unerotic if you tried.

  3. Ha! You're so right about the food. And you made me laugh by reminding me of it.

    Gravy -- killer of romance.

    As for beef, remember "Twelfth Night" and Sir Andrew's words: "But I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit." And maybe the harm was broader than he imagined. Sir Andrew never did make it with Olivia, you know.

  4. "....But I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit....."

    This would be a great bumper sticker for vegetarians to put on their cars.

  5. Louise Erdrich's "The Round House"
    Ian McEwan's "Amsterdam"
    Philip Roth's "The Ghost Writer" and "Zuckerman Unbound"

    How about you? What are you reading?

  6. May I assume you've recently read the above four books?

    Unfortunately I've read none of them. So little time, so much to read (sigh).

    I'm currently reaching the end of Jane Smiley's "A Thousand Acres". I've sort of enjoyed it. Had it had less about farming I might have enjoyed it more. As a city slicker, you see, I've always found farming (and farmers) a bit of a bore. Have you read "A Thousand Acres?"

    Waiting for me on my coffee table are Ian McEwan's "Sweet Tooth", that I can hardly wait to get into (you've read it, right?), and David Lodge's "A Man of Parts", a novel about HG Wells, who, I've learned, was throughout his life obsessed with sex (well, who isn't!!)

    When I complete "Sweet Tooth" I'll ask you for your your thoughts about it.

    Meanwhile, happy reading!!

  7. Yes, I'm reading a lot these days--those four and others. And, yes, I'm eager to hear what you think of "Sweet Tooth." I think you'd like "Amsterdam."

  8. and, yes, farming is boring.