On Chesil Beach

Posted: 18 May 2018 in Book Review, Cultural, Understanding Others
Tags: , , ,

On Chesil Beach.jpgAnother grenade thrown into the current gender wars?  Another poke at sexual repression?  On Chesil Beach – the book – is not this. I see the book by Ian McEwan, and the new film, are being misused for these polemic purposes.  Pity, because here is something worthwhile and relevant, 55 years after it was set.

In placing the drama in 1962, McEwan is deliberate.  It is a direct reference to Phillip Larkin’s Annus Mirabilis, the year sexual intercourse “began”.  McEwan describes well the times.  I am old enough, just, to remember some of this, CND, Macmillan, colonies getting independence, etc.  Now, reviewers sneer at the effective evocations, “melon boat for starters? Ha ha.”  After year and years of rationing, that was exotic. Even using onions was not universal.

Our hapless couple, Edward and Florence, say they love each other.  They say so, repeatedly.  But they have never had an argument, until the end of this (short) book.  How do they know that their love is something real or sentimental?  Willing to sacrifice self interest for the gain of the other.  Or just hormonal, just “romantic gush”?

Actually for all their love, they are quite different characters, unknown to eachother.  Ed’ is intelligent and charming.  But as a country boy with a latent aggressive streak.  He is unsure of himself.  Flo’ intelligent, cultured and driven, from a driven family.  Sure of her music, sure she wants to escape home.  Marriage to Ed’ will help.

Is this a story of two inept virgins struggling with the elementary gymnastics of intercourse? Or a story that tells us no two people ever climb into a bed for the first time- without back stories.

  • Ed’ – hormones and Boy’s Own hopes of sexual paradise. Naïve, quite conventional, but not a blank sheet either.  It determines his expectations and reduces his ability to be flexible in the face of conjugal mishap.
  • Flo’ – there is a hidden back story. Visceral fears.  Suppressed terror.  McEwan gives us only hints as to why, and by leaving it generic,, it generically applies to many more of us.

Two virgins on a bed, but there’s a lot more on their minds than just “oo-la-la”!

At a broader level, this with us today.  First or early sexual encounter expectations are pre-programmed by so much more intrusive material than back in 1963.  Volumes of pornography, personal sexting, social media body image messages, sexual abuse (or the threat of it), TV/film conditioning, etc.

The danger, and it is significant, will be for reviews and readers to view On Chesil Beach as an assessment of a primitive past, and patronisingly sigh “oh, aren’t we better off now.”

The real value of the book is not era specific.  As McEwan is explicit at the end – love isn’t enough by itself.  We need patience.  Give it time.  McEwan is not sympathetic to Christians, though I value his literature.  Here I agree with his conclusion.  It takes time.  But in the long-distance marriage there is quite a lot of it.



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