[Published 2007 by Jonathan Cape]
‘On Chesil Beach’ is a reminder that a veritable sexual revolution has taken place between the mid twentieth century and today. Entering the bedroom of virgin newlyweds, the reader bears silent witness to the couple’s anxieties and fears as they face the consummation of their marriage. In an age where sexual discourse runs rampant, it feels like the characters are living an age apart.
The reader can’t help but wonder if they are doomed. Is the modern age necessarily better? Is love, in general enough, or does it rely on its component parts, one of which is sex and sexual compatibility? Ian McEwan takes this very charged scenario – one where the reader is immediately trapped in the tense web of the ominous and the devastating – and deals sensitively with it.
The novel casts a light on the conservatism of the fifties and sixties. Edward and Florence are thrust into adulthood at a time when there are underlying divisions between children and adults, men and women; so much so that this is institutionalised into their lives in a number of forms. Freedom is almost stifled by the mores that exist in their society, and the prevailing norms undeniably affect how their lives transpire. This is so in numerous respects, but one quickly picks up that the desire to end virginity is one of the reasons that prompted Edward’s proposal.
They are in love and know that sex will form a component of their marriage, and yet do not have the ability to speak to one another about it. From our vantage point in the future, this much-explored topic, though still a sensitive one for most, has become something that most couples, I am sure (and would hope), discuss. That said, even as I write it, I wonder whether it is still a veiled topic among couples – a source of shame, fear, and unfettered expectation.
This book opens the floodgates to the widespread sexual anxiety most experience in their lives – the anticipation of it, the complications that can arise from it (or from its absence). Florence considers it a duty she would have to fulfil, although she feels repulsion at the thought of it. The book forces the reader into a position of rather uncomfortable empathy and raises questions that, even now, many of us may not give due cognisance. We may have moved from a position of the innocence and even seeming naiveté of the period in question, but what wisdom have we accrued in those decades?
In all of these musings, we are taken through Florence and Edward’s histories – shown how they came to this point in a world young readers will view as a real piece of history. The cracks begin to show against the backdrop of, seemingly, the perfect love and real attraction. Sex is the catalyst of awareness and breaks way to cruelty, which comes as a shock when considering how deep their love seems to run on the surface, yet is also unsurprising when the reader thinks of the weight attributed by each of them to sex, which is elemental in the outcome of the book.
In their case, the cost of propriety was high and McEwan opens the floodgates of emotion from which the reader cannot find immunity. This is a short little book with an array of depths and an immensely high impact.