They were young, educated, and both virgins, on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible…
So begins both McEwan’s novella and the film adaptation, On Chesil Beach. The premise is that a couple, Edward and Florence, have arrived at a hotel in Dorset to spend their wedding night, and that they are both anxious about the prospect of physical intimacy. What ensues is a complex character and social study which unpicks the silences and repression of early 1960s British society and observes the ramifications of social conventions and decisions that play out in individuals’ lives. Florence is a cellist with dreams of performing at Wigmore Hall with her own quartet; Edward, an aspiring historian, has a first from University College London. They are both waiting for their lives to start, and marriage is the conventional path to make it happen.
The book is beautifully written, moving between the present and flashbacks of the characters’ lives. Every description carries the weight of expectation and the palpable anxiety of Edward and Florence, from the ‘four-poster bed, rather narrow, whose bedcover was stretched startlingly smooth, as by no human hand’ to the waiters, whose ‘comings and goings through what was generally known as the honeymoon suite made the waxed oak boards squeak comically against the silence.’
The film follows the same pattern, alternating between the wedding night and flashbacks of Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward’s (Billy Howle) past experiences which form clues as to how they have arrived at their present impasse. The possibility that Florence has been abused at the hands of her father is more obvious in the film, but remains a subtle implication. It mostly is conveyed through her revulsion, which leaves her as tightly coiled as the rope she winds in the scenes on her father’s boat.
The screenplay embodies everything that I love about quality British cinema: a masterful evocation of a historical period, characters that you care about, witty dialogue that makes biting social comment, and a denouement that packs a heavy emotional punch. The cinematography has a quaintness about it that belies the social critique. The landscapes are of an archetypal English beauty: it includes scenes of Oxford, men playing cricket, country lanes and the eponymous Chesil Beach. Such understatement brings out the restraint that is at the heart of the stultifying social conventions which have damning effects on the lives of Edward and Florence.
Central to the atmosphere and impact of On Chesil Beach is the sense of crossing a threshold. This is evident from early in both the book and the film. In the former, the comings and goings of the waiters are exacerbated by the way they have to carry their trolley over a step between the honeymoon suite and the corridor, ‘a consequence of poor planning when the Elizabethan farmhouse was “georgianised” in the mid-eighteenth century.’ The surrounding environs also seem to have taken on the characteristics of the momentous occasion: outside, there were ‘weeds, giant rhubarb and cabbages they looked like, with swollen stalks more than six feet tall, bending under the weight of dark, thick-veined leaves.’ Waiting to be picked, one imagines.
One of the great pleasures of watching the film is seeing how these familiar descriptions translate visually. While Edward and Florence eat their dinner at the table in their suite, the bed is visible in the background, a poignant site of expectation. Chesil Beach remains visible out the window, and Florence glances out to it longingly, preferring to go out for a walk in the open space than remain suffocated by anxiety in the hotel. There are close ups of nervous feet jiggling under the table, and Florence’s hands clasping her dress or the bedsheet, fighting against both the anticipation of physical pain and the recall of trauma.
Then there is, of course, the ‘infinite shingle’ of Chesil Beach itself. It stretches out, like Edward and Florence’s lives and their ‘giddy plans, heaped up before them in the misty future.’ It is like a peninsula, where Florence and Edward remain suspended in the moment, poised between adolescence and adulthood, the repression of the post-war era and the coming social revolution of the 1960s. In the film Edward tells Florence that the pebbles are graded in size, having been worn away by the tide over many years. They increase in size as you walk in one direction, meaning that when local fisherman jump out of their boats in the dark they know exactly where they are. The irony is that, when the evening goes awry and Florence flees to the beach, they are lost, unable to find their way back to the hotel and, therefore, to each other. Impasse gives way to defeat; the marriage is annulled, and they are doomed to live out their lives separately.
The unfolding of history and its effect on individual lives is a key preoccupation of Chesil Beach. The wireless is a recurring feature in the film. In both book and film, Florence and Edward can hear the news from their suite as they eat dinner, reminding them that they are possibly living on the brink of nuclear war. It was the bomb, after all, that caused them to meet in the first place, at an Oxford CND meeting. Edward marvels about the way their courtship was ‘so dependent on a hundred minor events and choices.’
Edward himself is a historian and gives credence to the “great man” theory, which supposes that individual figures can change the course of history. It is certainly true in a personal sense for him. One gets the sense that his hot-headedness is his downfall. He enjoys the odd brawl outside pubs, and his inability to work through the impasse with Florence, instead flying off the handle and blaming her for leading him on, results in a lonely future. But at the time, he takes the moral high ground: “In his misfortune, he felt almost noble.”
If one were to attempt a Freudian reading, perhaps his propensity to be a bully is why Florence chose him; by resisting him sexually, perhaps at a psychic level she is putting things right with her father. It could also explain why she is able to later marry and have children with Charles, the cellist in her quartet, who acknowledges both her autonomy and her capacity for leadership.
But Edward did not foresee how his decision at that precise moment on the beach would play out. Florence and Edward’s relationship does not become forgotten, it becomes history. At the end of the film, Edward carves a rather pathetic figure, cooking a microwave dinner at his old family home, which by now he has inherited. He hears a feature on the radio about Florence’s Quartet, and it transpires that Florence married the cellist, and now has three children and five grandchildren. He goes along to see the Quartet’s final performance, sitting in the exact seat in the exact row that he promised he would sit in years before, during their courtship. In the book, conversely, he ‘preferred to preserve her as she was in his memories.’
There have been a few reviews which criticise McEwan’s choice of ending in both the book and the film, which condenses years into a couple of pages, and decades into a few scenes. Some have interpreted it as a hasty afterthought, a last-minute concession to the curious reader, and viewer, who wants to know how it all pans out in the end when the embarrassment of annulment has quelled.
I don’t find this narrative device frustrating (although I was mildly concerned about the success of the aged Edward’s facial prosthesis in the film). Rather, I found it poignant and moving. In an instant we become aware of the momentousness of being on Chesil Beach; poised at a crossroad, unsure of the future, but sure things cannot continue as they are.
McEwan is in good company in making this creative decision. Virginia Woolf, for instance, did amazing things with time. In To The Lighthouse, the first and third chapters span a single day, while the middle chapter of only a few pages spans ten years. Time is portrayed as it is experienced subjectively by her characters.
In that concert at Wigmore Hall, we realise that for Edward, it is not just his marriage that is left unconsummated, but his life’s ambitions. History falls by the wayside, but Florence stuck to her path and plays Mozart at Wigmore Hall, as she said she would.
‘Love and patience- if only he had had them both at once- would surely have seen them both through.’
Book published 2007. Film released 2017 starring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howell, screenplay by Ian McEwan, directed by Dominic Cooke.