On Chesil Beach

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.



The Bookshop

Book by Penelope Fitzgerald, published 1978 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize

Film directed by Isabel Coixet, starring Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson, Australian general release May 2018.

[this review contains spoilers]

Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel tells the story of a middle-aged widow, Florence Green, and her mission to open a bookshop in a derelict and damp house that she acquires in the fictional East Anglian town of Hardborough. Yet this is not a book about books. This is a book about injustice.

There is local opposition to Florence’s plans, especially from the rich woman on the hill, Mrs Gamart, who fancies herself as a self-appointed patroness. Mrs Gamart wields a tyrannical influence and is determined that the old house should become an arts centre. This sets up the central conflict. Florence, an uneducated “retailer” who at times displays a sense of herself as lowly, has an appreciation of art for its own sake that matches her upright and generous character. She contends in a letter to her solicitor that a book is a necessary commodity. Mrs Gamart, meanwhile, is a poisonous individual who uses art to bolster her own status and influence- she wants Hardborough to have an arts centre so that it may compete with nearby towns for tourists. While the local hermit Mr Brundish points out to Florence the laughability of the notion that art can have a centre, Mrs Gamart sees herself occupying this position, as the arbiter of taste and a champion of commerce. Her vision places her at the helm of an engineered battle for the town’s survival.

As the struggle for the bookshop’s viability heats up, Florence asks, “Surely you can succeed when you give everything you have?” The irony is that, while Florence does give everything, she walks away with nothing. Mrs Gamart, through her politician nephew, oversees the passage of legislation that results in the compulsory acquisition of the Old House without the payment of compensation to Florence.

While the town thrives on gossip and some of its disappointed inhabitants could well enjoy the prospect of seeing someone else’s happiness ruined, the class stratifications of Hardborough also underlie the complicity of the characters in the bookshop’s demise. John Gipping, the father of eleven year old Christine Gipping who works after school in the bookshop, is a plasterer who is frequently out of work. It is he who is given the job of assessing the shop for water damage in the acquisition process. Bureaucracy interferes to stop Christine from working in the shop, and her prospects in life are constrained by the failure of the education system to bring out her talents. The primacy of dashed hopes and the inescapability of a dismal fate are signalled even in the names Mrs Gipping chooses for her children; two of Christine’s siblings are called Margaret and Peter, after the real-life Princess and her fiancé, but as Christine points out that “all came to nothing.” Just as Princess Margaret’s love was thwarted by an ascendant institution, so too are the Hardborough residents constrained by their stations in life.

The challenge of adapting a film into a book is to capture its essence in an art form which relies on completely different conventions. While there is merit in the argument that a film should be judged on its own terms, inevitably an adaptation will be compared to its written counterpart. If the book is well-loved, a filmmaker runs the risk of alienating the audience by not being “faithful.” The portrayal of the characters may disrupt readers’ preconceived ideas, resulting in viewers’ antipathy towards the whole production. In the case of The Bookshop, the challenge is to portray dynamics which mostly occur below the surface. Like the character of Milo North, whose “fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage,” the forces in the novel operate through stealth, only becoming conspicuous through their tragic consequences.

Isabel Coixet’s film succeeds in translating these forces into film, capturing brilliantly the claustrophobic and small-minded nature of Hardborough, and the injustice that is perpetuated against Florence, who is played with both radiance and understatement by Emily Mortimer. The quirks of the characters and of the town are brought out from the start with the right measure of comedy. The constant rumours that Florence is subject to are amusing to start with, yet hint at her downfall. The atmosphere transforms into palpable injustice and tragedy towards the film’s conclusion. (When Milo North closes the bookshop for an afternoon in Florence’s absence after volunteering to help her out, a woman in my row murmured “the bastard”).

While much of the dialogue is reproduced verbatim, some minor aspects of the plot are emphasised for dramatic effect. In the novel it is mentioned that Florence met her husband in a bookshop, and that he died of pneumonia on a battlefield. In the film, Florence adds that her husband read to her aloud every night, and thus the bookshop is shown to be a way for Florence to fill the hole left by her husband’s death, and heightens the tragedy of its closure. Furthermore, in the novel, Florence meets Mr Brundish only once, but in the film they see each other more frequently and form an unfulfilled romantic attachment. Mr Brundish’s death is one of the most devastating moments of the film.  Earlier, Florence loses a bright headscarf at the beach. When Mr Brundish’s death is revealed, the camera pans slowly along his splayed out body starting from the head, moving towards his hip pocket from which spills the headscarf, its bright colours dashed against the cold grey of the ground.

In this battle between good and evil, the book reads like a fairytale- but of the original, dark variety where good does not triumph. The presence of supernatural forces suggest something rotten exerting a malign presence. Florence’s vulnerability to forces beyond her control are illustrated through the rapper- a poltergeist believed to inhabit the Old House. It disappears after the bookshop is forced to close, as though it is somehow aligned with the brutal complicity of the townsfolk and the systematic exploitation of Florence’s trusting and generous character. Dark secrets are also hinted at through allusions to incest. Wally, a boy scout who assists Florence by running messages, mentions a production of Hansel and Gretel to her, in particular the scene where the boy and the girl “lie down in the leaves and get fresh together.” Florence tells him that he has missed the point, that Hansel and Gretel are brother and sister. That doesn’t make it any different, Wally tells her solemnly.

Coixet also makes judicious use of stylistic elements which capture the fairytale element of the story. The use of narration at the beginning and end evinces a fabular quality. There are visual cues including streetscapes of grey-stone buildings, shots of rambling dead trees sprawled in front of Mr Brundish’s castle-like property, which is sequestered behind decorative wrought iron gates. Shots of the estuary’s smooth waters intersperse scenes containing dialogue and action, hinting continually that all is not what it seems. There is also something of the witch about Mrs Gamart, who lives in a stately home on a hill, and whose brightly coloured frocks, reminiscent of Disney costuming, are the epitome of a showy, pretentious character who has no taste.

The characters do not get their just desserts. Florence’s very humanity is called into question by those in power. When the bureaucrats who notify her of the Old House’s acquisition say it is not fit for human habitation, Florence protests that she lives in it and she is still human. Potential allegiances are nipped in the bud, while those who could wield influence choose not to act. Milo North, a man of letters who works for the BBC, could wield positive influence in the situation but assists Mrs Gamart merely because he is asked to, and acquiescing is easier than saying no.

The film is visually arresting and quirky, eliciting characters that the audience feels strongly about while executing a devastating portrayal of the book’s central premise, that people in life are “divided into exterminators and exterminated, with the former at any moment predominating.” Hopefully the film will spark a renewed interest in the work of Penelope Fitzgerald whose writing is beautiful, simultaneously comic and dark, spare and profound.

Further reading

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee