The Critical Detail You Might Miss In On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach is Ian McEwan’s short, exquisite novel (now BBC film) about a wedding night in a seaside hotel in 1962 that goes horribly wrong. Edward, a history graduate and virgin with a first-class degree from a middle-class family, has just married Florence, a music graduate and virgin also with a first-class degree from an upper-class family. They fall in love with the details of each other; he adores her for her “squareness”, her devotion to her string quartet, and the tender way she relates to his brain-damaged mother, and she adores him for the fact that he can’t tell a croissant from a baguette, for his love of nature, and quite simply, for how sweet he is to her. Despite being from very different backgrounds, both have experienced trauma in their home lives. Edward’s mother, left brain damaged by a freak accident, spends all day painting naked in the lounge, unable to connect with the present moment or remember anything about her children’s lives besides their names, and there’s something in Florence’s past.
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This something is all too easy to miss, both in the book and the film, which McEwan took the time to adapt himself, presumably because it’s such a subtle book and another screenwriter might have overdone it – particularly this bit. So Edward and Florence (played by Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle) clumsily reach the bed on the wedding night after some bad beef and watered down wine, attended by waiters who make them feel silly and small, like kids instead of adults. The undressing and kissing that follows is excruciating, almost unbearable to read and to watch in the film because Edward is trying so hard, and Florence is lying on the bed motionless, tightly clenching her fists and using all her might not to look disgusted. Edward prematurely ejaculates onto her thigh and she screams and runs out of the room. But it’s not just the awkwardness of first-time sex. It’s not just that they’re inexperienced and extremely nervous; that’s all it is for him, probably, but for her it’s something much darker. On Chesil Beach is well known for being a brilliant book about bad first-time sex. It’s less well known for being a book about the devastating effect of child abuse. In the book, as Edward is undressing, Florence is reminded of a sailing trip with her father when she was 12:
"Here came the past, anyway, the indistinct past. It was the smell of the sea that summoned it. She was twelve years old, lying still like this, waiting, shivering in the narrow bunk with polished mahogany sides. Her mind was a blank, she felt she was in disgrace. […] It was late in the evening, and her father was moving about the dim cramped cabin, undressing, like Edward now. She remembered the rustle of clothes, the clink of a belt unfastening or of keys or loose change. Her only task was to keep her eyes closed and to think of a tune she liked. Or any tune. She was usually sick many times on the crossing, and of no use to her father as a sailor, and that surely was the source of her shame."
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In the film, this flashback is visualised as Florence sitting on the boat frowning while her father shouts at her for not completing the boat tasks he’s giving her correctly: “It’s not that difficult Florence”, he barks. Then she’s lying in the cabin and the lighting is very dark and the picture is blurry and you can barely see her father undressing in the background. The description in the book is merely of him undressing, nothing more, and it could be the sound of his belt unfastening, or it could be loose change or keys. It is possible to read “the source of her shame” as Florence feeling like a disappointment to her father, and to understand this 'you're not good enough' complex as the thing that makes her so uptight and unable to be free in the moment. But what McEwan was actually inferring was child sexual abuse, which he confirmed in an interview about the film with The Times last weekend:
“In the novel I took out, with each successive draft, more and more of that scene until it was just a paragraph of suggestions and a hint. In post-production, we did exactly the same in the film.”
Indeed, unless you’ve read the book and noted that passage in it, it’s unlikely you’ll pick up on the abuse implication watching the film, because the scene is so dark and blurry and it’s hard to see the father behind her. The Times journalist asks directly "So what did her father do?" and McEwan responds: “Well, he probably masturbated in front of her and came all over her, which is why she has such a shock when…”
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…When Edward ejaculates on her leg. Saoirse Ronan says she found this detail “very helpful” in building her character, but not “crucial” because, as she explains, “I think I could understand why somebody would have a fear of something that they don’t understand anyway.” And it is certainly possible to read and watch On Chesil Beach in this context – the book about bad first-time sex, painful miscommunication, the weight of expectation and performance anxiety for both people when losing their virginity. But once you know that the reason Florence is so repulsed by what happens is because of this terrible memory of her father, it becomes a different book and a different film and you read her character differently. Shame becomes an even more prominent theme in the book then, because it’s not just Edward’s shame about his inexperience, or Florence's shame about the cruel things she says to him afterwards (“I know failure when I see it”), it’s about the very deep shame that a woman can carry with her after sexual abuse. The film doesn’t make Florence’s thoughts clear but in the book we’re told she believes it’s all her fault and that there is something wrong with her – “In her own eyes, as well as his, she was worthless.”
It’s only later in his life that Edward realises his mistake in acting on his wounded pride rather than giving his new wife the space to process whatever it is that causes her to react the way she does. “When he thought of her, it rather amazed him that he had let that girl with her violin go,” writes McEwan, “All she had needed was the certainty of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them. Love and patience – if only he had had them both at once – would surely have seen them both through.”
Does this detail make On Chesil Beach a better book or a better film? No, but it does make a 1962 love story about two straight, white, middle/upper-class people feel more relevant to today. It makes the story even more sad, and it makes Florence Ponting a character to whom women might relate so strongly, it takes them by surprise.
On Chesil Beach is in cinemas from Friday
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