Two virgins

Say what you will about the sexual revolution, one thing it probably improved is the wedding night. In The Second Sex, published in 1953, Simone de Beauvoir described how the sanctity of a woman’s virginity meant that she “was supposed to accomplish in a few hours—or minutes—her entire sexual initiation.”

In Ian McEwan’s elegant, unflinching new novella, On Chesil Beach, we get a detailed close-up of how this worked—for both women and men.

It’s July 1962, and Edward and Florence just that morning have tied the knot after a short courtship. Two virgins who marry, in part, because they can’t have sex otherwise, they suddenly face down the monumental task before them.

Florence, it quickly becomes clear, feels the whole weight of what’s expected of her come crashing down. Previous groping with Edward has initiated a “secret affair between disgust and joy” toward sex, McEwan writes. Edward, who has kept his desire at bay for months, is so pent up he mistakes his young bride’s moans of nausea as cries of excitement.

All this takes place at an English seaside resort on Chesil Beach, which McEwan evokes with his typical, sure strokes as a staging ground for the couple’s future—at least as Edward sees it. “They had so many plans, giddy plans, heaped up before them in the misty future as richly tangled as the summer flora of the Dorset coast, and as beautiful.”

McEwan has worked his prose to an almost Edwardian cadence, using long sentences and mannered asides. It’s a fitting style, for the last dying remnants of that era pop up routinely through the novella in the form of elderly war veterans, the last lingering colonial possessions being given back to their rightful owners, one by one.

Shards of English history filter in through the radio and drift away.

All of this renders Edward and Florence’s sloppy, ill-executed steps toward consummation a tragic, fated quality, which McEwan pounces on when the act itself finally transpires (in this case, it takes minutes, not hours).

In his early career, McEwan was well known for a macabre interest in murder and violence. On Chesil Beach reveals how much he has funneled the froth of those dark and dangerous impulses into a perhaps more subversive arena: domestic marriage.

As we get closer to the moment, McEwan allows Edward’s mind to wonder toward violent thoughts. Florence grows more and more fearful. Toggling between the two, the novella begins to feel like a murder mystery about to unfold—and the final act is described in the language of violence.

This is McEwan’s fourth short novel and it is the most deceptively subversive. In spite of lengthy flashbacks, it has neither the character development of his Booker winner, Amsterdam, nor the menace and fury in its prose of The Comfort of Strangers.

But it is oddly beautiful, even when describing an event that is sweet and sad and rather ugly all at the same time. The aftermath of the night plays out quickly, and it is a wonder to watch as McEwan lengthens his sentences to signal hindsight, then gradually closes them down like a fist, to suggest the diminishment of opportunity.

What’s so sad about this book, then, is no one is to blame. Edward and Florence just have the misfortune of being married a little early. It’s not that the swinging ’60s would wipe away all sexual miscommunication, but by making sex an acceptable topic of conversation, it rendered nights like theirs less likely—and a little less susceptible to the gifts of McEwan.