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Ian McEwan: On Chesil Beach

As with earlier books, McEwan was accused of plagiarism for this novel, specifically for having borrowed from Claire Henderson-Davis’ book After the Church. I have no idea whether this is true or not, though it would not be the first time. In any case, it probably does not matter, as McEwan wrote the book, not Henderson-Davis and there are many books with similar ideas but which turn out differently. Sadly, this one of those books where McEwan seems to have not been at his best.

McEwan makes two rather rash assumptions. I remember once reading a letter to a newspaper in the which the writer complained that young people claimed that they had invented sex that year when, of course, he had invented it thirty years previously. Many reviewers have quoted Philip Larkin‘s poem Annus Mirabilis, where he states Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three. McEwan was born in 1948 so, unless he was an early starter, he was probably not having sex till the mid- or late-Sixties. In short, he is taking the view that sex started when he started having it. This may come as something as a shock to his parents. It is, of course, something of a conceit to assume that sex started when you started having it but McEwan seems to assume that. His second assumption, a fairly typical male assumption, is that men enjoy sex while women don’t really enjoy it but just go along to please their husband/lover and for reproduction purposes. This is arrant nonsense. There are both men and women who don’t enjoy it, particularly with a less than skilful/loving partner, but, Mr. McEwan, many women do.

Having got that out of the way – and, yes, I am aware that he is writing a novel and not making a judgement on all women and all people born before 1948 – let’s look at the story. The story starts with a young couple – aged 22 in 1962 – who have just got married. Neither of them has had sexual intercourse before. The man, Edward, masturbates regularly but has given up the week prior to the wedding to be ready for the big day. Apart from once seeing her naked breasts and her having once put her hand close to his penis (while both were fully clothed) and then quickly retracted it when she (Florence) sensed the start of his erection, their sex life had been very limited. More to the point, she finds the whole idea abhorrent. She has read a book and found its reference to a variety of technical terms quite disgusting. The thought of even being touched down there, let alone penetration, horrifies her. She has no discussion about sex with either parent, friends or anyone else, including Edward, and this has left her totally unprepared. When, on their wedding night, he French kisses her she is almost physically sick.

McEwan, at this point, backtracks somewhat, giving us their history – how they met (at a CND meeting), their interests (he has just graduated in history and wants to write history books about historical people who were nearly famous but never made it; she plays violin in a string quartet) and what led them to where they are. He then takes us back to the momentous event, with a fairly but not very amusing, detailed account of the activities leading up to their first fuck. We follow their thoughts (he mistakes her hesitancy for enthusiasm; she is petrified, knows it is her duty but wonders how she can get out of it) and his struggles at removing her dress (he fails). Finally, he gets on top of her and, at this point, she amazingly intervenes, having read that it is her job to help steer his penis in the right direction. However, when she does, he has a premature ejaculation (despite thinking of Harold Macmillan), squirting semen all over her. She is disgusted and runs away. He eventually finds her on the beach near the hotel but their conversation – the last time they will ever see one another – is not an easy one.

McEwan does gives us the rest of his story (with a little bit about her) but the novel is essentially over by then. It is mildly amusing but details of other people’s sexual activities can often be very boring and, in this case, it generally is. You might be tempted to feel sorry for them but neither is a particularly sympathetic character and you just want to shout to them, Talk it over. Of course, McEwan’s point is that people, particularly English people of that era, did not talk it over. That there is a great divide between the sexes may be clear to McEwan but whether a book which focuses on a wedding night sexual fumble is the way to show it is highly doubtful.

Publishing history

First published 2007 by Jonathan Cape