Wedding night jitters

2008-10-02 08:05

EDWARD and Florence are both 22 years old, educated and afraid of the wedding night that lies ahead of them, for this is the England of 1962 and the sexual revolution has not yet loosened the constrictions of convention and made it possible to talk about such things.

However, where Edward is merely suffering conventional first-night nerves, she is experiencing a “visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness” at the “prospect of entanglement and flesh”.

Poor Edward has no idea how strong her feelings of revulsion are. During their fairly brief courtship he has realised that she draws back from physical contact but believes it is because she is shy, and because of his own inexperience he is rather relieved that she is not a “wild woman”.

So it is hardly surprising then that their wedding night collapses into an embarrassing farce of calamitous proportions as he misinterprets her every groan and squirm as a sign of ecstasy.

As the drama in the bedroom of the hotel at Chesil Beach slowly unfolds, Booker Prize-winning author Ian McEwan takes the reader back through Edward and Florence's lives, showing how it was that they met, fell in love and married.

The seeds of their wedding-night disaster were sown in their childhoods. Edward grew up in a squalid cottage in the country, his mother brain-damaged and his school-teacher father only barely able to cope with raising three children on his own. He has developed into a kind, attentive man - the qualities that Florence finds so attractive - but one is who adept at playing a part rather than living in the moment.

Florence, whose mother is a thin, bony, physically distant academic who “never kissed or embraced Florence, even when she was small”, learnt at an early age to hide her feelings in order to avoid confrontation and conflict.

On Chesil Beach is a short novel of remarkable depth and poignancy, the work of a master wordsmith.

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