Couple moves from love to litigation when the bedroom proves too much

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Couple moves from love to litigation when the bedroom proves too much

Unless you belong to a puritanical religious sect, spend too much time online or are just desperately unlucky, you will at some point lose your virginity.

The event might be spectacularly wonderful, an evening of candle-lit dinners, soft music and deep feelings of commitment and promise.

Or, it might be an unmitigated disaster leading to acute feelings of embarrassment, regret and apology.

The best case scenario results in babies; the worst case involves writs and lawyers.

In Ian McEwan’s latest novel, “On Chesil Beach,” Edward and Florence have just gotten married in a hotel on the Dorset coast in southern England.

They gird themselves for their first night together as husband and wife. The tricky bit is they are both innocents, neither having popped their cherries prior to their nuptials.

“They were both 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,” McEwan writes.

It is, after all, 1962 England, before the sexual revolution of that decade, before the Beatles and before the oral contraceptive pill that divorced sex from parenthood pretty much for the first time in history. In those days, Englishmen still wore ties and addressed their seniors as “Sir,” and women were expected to marry, have kids and spend their life in the kitchen.

People talk about the liberated days of the 1960s, but England was still a highly conservative country in those days.

Sex between men was illegal until 1967 and D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was banned until 1961.

In this stuffy world, Edward, a promising academic, and Florence, a gifted violinist, sit down to dinner on their wedding night where they “separately worried about the moment, some time soon after dinner, when their new maturity would be tested, when they would lie down together on the four-poster bed and reveal themselves fully to one another.”

Edward frets over a common-place male concern: “His specific worry, based on one unfortunate experience, was of over-excitement, of what he had heard some describe as ‘arriving too soon.’”

Meanwhile, Florence is experiencing a “visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness.” Her guidebook to marriage had mentioned words like penetration, glans and mucous membrane, making the act as “repulsive as, say, a surgical procedure on her eye.”

When they eventually find themselves semi-naked on their four-poster bed, things go so badly that lawyers are eventually hired: they divorce on the ground of non-consummation after Edward, despite his best efforts, “arrives” sooner than either party expected, leaving his wife of a day filled with repulsion.

Florence offers Edward a lifeline, suggesting they remain married but that Edward could seek sexual satisfaction elsewhere. She loves him and wants to live with him, but her passion for Beethoven is greater. She is simply not interested in sex. Edward cannot stomach such a radical form of marriage and they separate under the moon on Chesil Beach.

The last few paragraphs relate how their lives turned out: Florence a successful classical musician who still yearns for Edward, and Edward unfulfilled, forever wondering what would have happened if he had not stood in “cold and righteous silence” as Florence walked across the sand and away from their marriage.

McEwan, who wrote “Atonement” and “Enduring Love,” both of which have been filmed, has created a sad story, one in which Edward realizes that “Love and patience if only he had them both at once would surely have seen them both through.”

Author: Ian McEwan

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Vintage

By Michael Gibb Deputy Editor []
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