Travels with a Donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-loved travel tale is threaded with longing for the love of a woman he was not sure he would ever meet again.
Florence and Edward having married that morning, arrive at a hotel on Dorset’s Chesil Beach for their honeymoon.
They were 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. But it is never easy. They had just sat down to supper in a tiny sitting room on the first floor of a Georgian inn.
Florence and Edward are both twenty-two and know little to nothing about sex. They believe themselves to be deeply in love, but they are anxious about what will shortly take place on the four-poster bed – big and white, and waiting in the next room. So begins this novella written by an author at the height of his powers. The focus is on their fraught wedding night and the consummation of their marriage. Their navigation of this significant act reflects not only their individual experience but also says a great deal about their times.
McEwan set his story at the point when Britain, emerging from the austerity of wartime, was teetering on the brink of enormous social change. The Beatles had just released their debut single ‘Love Me Do’ and the era of British Rock and Roll and sexual permissiveness was about to begin. But in the summer of 1962 the Pill was just a rumour and the repression of the fifties still reigned. It was a time ‘when to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure.’
Philip Larkin describes this turning point in his poem:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.
The couple are served a silver service dinner in their honeymoon suite. After a huge wedding lunch, they have no appetite for the long-ago carved beef sitting in its congealed gravy, potatoes of a blueish tinge. They had envisaged walking along the beach, a bottle of French wine in hand.
While two village lads serve them from a trolley, they can hear the sound of the waves and a strengthening of the wind. The ‘silky surface’ of the water can be seen from the French windows, and a breeze brings ‘an enticement, a salty scent of oxygen and open space that seemed at odds with the starched table linen’. In theory, they could abandon this stuffiness, grab the wine bottle and claim their freedom on the shore. And in a few years time, this is exactly what young couples would do. But for now they remain bound by the moral code of an older generation.
…the times held them. Even when Edward and Florence were alone, a thousand unacknowledged rules still applied. It was precisely because they were adults that they did not do childish things like walk away from a meal that others had taken pains to prepare…And being childlike was not yet honourable or in fashion.
McEwan has observed that the English have made a literature about the inability to speak one’s mind. The repression of this era offered him an opportunity to add to that literature by examining the evasions and ellipses, to explore what would not, could not, be said – and what the characters could not say even to themselves.
Florence and Edward are unable to find words equal to their feelings and desires. They have contradictory feelings; excitement about the promising future that stretches before them, ‘as richly tangled as the summer flora of the Dorset coast’ and anxiety about the imminent prospect of sex. Edward is country bred, quiet and bookish, but he can be impulsive and get into fights. He has been denied intimacies with Florence during their courtship and has first night nerves. Yet although his fear of failure is intense, he is ready to charge ahead regardless, and rely on the well-worn method of trial and error.
Florence, ‘cheerful, pretty, formidably intelligent’ is experiencing a deeper, more ‘visceral dread’. On the journey to Chesil Beach from Oxford she had wrestled with the idea that she might draw on every ounce of her courage to speak her mind. But what troubles her is ‘unutterable, and she could barely frame it for herself.’ The prospect of physical intimacy makes her nauseous and fills her with disgust, ‘as palpable as seasickness.’ She senses there is something terribly wrong with her and that this will shortly be exposed.
The love between Florence and Edward is tender and sincere and they look forward to married life, once they can overcome the looming expectations of the wedding night. But with so little life experience, they are ill-equipped to make the transition.
And what stood in their way? Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity, squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience or easy manners, then the tail end of a religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself. Nothing much at all.
McEwan uses flashbacks to describe the couple’s meeting and courtship, all the while building suspense by delaying the impending outcome. His unerring eye for detail shapes the characters, their personalities, thoughts and tastes. There are subtle hints of menace. Florence’s revulsion may stem from sexual abuse by her father. And Edward’s history of violence and his growing frustration makes the reader fear for Florence’s safety. A tension exists between the reticent and exquisite manner in which this story is told and the reader’s longing to race ahead to discover the outcome. As reviewer Jonathan Lethem writes in The New York Times:
his narratives hurry us feverishly forward, desperate for the revelation of (imaginary) secrets, and yet his sentences stop us cold to savor the air of another human being’s (imaginary) consciousness. McEwan’s books have the air of thrillers even when, as in “On Chesil Beach,” he seems to have systematically replaced mortal stakes — death and its attendant horrors — with risks of embarrassment, chagrin and regret.
Music is used to convey the personalities of the characters and to expose an area of critical misunderstanding between them. Having completed her studies at the Royal College of Music, Florence is an accomplished violinist, immersed in the music of Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, Bartok and Britten. She finds liberation and confidence in leading a string quartet and she dreams that they will one day play at London’s Wigmore Hall.
One of Edward’s serious pleasures is listening to music. Spurning the Liverpool mop tops and their ‘fey three-minute music-hall ditties’, his preference is for the ‘punchy, electric blues’ of John Mayall, or Brian Knight, music that sparked the beginnings of English rock and roll. And while listening to the blues at London’s Hundred Club he senses that all the men around him of a similar age are having explosive sex, ‘rich with gratifications of every kind’. Edward’s own circle of male friends has yet to catch up and he must make do with lewd jokes and ‘furious drinking’.
For Florence, all the words she cannot say, her expressive sensuality and her rich inner life, are bound up in her music. But Edward feels that at best, such music is to be listened to at low volume in the background, ‘a stream of undifferentiated mewling, scraping and tooting generally taken to signify seriousness and maturity’. She takes him to one of her rehearsals where he observes her poise and contentment as she works with her quartet. As she plays her violin she is in her element, fluid and graceful. Joined by a viola player, they play Mozart’s String Quintet in D major and this piece permeates the story as a reminder of the sublime. For a while Edward is captivated but then loses the thread and becomes bored.
In turn Edward plays for Florence a selection of records, Chuck Berry cover versions by the Rolling Stones and Beatles. She fails miserably to understand them, calling them ‘merry’ or ‘bouncy’. He tells her playfully she is the ‘squarest person in all of Western civilisation’.
Music is important to McEwan, who usually finds a way to feature it in his work.
It’s part of my own mental furniture, so it often ends up being part of the fate, destiny of my own characters: to be either musicians, or for music to be something of a key to their character.
The beach lies in wait throughout most of the book as some enchanting possibility. But when the characters do eventually arrive on its pebbled shore, the circumstances are vastly different to what they had envisaged.
Chesil Beach is a unique spit of shingle that runs between the Fleet Lagoon and the English Channel. Curiously the tides have graded the shingle, so that the pebbles lie in a spectrum of sizes: large and smooth at the Portland end, becoming smaller and smaller until they are reduced to fine gravel twelve miles further west. They have become a type of spatial marker in that local fishermen coming to shore in fog can tell exactly where they are according to the size of the pebbles on the beach.
The landform seems to mirror the couple’s dilemma – the ‘matter lay between them, as solid as a geographical feature’.
McEwan often walked along this beach while writing the book and describes how it acts as ‘a stage projected into the water’ on which Florence and Edward’s drama reaches its conclusion. He says this ‘infinite shingle’,
offered so many metaphorical possibilities… The fact that impersonal forces have created order; the fact that the last scene is played out on a tongue of shingle, so you’re stranded on both sides; the sense that they sit down to dinner on an evening when they both hope to gain knowledge, which clearly relates to being on the edge of the known world…It was so rich, that I had to keep the volume down.
In an interview with film critic Rhianna Dhillon for Penguin Books McEwan said,‘I don’t think the novel would have made any sense if it had been set in a little hotel in the Midlands or inland anywhere. It had to be on the sea’.
Landscapes are so powerful, I think, to people in love…To be in a landscape in love — I mean, the city obviously has its attractions, too, but there is something that I remember as thrilling, to be in love in a beautiful place where all those pathetic fallacies really do reign.
The title of the work invites comparison with Matthew Arnold’s classic poem ‘Dover Beach’ (1867) a poem that played a significant role in McEwan’s earlier novel, Saturday. Once he decided on the title of this novella, McEwan realised it might represent the resumption of a theme.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Arnold wrote this poem on his own honeymoon. The ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of the tide against the pebbles, alludes to the ebb of the old establishment of faith and Christianity against the advance of the science and materialism of the modern world. Arnold concludes that a loving and truthful relationship is a way to navigate this confusion and encroaching darkness: love, life and landscape prevail, despite a period of turmoil. In McEwan’s novel there is the waning of another era. Florence and Edward must shift away from the familiar but oppressive ways of the past, to more expressive and truthful realms – or they risk their love being swept away by the tide.
There is another literary allusion. Thomas Hardy was born just a few miles from Chesil Beach and frequently walked along these shores. In his last published novel, The Well-Beloved (1897) Chesil Beach is richly featured. He describes the roar of the sea as,
a long-drawn rattling, as of bones between huge canine jaws. It came from the vast concave of Deadman’s Bay, rising and falling against the pebble dyke.
Locals enjoyed this description so much that they began referring to Chesil Beach as Deadman’s Bay. The Well-Beloved is about a sculptor, Jocelyn, who falls in love (at age 20, 40 and 60) with three generations of women who are each called Avice Caro. They all live on the tiny island of Portland. He pursues them with zeal but none of these loves is ever consummated.
McEwan’s typical writing day begins around 9.00 am, either at his home in London’s Fitzrovia or a place he rents. He turns off his phone, banishes all newspapers (for which he has a weakness) and disables his social media. His habit is to begin writing in longhand about plots and ideas in a ring-bound notebook. He may sometimes write at the beginning of a chapter: ‘Chapter 4 contains….’
He says that a freeing thing is to write the opening sentence of a book he is never going to write. Sometimes he can even just take it from there; this is the way his novel Atonement began. The logic of a sentence is important to him, as is the ‘verbal surface in the sentence’, for this is significant for the pleasure of the reader. To get it right, he reads his work aloud and pays attention to the cadence, feeling how the words roll off the tongue.
Before writing On Chesil Beach he initially had the idea of following the first few hours of a marriage after the wedding celebrations, when two young innocents find themselves confronted by the double bed in their hotel room.
And I thought this would be the perfect subject for a contained short novel which would carry with it, in this personal drama, the whole weight of a society of conventions, of things pressing in from the outside, that needn’t be nakedly stated but be there as some influence.
The novella form holds a special attraction for him as it can be read quickly:
There’s the pleasure of being able to hold in your mind, the entire structure. I think it forces on the writer a kind of precision and clarity, a focus that you might not get in the standard length novel that allows for digression and subplots. So it’s always been a favourite form of mine.
In On Chesil Beach, the brevity of the form means that the main scene of the novel can be read close to ‘real time’. Many of McEwan’s favourite writers have, he believes, done their best work using this form, including Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Henry James’s The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw.
McEwan describes himself as a hesitant writer, not one to achieve 500 words a day. If the writing is going well, he will continue to write after lunch. If not, he uses the afternoons to read.
Writing screenplays has been a significant part of McEwan’s career, in parallel with fiction writing. He wrote his first television play in 1975 and worked for two years with the great director Bernado Bertolucci on a film that was never made. He wrote the sequel to The Fly (1989) starring Eric Stoltz, and the screenplay for The Good Son (1993) a psychological thriller starring Macaulay Culkin.
No other living English writer has had so many novels adapted to film. Those of his novels brought to film or screen so far include The Cement Garden (1983) The Comfort of Strangers (1991) The Innocent (1993), Enduring Love (2004) Atonement (2007) The Child in Time (2018) and The Children Act (2018).
McEwan does not have the cinema in mind when he begins writing, but he considers the novel to be a visual form. This visual quality, along with his precise and lyrical style, makes for work that is readily adaptable.
On the difference between being a novelist and a screenplay writer, he says:
it’s a sort of demotion from God to a little cherub, or General to Corporal. You become part of the process. Writing a novel is to address yourself to a finished literary form. The screenplay is not a finished form, it’s part of the recipe, it’s not the meal. It’s very, very different.
He enjoys the collaborative nature of writing for the screen and the ‘controlled panic of a film set before the boredom sets in’. He has dashed off scenes on set in half an hour that would have taken him weeks, had he written them in a novel.
After completing On Chesil Beach in 2007 there was great interest in turning the story into a film, so McEwan did something he rarely does for his own novels – he wrote the screenplay. In a Radio Times interview he told Andrew Collins, ‘I saw a thousand ways of getting it wrong. Making it too sentimental, making it pornographic, exploitative, comic in the wrong places.’
The screenplay for On Chesil Beach presented a technical challenge. The novel relies on the use of descriptive internal monologues and the characters do not actually speak until the beach scene towards the very end of the book, so McEwan needed to invent a language for Florence and Edward. He said this made the task more interesting: ‘it wasn’t simply a matter of transcription’. As music is a central theme of the book and one of the couple’s main points of misunderstanding, he began by having them discuss their different musical tastes while walking on the beach. While Edward talks about the key of E, Florence talks about the tonic; he talks of seventh, she talks of the minor seventh.
When he began writing the dialogue, McEwan said he could hear the voice in his head of the actor Saorise Ronan playing the part of Florence. She had given a powerful performance as the young Briony Tallis in the film adaptation of McEwan’s novel Atonement. At the time she was just sixteen and too young to play Florence. But the project was delayed for a number of years, and when it came time for casting she was twenty-two years old and perfect for the role. McEwan says she was a gift because in the rehearsal process she played out the dialogue so that he could take out unnecessary lines:
she can do what cinema finds hard to do, which is to transmit the nature of consciousness, the actual flow of inner life.
The film was made in 2017, directed by Dominic Cooke and starring Billy Howle along with Saorise Ronan.The choice to end the film differently from the book was controversial, some critics believing that it detracted from the mystery of the story. McEwan says it was his idea.
I felt we had to get away from what I had in the novel. We hear about the fates of the characters, but that’s simply in the narration – no other character in the book knows what happens. Cinematically, I felt it was compelling that Florence and Edward must have a sort of meeting.
Speaking of his soundtrack for the film British composer Dan Jones talked about how he aimed with the score to capture the integrity and beauty of Florence and Edward’s relationship. He also mentioned the importance of rising star violinist Esther Yoo’s role in the film.
We were looking for a brilliant female violinist to echo Florence’s presence in the film and as a sort of manifestation of her musical spirit, and Esther captured the character’s ‘soul’ so brilliantly.’
Esther was cast for the role like any other actor. She read McEwan’s book thoroughly, paying close attention to what music and the violin meant to the character of Florence.
Director Dominic Cooke says,
I thought it was extraordinary the way I could give a note, which was kind of like a note I’d give to an actor about a feeling, and Esther would take that, play the same piece completely differently, whilst being very accurate musically. It makes you realize how much of the person is in the sound. It’s not just about the music itself, the instrument and the skillful playing of that. It’s to do with the soul of the person.
You can listen to the soundtrack here.
In both the book and the film of On Chesil Beach, there is a fleeting reference to the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. Florence’s distant and chilly mother is a philosopher at Oxford and at one point has just come off the phone to Iris.
I wonder whether her inclusion is a nod to the fact that Iris once nearly drowned on Chesil Beach. It is a treacherous beach, shelving early and so steeply that bathers are quickly out of their depth. And even when the sea looks as smooth as a pond, it has strong longshore tidal currents.
One summer Iris Murdoch and her husband John Bayley visited friends near Chesil Beach. They were great ones for the water. All her life Iris was an ardent bather, not only of the sea, but also in rivers, pools, canals, the pond in her back garden, even bogs. Her husband, who joined her enthusiastically, observed that it wasn’t swimming so much that she enjoyed: ‘She never swam fast and noisily or did fancy strokes. It was being in the water that she loved.’ This was evoked beautifully in the film based on her life, Iris.
On this occasion they went for a dip on Chesil Beach with their artist friend Reynolds Stone. As Bayley told it, they were laughing and chatting all the while. But coming back to shore, Iris had missed the ‘pulse of the wave’ and instead of being carried back to the shingle, was dragged further out to sea. The men did not notice, embroiled as they were in a discussion about Cezanne or Piero (Bayley could not recall which). The men stepped gingerly over the shingle to their clothes and at one point Bayly turned behind him to include Iris in their conversation but she was not there. When she rejoined them, she did not say a word.
It was only later that she told Bayley how terrified she had been to find herself dragged out and sucked deep underwater. Remembering to keep her mouth shut tight and not to swallow, she was aware that she could have been swept out farther by the undertow, but she was brought to shore by the next wave. Bayley says that by the time she spoke of her experience, her fear had disappeared and she was full of curiosity and excitement. She told him she would put it in her next novel. And apparently she did
I am unable to find which of her novels features this event, but water is a central image in her work. As Miles Leeson observes, there are few of her twenty-six novels in which some character does not swim or water is not used as a symbol. It can be connected with boundaries as in the River Thames that Blaise crosses to meet his mistress Emily in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, or the difference between reality and the unconscious in The Sea, The Sea. In The Unicorn, water is a place of redemption and in The Bell, Dora’s learning to swim occurs in tandem with her attempts to grow up. Murdoch also writes about numerous misadventures in water, using the sea as an image of great power and danger. In The Nice and the Good, the prospect of drowning in Gunnar’s Cave fills Pierce with a mix of horror and euphoria. It is the ‘buzzing vortex of divine unconsciousness’, the great mother from which we all come, and to which we shall return.
The great spit of flint and chert shingle of Dorset’s Chesil Beach near Weymouth stretches for eighteen miles. It runs adjacent to the coast, connecting the mainland to the little island of Portland, with its great lion shaped headland that Thomas Hardy called ‘the Gibraltar of Wessex’. This is a ‘peninsula carved by Time out of a single stone’, as he described it. A tombolo is the geological term for this single strand of land that connects an island to a landmass. In 2001, Chesil Beach and its adjacent shore, part of the Jurassic Coast, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the first entirely natural site in the United Kingdom to receive this designation.
Having just visited Hardy country, we made a brief visit to Chesil Beach before heading home. Even though we saw it in bright sunshine, it is a slightly disconcerting place. I would feel vulnerable here in rough weather as there is no protection from the elements. Storms have reconfigured the shingle that was once layered and step-like. Now wind and water have flung the pebbles into a dramatically steep embankment of stone that stretches to the horizon. John Fowles who lived in nearby Lyme Regis called it ‘an elemental place, made of sea, shingle and sky, its dominant sound always that of waves on moving stone: from the great surf and pounding.’
We headed to the rather mournful lagoon behind the beach and there discovered the intriguing Georgian hotel Moonfleet Manor. I wondered whether this might have been McEwan’s inspiration for the Georgian inn, and returned for a second visit with my sister for a closer look. This beautiful building, with its bohemian interior, is a far cry from the slightly stuffy hotel described in the book. McEwan has taken care to disassociate it from the novel, stating at the back of the book that the hotel he describes does not exist. Yet this is a Georgian hotel near the beach nonetheless and I have used some interior shots for extra ambiance.
Moonfleet Manor is named after the 1898 novel of that name by J. Meade Falkner, a tale of smuggling and high sea adventures. Falkner was a local writer who knew that for centuries smugglers had deposited contraband from France on Chesil Beach, stashing it on the shores of the lagoon behind – good fodder for a rollicking yarn. The Mohune family mentioned in the novel were the real family who originally built and owned Moonfleet. Fritz Lang adapted the novel Moonfleet into a film in 1955.
The beautiful stone village of Abbotsbury, which Hardy called Abbotsbeach or Abbotsea, is just twenty minutes’ walk from Chesil Beach. I took the photograph of the bed in the historic 16th Century coaching inn, the Ilchester Arms, in the room where Queen Victoria slept for two nights while waiting for her carriage to be fixed. From the window was a view of the 14th Century St Catherine’s Chapel that sits on top of its hill overlooking Chesil Beach. In medieval times, local women would pray to St Catherine by its wishing holes, to find them husbands.
The first chapter of On Chesil Beach courtesy of the New Yorker Magazine.
The trailer for the film.
An interview with Ian McEwan and Billy Howle about the film adaptation of On Chesil Beach.
A New York Times review of the film.
Ian McEwan on making love work in fiction.
And talking about his writing process.
The complete version of ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold.Thomas Hardy’s book set on Chesil Beach and Portland Island can be read on the Gutenberg website.
The Fleet Lagoon is one of the UK’s most important Marine Protected areas. The Dorset Wildlife Trust runs the Fleet Explorer, a shallow drafted boat that does trips to the lagoon’s lower reaches.
Walking Routes around Chesil Beach.
Bayley, John. Elegy for Iris. Picador, 1999
Collett-White, Mike. ‘Book Talk.’ Reuters, 24 April 2007
Dhillon, Rhianna. ‘Ian McEwan and Billy Howle discuss the new adaptation of On Chesil Beach’, penguinbooks.co.uk 16 May 2018
Harrison, Ellie. Ian McEwan: “Young men are being fed a purely pornographic notion of what it is to love someone”. Radio Times, 17 May, 2018
Lethem, Jonathan. ‘Edward’s End’. The New York Times, 3 June, 2007
McEwan, Ian. On Chesil Beach, Jonathan Cape, 2007
New York Times Podcast Interview with Ian McEwan. New York Times Website, 1 June 2007
Penguin ‘Podcast Interview with Ian McEwan and Katy Brand‘, 28 April 2019
Tonkin, Boyd. ‘How man and nature did battle on Chesil Beach’, The Independent, 10 January, 2014