Nonbelieving Literati: The Welsh Girl - Peter Ho Davies  

Monday, March 02, 2009

There's more than one main character in the book, despite the title, but I want to concentrate on Esther, the female lead in the book. I like how the author uses her story to explore female sexuality in the middle 20th century.

At first she's caught up in the fairy tale. She dreams of a new life away from the Welsh countryside. She wants to see the world and put her English education to good use, but she feels bound to her father and their farm. She feels little attraction to the local boys because they have no drive to leave, no ambition. But she finds the attention of an English soldier tantalizing, a way to get out, I think, more than anything. And after a couple of weeks she begins dreaming of her escape.

She wonders what it is Colin wants to tell her so much. For a second she lets herself dream ... of a ring, of him on bended knee, asking her to marry him, carrying her off to his home in the East End, to wait for him there in the bosom of his family ... his sister who'll be her best friend ... his mother who'll be like a mother to her ... waiting for the end of the war as if for some decent period of courtship.
But when she goes off with Colin she finds the experience much different than she was hoping for. It starts out alright riding away quickly through the night, walking in the pool, drained and closed for winter, but then rapes her and she's left confused, in shock. She's not even sure it's really rape. It was brief, she escaped, and she's alive to sort through what's happened.
Rape, as she understands it, is a particular form of murder, when a man kills a woman. It's connected to sex, but the main thing is the murder. No one - in the films she's seen, the books she's read, the whispered stories at school - no one survives rape. She is still unclear if the sex is so violent that it just kills you on the spot, or if the man has to actually strangle you or shoot your or stab you afterwards, and she had thought in the midst of Colin's roughness, the blunt, searing pressure of him between her legs, that she was bout to find out. But then he had left her, and she felt such relief. She had survived, clambered out of the pool as if from a grave. And this is how she knows she hasn't been raped. The idea of being forced doesn't enter into it - hadn't she gone willingly enough? Besides, what was it to be forced to do something she didn't want to do? She'd been forced all her life by one circumstance or another - by poverty, her mother's death, by the needs of the flock. Being forced to do things is such a part of her daily life, and as for this, she'd at least wanted some part of it - the kissing, her hand in his. If she's been raped, she thinks, then she wanted it more than most things in her life, although that isn't saying much. [...]

If she had to call it anything, she thinks now, groping for the word, she'd call it a misunderstanding. He meant one thing, she meant another.
But she isn't in the movies and all she can hope for is that the worst is over.
She has seen a few of his mates in the street, sappers she recognizes from the pub, and felt their eyes, heavy, on her. He's talked, she's sure, but she's less certain what he might have said. Not the truth, she thinks. Something more colorful, boastful. And if he's told his friends, she wonders how long before someone in the village hears something. It's this she fears more than anything, dimly sensing that what he did to her can't in the end be rape if no one else knows. She suspects that what kills the poor girls raped in films and books, finally, is shame. All those hands over moths, all those horrified looks. But the sappers will leave soon - today, tonight. Everything will be in the past then, able to be forgotten, provided no one else knows.
She's able to relax once the soldiers leave, although she still feels afraid. It's not the act of rape itself that haunts her, but her dreams leaving with Colin. And the final realization of that comes when she finds out she's pregnant.
And then too, finally, she feels as if she might really have been raped. All this time, thinking she's escaped Colin, thinking she's escaped with her life. yet she'd been right to start with, when the word had sprung to her mind as he'd pressed her against the mildewed tiles of the pool. He had wounded her, she thinks, and not a small wound, the drops of blood in her drawers, but something deeper and stranger. What a wound it is that stops your bleeding. And in her heart there's a morbid fear that what he's given her is a lingering death, nine months long, that she won't survive childbirth, that she'll die and he'll have raped her after all.
And so she finds herself pregnant, alone, loathing the man who did it to her. She's been terrified the small town will find out her secret and now there's no way to hide it. Instead of being the victim, she's become the accused. She has no recourse but to accept the shame.

We haven't come much further from those days.

The next book we'll read in the Nonbelieving Literati is Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein.

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