Finally, there’s a third key figure: Captain Rotheram, the son of a German Jew, who fled Germany back in 1936 and is now an intelligence officer with the British Army.
Rotheram rejects his Jewishness at every opportunity, because it’s not how he identifies himself. Not, of course, that this would have saved him from persecution by the Nazis, and nor does it prevent him from encountering antisemitism outside of Germany too.
‘Even here […] even in this uniform,’ he thinks, ‘with dull rage’, when he’s refused service at the public bar in The Quarryman’s Arms; so accustomed to being met with antisemitism, he doesn’t realise that it’s precisely his English uniform that’s causing the problem.
The way in which Davies entwines nationalism and misogyny feels especially progressive. ‘She’d been forced all her life by one circumstance or another – by poverty, by her mother’s death, by the needs of the flock. Being forced to do things is such a part of her daily life,’ thinks Esther stoically, so what makes the rape so different? Sexual violence is just part and parcel of a bigger picture of subjugation and objectification.
But it’s not just the women who suffer. As we’ve become increasingly aware in recent years, patriarchal structures can make victims of us all. Proof of the subtlety of the nuances of the novel lie in the fact that Davies ably draws attention to this. ‘She’d never seen before how love of country is so wrapped up in the love of fathers,’ thinks Esther, when her and Karsten’s paths eventually cross, ‘but it suddenly seems so typical of the way men would ask for love. No, not even ask. Demand, as a duty.’ Set – and written – long before the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ entered the popular vernacular, The Welsh Girl illustrates its greatest stage is the theatre of war.
There’s a moment, at the very end of the novel, when Rotheram realises that he feels neither German or British, and, in being unburdened of these identities, is finally able to throw off ‘the shackles of nationalism’, and ‘escape’ all the associated ‘debts and duties’. He knows that the Jews feel lost without a homeland of their own but, in this moment, it seems to him to be ‘such pure freedom to be without a country’. There’s a quiet radicalism in recognising that unbelonging can be something that grants liberty, and in Davies’s own life we also see a flicker of this possibility.