Women belong in the kitchen – everyone knows that. Not in jobs, pubs, or indeed trousers, and certainly not on the front line. Polly Perks has to become a boy in a hurry if she wants to find her brother in the army. Cutting off her hair and wearing the trousers in easy. Learning to fart and belch in public and walk like an ape takes more time. And there’s a war on. There’s always a war on. Polly and her fellow raw recruits are suddenly in the thick of it.
All they have on their side is the most artful sergeant in the army and a vampire with a lust for coffee. Well… they have the Secret. And it’s time to make a stand.
I am, and for a long time have been, a huge fan of Discworld, so this is far from the first time I’ve read Monstrous Regiment in the decade or so since it was first published. It is, however, the first time I’ve read it with a critical eye to Pratchett’s presentation of gender and gender nonconformity. This review will contain SPOILERS for the book.
As the title hints, Monstrous Regiment is about a squad of soldiers who have all dressed up as men in order to enlist for various reasons. Pratchett’s presentation of this is very clearly not as genderqueer; these are women who think of themselves as women – although when they end up, while soldiers, dressed as men, it appears to cause them some confusion – who have crossdressed for a specific reason. On that front, the novel is more about feminism than gender per se. This is complicated, however, by the presence of a background character, Wrigglesworth, who is a closeted transgender woman or a transvestite man and is used as comedy fuel rather than anything more serious; and by the role of, among others, Sergeant Jack Jackrum. Jackrum, like the rest of the monstrous regiment, is biologically female; however, not only does he present as male throughout the novel, he appears to think of himself as male, and this is portrayed as perfectly rational, logical, normal. Monstrous Regiment seems to both have its cake in Wrigglesworth’s comic presentation of transness and eat it in the portrayal of Jackrum as a real transman.
Monstrous Regiment is also the second time Pratchett has dealt, on a novelistic scale, with feminism (Equal Rites, 1987) and with nationalism (Jingo, 1997); in neither case has his thoughts about either changed much, but his presentation of the former has dramatically matured. As Juliet E. McKenna said at Satellite4’s panel on Sir Terry, Pratchett is one of those writers who can really write female characters; whilst sometimes using caricatures (as much of men as of women – see the blurb), Pratchett doesn’t write women as having any real shared traits, and in many cases, especially in Monstrous Regiment, portrays them as much more competent than the men.
Character is always one of the true delights of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, and Monstrous Regiment does not disappoint in this regard. The presence of Sam Vimes as a familiar figure is nice, but it’s Polly we really follow, and that gives the book an interesting semi-YA feel; the voice here is simpler than in many other Discworld novels, the youth of the characters more pronounced, and the coming-of-age elements of the story more centred. Like Stardust, mind you, it doesn’t pull its language punches; soldiers swear, and that incudes Pratchett’s soldiers, but he uses the way they swear to demonstrate things about these characters. Each of the soldiers is given a very distinct personality, from Polly’s observations of the world and slightly cynical eyes to Wazzer’s extreme faith in the Duchess to Lofty & Tonk’s possible-homosexual-relationship and very different trauma responses.
Monstrous Regiment is not the best of the Discworld books, but it is a brilliant one; and it shows some very interesting thinking about gender.