That’s the thing about being decently well-read, you can often get the idea of what a Discworld novel is going to be about just from what Pratchett chooses as the title. I had a fair idea of the main theme of Jingo from its name, and that goes for Monstrous Regiment. The ‘Monstrous Regiment’ are the women, so if this book was going to be about anything, it was going to be about those old tales (and occasional realities) of women disguising themselves as men and enlisting in the army.
Needless to say, you may be able to anticipate Terry Pratchett’s themes, but no-one can guess just how far he’s going to tune it up before the knobs fall off. Or, given the particular circumstances, if you’re spelling knobs correctly this time…
Monstrous Regiment (whose obvious parallel in the canon is Jingo) was the last in a sequence of books which focussed in whole or part upon Uberwald, and which represented a darkening of the Discworld series overall. This time, we’ve actually gone beyond Uberwald, to Borogravia, a small country whose principal export is War. This time, it’s officially with Zlobenia (the geographic feel is Balkan, rather than Germanic, for once), but in practice it’s with everyone, and especially Ankh-Morpork, for Borogravia has done the ultimate: it’s attacked the clacks.
Borogravia is a strange little country, not merely in its excesses of aggression and its complete blindness to anything resembling the truth. It’s ruler is the Duchess, a distant ruler who has not been seen except in paintings for forty years, but it is dominated by its religion, worship of the God Nuggan who is engaged in the continual pronunciation of Abominations.
Several times a week, if not more, Abominations and handed down in ways that are never actually made clear (to the detriment of the story). The one thing in common with these Abominations is that the best and most sensible are utterly ludicrous, and the worst are insane, but Borogravia attempts to live up to these blisteringly stupid ideas, on the surface at any rate.
One such of these Abominations is against women dressing in men’s clothes (you can bet that there are a great many Abominations surrounding women, many of which will appear very familiar. Borogravia does not resemble Saudi Arabia in any way, but they certainly share the same brain cell). Enter Polly Perks, the central figure in this novel.
Polly lives in a tiny village where her widower-father owns the pub. She has an elder brother, Paul, to whom the pub must go on their father’s death, or else be confiscated: Polly cannot inherit: she’s a woman and it would be an Abomination. But Paul, though older, is slow-witted, easily distractable, not at all capable of running the pub (unlike Polly) and besides, he’s not here. He was (easily) talked into volunteering for the Army last year.
So Polly, who has spent several weeks carefully watching men and their vulgar habits, cuts off her golden ringlets, dresses in trousers and runs off to join the Army herself, to find Paul and bring him back.
She’s not the only volunteer either. There are half a dozen of them straggling in to this recruiting party, which is led by the redoubtable Sergeant Jackrum, a big-bellied, scarred veteran, and they’re all very young and smooth-faced. And one by one, every single one is discovered to be a girl pretending to be a man, for their varying reasons.
The idea that a woman can have a long-term Army career passing as a man seems ridiculous to us, but there are real-life examples to prove that it can be done, not all of them in past centuries. As I’ve already said, Pratchett takes the idea and turns the volume way up, a long way past probability, and even further than anyone expects, come the novel’s climactic scene, which I won’t give away for anyone yet to read this book.
What drives the narrative is that, in their first encounter, the platoon, under the nominal command of the oblivious but surprisingly clever Lieutenant Blouse, confront a small group of mounted Zlobenian cavalry at an abandoned pub. They actually defeat and capture the men, and along the way Polly knees their ‘Captain’ in the balls. The incident is recorded for the Ankh-Morpork Times by its War Correspondent, William de Worde himself, mit Otto Chriek.
What nobody knows is that the ‘Captain’ is really Prince Heinrich, Prince of Zlobenia and putative heir to Borogravia, come to that. Jackrum’s squad becomes a cause celebre, wanted on all sides (especially by Prince Heinrich,) and thus of great interest to the Ankh-Morporkian forces, amongst whose leaders is Sir Samuel Vimes… Not just for the indignities forced on the Prince – which everybody secretly loves – but because they are the last free, undefeated, resisting element of the Borogravian Army, the command of which is occupied with a near-impregnable castle now under the Alliance’s control.
Underneath its polished and highly detailed surface, Monstrous Regiment is a book about gender differences. This is a group of young women, all of whom have found their horizons curtailed in one manner or another – some with a brutality and indifference that is disgusting but only too familiar – and who have only found a degree of freedom by pretending to be men.
In order to pass as men, they have to take on protective colouring, and not just clothing. Polly and her Pals have to take on the minds of men in order to duplicate their behaviour. Once they have all stuffed socks down the front of their breeches, to provide the lump that people expect to see, they find it easier.
Mostly, Pratchett defines it in comic terms: belching, scratching and farting, not to mention learning how to pee standing up. But there are other, more subtle degrees of ‘masculinity’ that are more alluded to than defined, such as focussed aggression, and initiative, the presumed absence of which in the ‘ordinary’ female being a little patronising.
This side of the story comes to a head in its conclusion. Jackrum’s squad have gotten into the castle by (unsuccessfully) disguising themselves as women (Blouse, playing a stereotypically unreal woman, gets away with it, though this is more down to the defenders’ perceptions being entirely too tied up in unreal stereotypes). They start a rebellion, free the General Command, give Borogravia a basis to fight back. And find themselves arrested as Abominations. And, worse, Embarrassments.
This ties in with the other side to the story, the inherent love of one’s Nation that underpins every Army there has ever been. Borogravia is a truly horrible place, a country so hell-bent on war against everything that isn’t Borogravia that it neglects Borogravia and all the things that go into making a country function from day to day. The war against Borogravia may well be being fought as a matter of defence, but it carries with it the flavour of an all-out attempt to destroy a mad dog, foaming at the mouth.
The facts are there, impartial, irrefutable, but Polly, just as much as the evil, snarling but ultra-competent Jackrum, sworn to defend his little lads, refuses to believe them. They are everybody else’s facts and that makes them into propaganda: lies.
My country, right or wrong. If you’re right, you’re right: if you’re wrong, you’re still right, you’re just louder about it.
To overcome this obstacle, Pratchett provides himself with a deus ex machina, a well-foreshadowed resolution in the form of the youngest, weakest, most lost and religious of the squad, ‘Wazzer’ Goom. She is Joan of Arc, in truth possessed by a Duchess who only wants to be allowed to die, and for no more to die in her name. It’s a startling moment, but it’s the pebble that starts the avalanche.
Even if, come the last couple of pages, the avalanche doesn’t fall all that far.
Once more, Pratchett has written a superb book, that more than lives up to its theme. Whilst Jingo was war seen very much from the outside, by Sam Vimes (who is in splendid, sardonic form herein, once more the most sane and level-headed amongst all those around), Monstrous Regiment is war from the inside, war through the eyes of the soldiers who fight it. Pratchett may still hate war and what it does to people, but that doesn’t blind him to the other things it does to, or should that be for, people, and this is in great evidence throughout the book.
And no, it’s not just the socks.
There are the usual highly interesting people in this story, and I’d like to take a closer look at some of these.
First and least of these is Corporal Strappi, which is how we’re introduced to him, though he briefly crops up much later as Captain Strappi. At either rank, he’s a marginal character, of minimal importance to the story, but he’s worthy of mention just because of how Pratchett handles him. Strappi’s a weasel, if weasels will forgive me for the comparison.
In fact, he’s an out-and-out shit, a bully and a coward, a liar and a troublemaker. Strappi is weakness throughout every miserable atom of his body, weakness mixed with poison, a scabrous thing that has nothing but hatred and despite for everyone he meets who is in any way weaker than him, a fawner and a lickspittle to those who aren’t. Strappi is loathing made flesh, sick flesh at that. I mention him solely because Pratchett does such an horrendously splendid job of pinning on the page as what he is, and that deserves saying.
On the other hand, there’s Sergeant Jackrum, vast, fierce, experienced, evil, cunning; Soldier in his every movement and utterance, soldier of Borogravia, a Sergeant in every atom. Jackrum’s the axis, about whom all this story pivots, the protector of the girls under his charge, and yes, he isn’t taken in, not for one second, he knows his little lads aren’t lads at all, but he’s determined to get them through, as he has uncountable men (and not a few women) for longer than ever seems real.
Yet not even Jackrum, for all his experience, knows all. Lieutenant Blouse may be a pen-pusher, not to mention a rupert (officer) but his ideas and notions, though they offend Jackrum’s experience, are tactically innovative and, more surprisingly, very sound, for all that he doesn’t know what’s going on in front of his face.
Yes, Jackrum is a force of nature, a very down to Earth force of nature whose path you would be wise not to cross (pity there isn’t a face-to-face scene between Jackrum and Vimes, that I would have paid twice the cost of the book to read).
But mainly there’s Polly, Polly Oliver, through whose eyes most of the book is seen. Polly is the girl most likely to have made it on her own if Jackrum hadn’t been there, indeed the book’s ending implies that she will most likely become a second Jackrum in half a century’s time. And it’s in Polly that I’d like to question one underlying thing about the whole Discworld series, and that’s sex.
As written, at the start of the book, Polly is asexual, and I mean physically asexual. Pratchett makes it plain that she is skinny, with neither breasts nor buttocks. It’s the inverse of Agnes Nitt, who is not merely fat but who is so fat that she’s never going to be sexually attractive at all. The same goes for Polly at the opposite end of the scale (cue Pratchettian footnote about being high in the air because of the imbalance).
But whilst Agnes retains a nascent, if hopeless sexuality, Polly doesn’t even have this. It’s partly a calculated thing: Polly has looked at herself and decided that as no-one will want to have sex with her, she’s not going to allow sex into her frame at all. Her body shape seems to have impressed this determined asexuality upon her, but the most of it comes from within. Kissing don’t last, Jackrum states, but for Polly kissing will never start.
Better people than I have observed that Discworld is a pretty sexless creation. There are no love stories, or rather there are no falling in love stories. Settled relationships are rare among the principal characters, or even sexual impulses. Sam and Sybil marry and become a loving couple. Moist von Lipwig will marry Adora Belle Dearheart and even refer not all that indirectly to sexual activity with her.
But where else in Discworld is sex treated as more than a joke? Granny Weatherwax scorns it. Nanny Ogg embraces it whole-heartedly, in the past, of course. Magrat and Verence know nothing whatsoever about it. The Dwarves bury it deeper than anything. Trolls court by throwing rocks at each other. The Nac Mac Feegle allow only one pair at any time. Gaspode wants to hump legs.
I’m not saying that Discworld ought to have included soppy romances or steamy sex scenes, neither of which would have been right. But sexuality and sexual urges are a normal part of existence. In only two instances does a palpably sexual courtship take place, and that between Angua and Carrot is decidedly twisted, overlaid as it is with the alternate connotations of master and pet.
We are, in fact, left with only Errol, the swamp-dragon, and the draco nobilis of Guards! Guards!.
The vast majority of the time, this coyness doesn’t bother me. It’s absence comes more to the fore in cases like Polly, where Pratchett is at pains to stamp out the flame of sexuality long before anyone’s even bought the box of matches over the counter. Why does Polly have to be given the body of an undeveloped twelve-year-old girl and be mentally neutered? It draws attention to itself, instead of the usual path of leaving an all but unseen hollow.
I don’t have answers to these questions. It doesn’t make Monstrous Regiment any less a book for me, nor any less fun, but it nags in the back of my mind that Pratchett so rigorously excludes the one aspect of people being people.