Monstrous Reinventing

[This blog contains significant spoilers for Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment novel]

Last year an argument erupted on Twitter – the home of the pointless argument – about what Terry Pratchett’s views on the trans debate would have been. The debate was settled, in as much as it can ever be, by his daughter saying that he would have supported trans rights. Of course, Sir Terry died in 2015, before the argument really kicked into its full insanity. If I’d died in 2015, and anybody had thought to ask my daughter, then she’d probably have said that I’d have been supportive of trans rights. Hell, there’s probably an alternate reality where J K Rowling died in 2015 and trans rights supporters are sharing quotes about Hermione and Fleur using polyjuice potion to turn into Harry as proof that JKR would have been fighting for trans rights.

Frankly, it all seems a little pointless. If a photo emerged of Pratchett with his beard dyed in the trans flag colours and wearing a Kill all TERFs t-shirt it wouldn’t alter that he wrote funny, engaging and endlessly quotable books. Either side trying to recruit the dead seems a little tasteless and a lot pointless. All I’m complaining about today is a claim I’ve seen a few times that his novel Monstrous Regiment is pro-trans, or contains trans characters or, indeed, is in any way about trans at all. And I’m annoyed because it takes a very specific reading of the novel to come to that conclusion. Specifically, it takes a reading that skips the final 50 pages.

Read it now, for spoilers follow!

The novel’s central character is Polly Perks, the daughter of an innkeeper in the warlike country of Borogravia, who disguises herself as a boy and takes the name Oliver in order to join the army to find her older brother, who also joined up and is now missing. The central joke of the novel is that all the recruits are in turn revealed to be women in disguise. The clue is in the book’s title, a reference to Scottish protestant John Knox’s book, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women, a 16th century text which argued that rule by female monarchs was counter-biblical.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that a movement which has been quick to claim as trans historical figures who cross-dressed or obscured their sex for any reason has been just as quick to claim this book as their own. The problem with this reading is that none of the characters even briefly entertains the idea that they’re men. More importantly, the reasons they have for joining up are all rooted in patriarchy; one is looking for the father of her unborn child, so that she doesn’t end up at the Girl’s Working School, two others are running from mistreatment and, it’s hinted, sexual abuse at that very place, others are frustrated by the limits that society places on what women are allowed to do. Polly’s own, slightly shameful, reason for looking for her brother is that she needs him alive to inherit the inn when her father dies, as Borogravian law doesn’t allow women to inherit property. Even dressing in male clothes is an abomination in the eyes of their god, Nuggan.

The small unit do succeed in turning the tide of war in Borogravia’s favour, whereupon they are arrested and subjected to a tribunal in front of the military’s high command. Here the idea that any of the characters were trans starts to fall apart.

‘Firstly, may I offer on behalf of all of us, I think, our thanks for the incredible job you have done? A splendid effort. But, sadly, the world we live in has certain…rules, you understand? To be frank, the problem here is not that you are women. As such, that is. But you persist in maintaining that you are. You see? We can’t have that.’

Monstrous Regiment, p. 304

The tribunal initially offers to recognise that the women assisted the army and then return them to their homes, and offer which the majority of them decide to reject, despite warnings that it is the best offer they will get. They are saved by their aged, rotund, red-faced sergeant, Jack Jackrum, whose catchphrase is Upon my oath, I am not a violent / dishonest / swearing / gossiping man, but…, and who, over his decades in the army, has found that good many of the high command are also female, including the leader of the army, General Froc.

Backed into a corner, the high command offer that would be, effectively, the extension of trans rights to the soldiers.

Froc looked at her colleagues on either side. An unspoken question harvested unsaid answers.

‘Yes, well,’ she said. ‘All seems clear to us, in the light of new developments. When beardless lads dress up as gels, there’s no doubt that people will get confused. And that’s what we’ve got here, sergeant. Mere confusion. Mistaken identities. Much ado, in fact, about nothing. Clearly they are boys and may return home right now with an honourable discharge.’

Jackrum chuckled and stuck out a palm, flexing the fingers upwards like a man bargaining. Once again, there was the communion of spirits.

‘Very well. They can, if they wish, continue in the army,’ said Froc. ‘With discretion, of course.’

Monstrous Regiment, p. 314

The next word in the book is No, as Polly rejects this offer as well.

Polly plunged on. ‘Sir, a day or two ago I’d have rescued my brother and gone off home and and I’d have thought it a job well done. I just wanted to be safe. But now I see there’s no safety while there’s all this…stupidity. So I think I’ve got to stay and be a part of it. Er…try to make it less stupid, I mean. And I want to be me, not Oliver.’

Monstrous Regiment, p. 315

The general relents and agrees that the women can join the army, as women, providing they keep the secret of the women who went before them, but the important thing is that the central character of the novel explicitly rejects the offer of being seen by the army and the world as a man called Oliver. The importance of being yourself and knowing who you are is familiar territory for Pratchett readers, and what is clear here is that Polly is not a transman.

Polly’s later conversation with Sergeant Angua, also makes it clear that even if she had been, she’d still have been female.

‘You followed us,’ said Polly.

‘Yes.’

‘So you must have known we weren’t men.’

‘Oh, yes,’ said Angua, ‘My sense of smell is much better than my eyesight, and I’ve got sharp eyes. Humans are smelly creatures. For what it’s worth, though, I wouldn’t have told Mister Vimes if I hadn’t heard you, you don’t need to be a werewolf for that. Everyone’s got secrets they don’t want known. Werewolves are a bit like vampires in that way. We’re tolerated…if we’re careful.’

That I can understand,’ said Polly.

Monstrous Regiment, p. 330

Probably quite a few women involved in the gender critical debate, or on the edges of it, or very deliberately keeping quiet about it, are all too aware that women also are tolerated…if they’re careful.

I did see someone specifying that Monstrous Regiment contains a trans character. The most likely candidate is revealed near the end of the book, as Polly and Sergeant Jackrum have a private chat.

‘Upon your oath, you are not a dishonest man,’ said Polly. ‘Good one, sarge. You told people every day.’

Monstrous Regiment, p. 338

Jackrum, we learn, joined the army as a young woman, to be with her boyfriend, fought alongside him and saw him killed in action. She carried his child, who was then passed to her granny to raise, and continued on in the army, finding it easier than working on a pig farm with three lazy brothers. Jackrum no longer knows how old she is, or how long she’s been in the army – it’s suggested elsewhere in the book that it may have been 50 or 60 years – but now plans to retire and set up a high-class brothel, continuing to live as a man, and acting as the bouncer for her establishment.

Is Jackrum trans? Again, no surprise that she’s being claimed as such and there’s no arguing that she has spent the vast majority of her life living as a man, but there’s an interesting insight when Polly suggests an alternative retirement plan.

‘You don’t want to go back and see your grandchildren?’

‘Wouldn’t wish meself upon him, lad,’ said Jackrum firmly. ‘Wouldn’t dare. My boy’s a well-respected man in the town! What’ve I got to offer? He’ll not want some fat ol’ biddy banging on his back door and gobbing baccy juice all over the place and telling him she’s his mother!’

Polly looked at the fire for a moment, and felt the idea creep into her mind. ‘What about a distinguish sergeant major, shiny with braid, loaded with medals, arriving at the front door in a grand coach and telling him he’s his father?’ she said.

Monstrous Regiment, p. 342

In other words, Jackrum’s life has been guided not by being trans, but by the limitations of a patriarchal society. She joined the army as a man because she couldn’t join as a woman. She continued in the army because men demanded less work from other men than they did from women. She decides to end her days as a man because, although she’d have fought the same battles and won the same medals, an old man can be a hero, whereas an old woman can only be a ‘biddy’.

And she told people, every day, that she wasn’t a man.

At its very soul, Monstrous Regiment is a book about feminism and it takes a spectacular misreading of it to see it as anything other. But as trans rights activists want to claim feminism as belonging only to them perhaps that’s really why they’ve been so quick to claim this book as theirs.

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