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Portrayal of Role of Women in Society in Pat Barker’s Regeneration

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Regeneration focuses on troubled soldiers’ mental states during WW1. The Craiglockhart setting allows Barker to explore the psychological effects of warfare on men who went to fight and also their feelings about the war and the military’s involvement in it. While the focus of the novel is firmly on the male perspective (indeed Barker claimed she had partly chosen this novel to prove she could ‘do men as well as women’), there is a small but important female presence.

When WW1 began in 1914, women in Britain were still very much the oppressed gender. Campaigns for women to be allowed the vote were well established. It was only one year previously that Emily Davison had thrown herself under the King’s horse at the Derby, but no votes were to be awarded until after the war, and even then only to women who owned their own homes or were married. By introducing Sarah Lumb and her friends, Barker allows a female perspective to be considered in yet another male dominated situation (ie, the war).

With conscription removing nearly an entire generation of male workers to battle, a large gap in the country’s workforce appeared, a gap made larger by the increasing demand for ammunition created by the war effort. The people who filled tese gaps were mainly lower class women who took the places of their fathers/brothers/uncles who had gone to the front lines. It comes as no surprise to readers of Barker that this is the group of women chosen to focus on as it is representative of the gritty, coarse spoken and northern women of previous novels.

Until the war began, Sarah was employed as a ‘lady’s maid’, a job which her mother, Ada, considered suitable and which earned her 10 bob per week. The financial pull of the munitions factory was too strong for Sarah and her friends however. The hours may have been long (6 days per week, 12 hours per day) and the work dangerous, but at 50 bob per week, too tempting to refuse. The money allowed Sarah the frredom to pack her bags and leave her mother’s home to find her own lodgings in Edinburgh. When Sarah notes that there would only have been one reason for this to happen before the war she is talking about women getting ‘caught’ in pregnancies outside marriage. The leaving then would be to avoid family shame, but with the war came opportunities for women to spread their wings in support for the country and the war effort. However, these opportunities for women to achieve their own economic status and independence were only available at a price.

When Billy Prior first meets the group of women (in a ‘sleazy district’, already showing a flaw in any new found freedom) he knows they are ‘munitionettes’ due to the ‘yellow tinge’ to their skin. The 50 bob the women earned per week was tantamount to danger money for working long hours at a monotonous job exposed to dangerous chemicals. Later on in the novel Sarah refers to removing her mask designed to keep out the toxic dust only to shake out the powder that had collected inside. I must also be noted that there is a certain irony in the fact that Sarah makes the ammunition that has mentally and physically crippled the inmates of Craiglockhart.

Aside from the very real physical dangers suffered by the women, their new freedom is still hindered by established authorities. When Billy suggests that they go for a real drink Sarah replies that ‘pubs around here don’t allow women’, showing that while financial equality may have been possible to achieve (for the duration of the war at least), social equality was still a along way behind. This is further reinforced by the fact that although Sarah has her own lodgings, she cannot take anyone back with her for fear of the landlady’s recriminations. While women were beginning to enter a male dominated world, they were still excluded from many traditional male privileges.

Gender issues and the politics of relationships are also featured in the novel. Sarah quotes her mother as saying ‘there’s no such thing as love between men and women’. She later expresses man’s love for woman as the same as a fox for a hare – once the chase is won, interest is lost. Ada firmly belongs to a generation where a good marriage was all a daughter could aspire to. When the family converted to Anglo Catholicism, Sarah ‘missed the point completely and fell in love with the Virgin Mary’ while her sister, Cynthia, did the correct thing in ‘ogling the men in the choir’. To her mother’s approval, Cynthia married a soldier who went on to die, leaving her with a pension for life. In Ada’a eyes this is the best possible outcome.

Sarah later comments to Billy that although their mother did not smile for the wedding photo she did smile at the memorial service. Ada despises girls who ‘get caught’ (by the proverbial fox) and worries that this will be Sarah’s fate. She warns that ‘you’re never gunna get engaged till you learn to keep your knees together….No man likes to think he’s sliding in on another man’s leavings’. The disasterous consequences of ‘getting caught’ are highlighted by Betty when she attempts a home abortion and nearly dies. The male doctor tells her she should be ashamed saying ‘it’s not an inconvenience you’ve got in there, it’s a human being’. Ironically the women discuss this whilst fitting bullets into the ‘glittering belts’ of machine guns. This ammunition will be used to destroy many human beings in battle. There is very much a sense that only men can decide when life is appropriate and when it is not.

With the character of Lizzie, Barker is also able to explore the effects of war on a woman living with domestic violence. Lizzie is horrified by the prospect of her husband returning home on leave. Her view of 1914 is that ‘peace broke out’. She says the Kaiser can keep her husband. The war has allowed her a physical separation form an abusive husband and also the psychological chance to acknowledge her hatred of him. She has had the chance to experience a different sort of life even if he does ultimately return. The prospect of his potential return is typical of this book. Ways in which the war altered women’s roles in society are explored but are also contained by the restrictions the changes were still subject to.

Sexual freedom for women was beginning with the introduction of contraception (Sarah knows exactly what Billy means when he says he ‘paddles with his boots on’) but society still dictates that women do not appear to be sexually free – Sarah rejects Billy at first in an attempt to be the good girl that her mother desires and still sneaks him into her room at the end of the novel to avoid her landlady knowing what they are doing. The financial freedom afforded by the war will end when the war ends just as Lizzie will be reunited with her abusive husband. Billy’s observation that women ‘seemed to have changed so much during the war, to have expanded in all kinds of ways’ may have been accurate to some extent but does not acknowledge the restrictions still placed on women both during and after the war.

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