What do the female characters in Regeneration represent with regard to culture, gender, and sexuality in British society in 1917?
Sarah Lumb, Prior's girlfriend, represents the "New Woman" who developed in World War I and in the 1920s. She works in a munitions plant and enjoys greater freedom than women had in the past. She becomes involved in a sexual relationship with Billy Prior, though they are not married--something that is still considered taboo in some circles.
Her mother, Ada Lumb, wheedles this information out of Sarah and criticizes Sarah for allowing herself to be taken advantage of. When Sarah protests that the relationship is her business, her mother angrily answers, "Would be if you were gunna cope with the consequences" (page 193). Ada advises her daughter to "put a value on herself" and "keep your knees together" (page 194). While Sarah is venturing into the world of the new and sexually freer woman, her mother reminds her that the culture of 1917 is still very repressive with regard to gender and sexuality. Women are still expected to remain virgins until marriage, and women like Ada feel that their daughters have to refrain from premarital sex to coerce men into marrying them.
Although Sarah makes some strides towards being a freer woman than her mother, she and her fellow female munitions workers are still subject to their husbands' and boyfriends' desires and wishes, particularly in relation to the war. For example, the husband of Lizzie, another munitions worker, threw "her into a state of shock by announcing, in his last letter, that he was hoping to come home on leave soon" (page 110). The war has given Lizzie some freedom, and she hopes that her husband does not return. She says about the beginning of the war, "Peace broke out. The only little bit of peace I've ever had" (page 110). Lizzie celebrates the war as an opportunity to live in peace and independently from her husband, who has a drinking problem. In addition, another munitions worker tries to give herself an abortion with a coat hanger, which shows that women are still subject to harsh judgments and realities if they choose to have sex outside of marriage. While the war provides some economic and sexual freedom for the female characters in the novel, they are still ruled by strict gender roles.