The Unknown Ajax: Georgette Heyer Book Club 26(55 Posts)
I said I'd start Ajax to show why I think it's streets ahead of Venetia.
It succeeds on every level - classic silly "family secrets" romp with secret passages; arranged marriage that turns out to be a perfect fit; tall man pretending to be thicker/rougher than he is; crazy extended family with easily recognised characters; solid historical accuracy without oppressive historical-lecturing.
And we get a glimpse of the rigid class structure, which we obviously recognise in GH's other novels, but is so rarely openly discussed.
In fact, the novel starts from the servants' perspective. This is highly unusual for GH, and sets us off immediately with the idea of class and rank. In other novels we quibble about ranks of earls v viscounts (there is a touch of this with the absolutely delicious Lady Aurelia) but here we are looking at marrying outside the upper classes for the first time. We will later forgive Jenny for being a Cit, but only because she is stinking rich and UMC really. The idea of a "weaver's brat" being marriageable, rather than disposable (see eg Avon novels, and Claud's dalliances with the local girls), is horrifying to the wellborn set.
Anthea is in the mould of GH's mature heroines that we are now used to - we have left the teenagers behind and now have women with personality and maturity. She has tact and passion in one - which is why she is a far more interesting character than Venetia. I never knew Venetia: we know Anthea as soon as we meet her. She is in an intolerable position, but knocks sparks off the other characters, much to her poor mother's horror.
It's unusual for us to encounter the parents of our hero and heroine, and we've remarked on this before. They are usually dead, or at least absent, and if they aren't they're hopeless. Poor Mrs Darracott is the latter and in all honesty I'm not quite sure what she adds to the story except for giving Anthea someone to talk to. In other novels she would be the governess/companion (eg Miss Beccles in Sylvester performs this role).
Richmond fills another familiar role - the army-mad teenager. We know that he is his grandfather's favourite, and his "delicacy" (contrasting very starkly with Aubrey) is interesting too. A very useful cover for nipping out in the middle of the night, certainly. I love the story early on about his being dragged off a spirited horse as a small boy and earning his grandfather's respect - sounds absolutely typical for Lord Darracott and many generations of grandfathers before and after him! ^"In any event, when Grandpapa said he would never let me be a soldier, I didn't care about anything any more! You wouldn't understand. It doesn't signify." Typical thwarted teenager, eh?!
Do we feel sorry for Vincent? He is rather like Kitty's Jack - dashing but not quite the thing, and of course simply not rich enough. I don't think GH is being cynical when she does this, but it is a fact that she doesn't present us with financially unequal matches unless it is the woman who is penniless. Vincent is poorer than Claud, which is unfair really, and is utterly horrified to find that he's poorer than Hugo too.
Hugo's reception is utterly hilarious, and the way he plays up to their preconceptions of him is just delicious. GH's humour absolutely twinkles in this book, and I love that Anthea doesn't clock that nearly everything he's said has been a white lie, given how quickly she rumbles him on his upbringing (school, accent, etc) and how often he slips between dialects. She's so horrified by his wealth, for example, and doesn't want to believe it.
"That needn't trouble you! I will engage to make it very plain to all that I refused your obliging offer! As for people saying you had behaved shabbily, what, pray, do you think they would say of me, if I married you? Vincent thinks I knew the truth from the start and set my cap at you, just because I wished to be wealthy. And I don't!" declared Miss Darracott, much agitated. [She] angrily dried her eyes, and informed him, in a slightly husky voice, that she never cried but when she was enraged.
While I'm on Yorkshireness, I've been annoyed in previous books by the over-dialect-ification of servants, but here it's a genuine plot device. We have to see John Joseph being deeply deeply Yorkshire to show where Hugo gets his inspiration:
"Mester Hugo! If t'gaffer could hear thee -!"
"I'd get a bang on the lug. But -"
"Sneck up!" commanded his henchman. "Here comes his lordship, and Mester Richmond. I mun fettle t'tits."
I came to Ajax having been on a Downton thread and chuckled slightly at the idea that Julian Fellowes might have used Ajax as his inspiration for the "drown the heir in a shipwreck and get an unknown oik in as the heir" device Can't you hear first-series Robert Crawley saying:
"I hoped he'd be dead, chucklehead, or that there might be some way of keeping him out of my shoes! [...] Well, he's not dead, and there's no way of keeping him out! When I'm booked, he'll be head of the family, but I'm not booked yet, and by God I'll see to it he's licked into shape before I get notice to quit!"
Unlike many of the other not-London novels, a lot happens (^Reluctant Widow^, which is in many ways very similar, being a notable exception). In earlier novels GH really pushes London as the centre of the universe and rusticating as dull. We hear this opinion repeated by Richmond and Vincent in particular - Vincent is only staying because he is short of cash - but this is one of our first sights of the country as a busy, managed place. This will be shown to a greater extent in Civil Contract because presumably GH had got the farming bit between her teeth by then!
GH has a thing for big men, doesn't she?
Don't we all, thinks Horry, looking at Rule who causes double-takes in the street by being such a giant. It's Mrs Darracott who reminds us of this prejudice: "Oh what a comfort it is to one to have a creature like Hugo to turn to! Say what you will, my love, there is something about very big, quiet men!"
... and I've got this far scarcely touching on the actual romance! That's how dense and interesting the novel is. That said, it's credible. They start off by thinking each other nothing special, but as they are forced into each other's company they realise how much they have in common and in the end can't do without each other. It's a realistic, mature match and a loving one, unlike the hysterics of the earlier novels. It's how real people actually fall in love. I adore it.
The smuggling plot is just fun. We need it to give shape to the story, but it doesn't force it. Lady Aurelia is obviously completely stunning in her part of it. What a woman. I love that she finds the whole thing completely beneath her notice but still rises to the occasion and saves the day, even managing to hold her calm to be a little patronising by the end:
"You have no need to blush, my dear Hugo. I do not mean to flatter you, and will only say that I have from the beginning of our acquaintance believed you to be a most estimable young man. I have little doubt that when you have overcome your tendency to levity you will do very well at Darracott Place."
By the way, I am hoping to be able to NC during the course of this thread ::glares at overdue bump:: but anyone who has read Convenient Marriage will still know it's me
I have to defend Venetia which is one of my favourite Heyers - I love the redemption of the hero and that V is independently wealthy, no financial need to marry but an emotional need to find a friend and lover.
Unknown Ajax is unusual and I do enjoy it but not one of my top 10 and I'm not quite sure why. No emotional growth for the hero perhaps - he doesn't need to be rescued by Anthea.
I've finished reading Civil Contract, but I don't think I can start it off because I adore it more with each reading, so can only squee incoherent expressions of love until someone else has said something grown-up to prompt me to pull myself together.
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