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The Unknown Ajax: Georgette Heyer Book Club 26

(55 Posts)
HorryIsUpduffed Tue 05-Nov-13 21:18:06

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 grin 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 grin

HowGoodIsThat Tue 05-Nov-13 22:15:48

<applauds Horry and marks place>

Pachacuti Tue 05-Nov-13 23:49:43


crumpet Wed 06-Nov-13 01:48:56

Poor heroic Claud is a delight, and I feel sorry for the officer every time.

I have to say that I don't warm to Anthea at the beginning, but each time I read the book she grows on me as the story progresses. In contrast, Hugo is a solid (in both senses!) character from the moment of his arrival.

talkingnonsense Wed 06-Nov-13 21:29:38

I love poor heroic Claude! I find this one really genuinely funny ( also the grand sophy and frederica), although the romance isn't my favourite one. Need to reread to catch up now!

MooncupGoddess Thu 07-Nov-13 16:43:12

Fantastic opening post, Horry, especially considering that you wrote it practically, er, in the straw.

V. interesting points about class. Is Hugo the first hero/heroine to have one parent from a non-U background?

I love the way GH portrays Vincent's gradual but convincing development, as he sees Hugo achieve what he couldn't and realises the flaws in his assumptions. In fact one can almost imagine Vincent as a future hero being further humanised by a lively heroine.

Mrs Darracott adds a touch of warmth to the household, I think; without her it would be a bleak place and Anthea would be horribly isolated. Her devotion to Hugo is also amusing (he is exactly the sort of chap to make middle-aged women go all wibbly).

HorryIsUpduffed Thu 07-Nov-13 16:45:28

Ooh a sequel with Vincent in London finding a nice girl to knock the rest of his rough edges off would be lovely.

But he's too poor, so we'd never get one wink

Louise1956 Thu 07-Nov-13 17:11:25

Hugo is Heyer's most attractive hero I think. he is a delightful personality.

MooncupGoddess Thu 07-Nov-13 17:12:22

Ha, it's true. He needs a rich godfather to die suddenly (one of Lady Aurelia's relatives?) to make him eligible.

HowGoodIsThat Fri 08-Nov-13 08:08:55

"practically, er, in the straw"

I just spat coffee into the keyboard. It reminded me of a very florid man in a pub who asked me if I was "in calf" when pg with DD1.

"Is Hugo the first hero/heroine to have one parent from a non-U background?"

Interesting - I hadn't thought much about the Industrial Revolution knocking on the door of the upper classes. There are the Chawleighs in A Civil COntract, of course, but I am struggling to think of anyone else.

Mrs Darracott is vital because without her, Anthea becomes a figure of pity, rather more like Cousin Kate, and her role in the book changes. WIth Mrs Darracott in place, there is still a stable family unit despite the tyrannical patriarch and ANthea is independent but in a non-needy way. It gives her the position of equality from which to deal with Hugo rather than as an impoverished dependant.

I can't think of a duff character in this one - other than perhaps the aged butler - reading them in this order has really helped to see how each of her character types has been worked on and improved - the ardent adolescent, the imposing matriarch, the fop, the rake - but in Ajax, each of these has a twist that is new. So the rake is flawed, the fop is warm-hearted, the matriarch is wise.

I do love Hugo but with a steadier heart than Damerel. Hugo is funny and the scene when he teases Anthea about buying her tiaras and the moon is hilarious and touching. Like Venetia, the romance arises from humour and shared moments, rather than pulse-racing physical attraction.

Anthea is akin to Venetia, and I won't hear otherwise Horry. She has an astringent quality that Venetia lacks but otherwise are very similar - self-contained, wryly aware of others foibles and acutely conscious of their own position as single women with limited opportunities.

The plot works in this one - where the missing necklace scenario is never anything less than tedious, the smuggling story line has sufficient bite and tension. The final whirlwind denouement has moments of real drama as well as comedy and GH packs a lot into those final scenes - the crumbling of Lord Darracott, the perspicacity of Lady Aurelia, the heroism of Claude not to mention Hugo's masterly staff work. It is the plot that takes it in a different direction to Venetia and perhaps why the Venetia-detractors prefer it?

HorryIsUpduffed Fri 08-Nov-13 12:05:01

Very good point about Mrs Darracott. I am convinced.

Pachacuti Fri 08-Nov-13 14:28:30

Anthea is still in a very precarious position, of course. With her grandfather alive she has status and a home, but (hypothetically, obviously not as it turns out) when her grandfather dies she and her mother would be without a home and would presumably only whatever small fortune her mother brought into the marriage to live on (plus possibly a small bequest from whatever non-entailed assets her grandfather has left to leave). You could easily see their becoming like Mrs and Miss Bates in Austen's Emma , or doing the round of family as poor relations to be pitied.

The spectre of money hangs over a lot of the cast of Ajax , in fact . The only people who have any, by the standards of their class, are Hugo and Claud, and most of the other characters are constrained by it in one way or another.

It also occurred to me recently how limited Anthea's lot is, in spite of HowGoodIsThat's sensible assessment above. There don't seem to be any other households of status nearby, and the Darracotts don't entertain (it seems relatively unlikely that they ever did). There's every chance that Anthea's barely set eyes on another person who isn't a servant or closely related to her since the end of her one London season; she appears to have no friends and her only normal social interaction is with her grandfather, mother and brother, with occasional incursions by her cousins. She really needs a friend and it's in that role that she first opens up to Hugo.

MooncupGoddess Fri 08-Nov-13 14:31:51

Yes, it's a very insular household, isn't it - very different from those in The Quiet Gentleman, The Nonesuch etc where there are often people dropping in or visiting. One would imagine there would have been other gentry around Rye with whom the Darracotts could socialise, but I guess it would be difficult for Anthea and Mrs Darracott to initiate this if they can't invite people back.

Pachacuti Fri 08-Nov-13 14:39:01

Vincent is a nicer person than Jack, I think. Jack will remain odiously selfish his whole life but Vincent shows some promise and has learned a good deal in the course of the book. Yes, we definitely need a sequel in which he comes into a respectable sum of money and is Redeemed By The Love Of A Good Woman (in fact I once read a fairly poor piece of fanfiction along those lines, so we're clearly not the only ones who think so).

HorryIsUpduffed Fri 08-Nov-13 14:40:05

There's a bit where she asks Hugo, with his greater knowledge of the world, whether Richmond's life is normal, because she suspects it isn't. She sees that her cousins have a wider life than he does, but she doesn't have the life experience to know which of them is normal.

None of them.

HorryIsUpduffed Fri 08-Nov-13 14:40:39

I think Jack will get worse. He will get eaten up inside and turn into an alcoholic.


Pachacuti Fri 08-Nov-13 14:44:26

Jack's a bit of a bastard, really, whereas Vincent is just a bit selfish, short of cash and surrounded by people who aren't as bright as he is. Hugo will be very good for him even if he doesn't happen upon the right woman.

Pachacuti Fri 08-Nov-13 14:46:05

You can't see Vincent doing half the stuff Jack does in Cotillion . He'd probably have turned up and proposed to Kitty as ordered, to begin with.

clumber Fri 08-Nov-13 19:11:31

Lurker here, I am enjoying this lady's postings.

HorryIsUpduffed Fri 08-Nov-13 20:26:49

Great link!

Now stop lurking and tell us what you think of Hugo wink

Pachacuti Fri 08-Nov-13 21:15:20

I disagree with her assertion that Ottershaw is "ruined" -- on the contrary, Hugo has a great regard for his abilities, bears him no ill-will and will probably put in a good word for him whenever the opportunity arises. If the Darracotts were actually to kick up a stink about the shooting of Claud then, sure, it wouldn't be good for his career. But they won't.

clumber Fri 08-Nov-13 21:22:37

Love the book, the final scenes would make great theatre. Think the plot is one of Heyer's best, but the romance
lacks passion.

Prefer heroes to show some emotional growth like Damerel or Alverstoke, although suppose Hugo does gain a sense of family loyalty.

Pachacuti Fri 08-Nov-13 22:01:11

I think this is one where other people (chiefly Vincent, but some of the others too) show emotional growth around the hero.

ancientbuchanan Sat 09-Nov-13 17:39:08

I disagree with Horry on Venetia, both book and person, because I love Venetia, an intellectual and business woman who makes friends with Damerel as well as loving him. She has to make the book, not the events in the book. I find it delightfully reflective.

I quite enjoy this one, but it is for specific episodes, not the whole book. The ending is a triumph, as well plotted as TGS. And yes, Lady Aurelia, ( is it Aurelia, again, so soon? ) is wonderful.. I enjoy the horror of Harrow, the moon episode. And that when we first see her Anthea's fingers are all thumbs, with which I sympathize.

But I dislike the animosity between the family, Vincent's bitterness and Anthea's desperation. The undercurrents are pretty unpleasant. And whilst this is perhaps truer to life, I'm not sure it is than eg ACC, or indeed V. The nice thing about V is that she can remove herself from Mrs Scorrier, because she has her own fortune, and live an ndependent life even if not in society. Anthea has no realistic prospects at all.

Vincent I find less charming but fundamentally a better person than Jack. Jack will die in a sponging house of syphilis quite soon. Vincent might find someone like his mother , wealthy.and with status enough for his bitterness to disappear.

Richmond is dull. Ok, alright depiction if teenager, but having had Aubrey, no comparison. He just flounces..

Hugo I also find dull, which is unjust. He is, underneath, the reverse. But I don't think that she lets this out nearly soon enough and it us very uneven. I would like to see more of Hugo's thinking. When she does, the book takes flight.

And I get so bored by the Yorkshire. It's not done well..
As on anothet thread, many many congrats, Horry, or another Drelincourt.

LadyIsabellaWrotham Sun 10-Nov-13 09:41:35

I was also taken by the similarities to the plot of Downton Abbey series 1. Like DA, I think Ajax has an obvious flaw (unlike DA, its only one) in the fact that the dead heirs are pure cardboard plot devices. We've had some lovely unseen characters in Venetia - the plot is largely driven by the personalities and actions of her dead father and absent brother, but Oliver (?) and his father are total cyphers, and, more damagingly, their recent deaths leave no mark on the rest of the household. Anthea reminiscences about their childhood games with not a hint of distress. We don't know what the heir would have done about the management of the land, or Richmond's army career. Structurally it's not a problem but emotionally I think it is.

But I do love it, and will rave more in a later post.

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