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 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

LadyIsabellaWrotham Sun 10-Nov-13 10:00:44

On the subject of Heyer protagonists with non-U parents, the one that comes to mind is Mary Challoner in Devil's Cub - which is where we see the development of Heyer's writing, because as I remember it, Mrs Challoner is vulgar because she is a Cit, and that's the limit of her character.

IHadADreamThatWasNotAllADream Sun 10-Nov-13 10:36:45

Just read Clumber's link, and whilst it's OK I disagree with her about Ottershaw. While I was rereading, remembering broadly what was going to happen in the denouement, I feared that he'd end up disgraced and sacked, but when it came to it Heyer gives Hugo a page-long speech - far too long to retype on my phone, explaining that Ottershaw did cockup in his handling of the matter and deserves a bit of a setback, but that Hugo will enable the whole affair to be brushed over without any problem.

She also takes Hugo's statement that he knows nothing about wool at face value, when it's clearly self-deprecating - Hugo has clearly been studying diligently for his role as sleeping partner at the mill, because that's the sort of person he is.

And she misstates the nature of Hugo's financial rescue of the estate - he won't be "propping it up" - he'll be injecting a one-off sum to enable repairs to be made to restore it to the fundamentally profit-making enterprise it should be, much as Matthew Crawley does with Lavinia's money when Lord Grantham pisses the funds up the wall. Honestly, do we expect Lady Edith to be caught in a smuggling racket next? Bates and Thomas to be stealing each other's boot-blacking recipes?

LadyIsabellaWrotham Sun 10-Nov-13 10:37:07

Just read Clumber's link, and whilst it's OK I disagree with her about Ottershaw. While I was rereading, remembering broadly what was going to happen in the denouement, I feared that he'd end up disgraced and sacked, but when it came to it Heyer gives Hugo a page-long speech - far too long to retype on my phone, explaining that Ottershaw did cockup in his handling of the matter and deserves a bit of a setback, but that Hugo will enable the whole affair to be brushed over without any problem.

She also takes Hugo's statement that he knows nothing about wool at face value, when it's clearly self-deprecating - Hugo has clearly been studying diligently for his role as sleeping partner at the mill, because that's the sort of person he is.

And she misstates the nature of Hugo's financial rescue of the estate - he won't be "propping it up" - he'll be injecting a one-off sum to enable repairs to be made to restore it to the fundamentally profit-making enterprise it should be, much as Matthew Crawley does with Lavinia's money when Lord Grantham pisses the funds up the wall. Honestly, do we expect Lady Edith to be caught in a smuggling racket next? Bates and Thomas to be stealing each other's boot-blacking recipes?

LadyIsabellaWrotham Sun 10-Nov-13 10:38:31

Bugger - not quite quick enough with the namechange

Pachacuti Sun 10-Nov-13 10:45:50

I don't think they are total cyphers; we hear quite a few things about them that makes it clear that Granville and his father disliked each other and that when he was living at Darracott Place there were constant blazing arguments (Anthea twice expresses the opinion that the place is much improved now that Granville isn't around to argue with Lord Darracott, and Mrs Darracott has a similar thought at one point), and that Lord Darracott didn't much care for Oliver either. Oliver was "always getting into trouble", "expensive" and a "loose fish" and would come home steaming drunk. We are also, I think tellingly, told that the local people didn't like Granville, while they had liked Hugo's father. Lord Darracott (generally a stickler for correct dress) is strongly opposed to anyone's going into mourning for Granville and Oliver.

We don't know what Granville would have done about Richmond's army career, but we do know that he's bitter about Lord Darracott's preference for Richmond, and there's no particular reason to expect Lord Darracott to die any time soon; the expectation in the normal run of things would be that by the time his grandfather dies Richmond would be too old for a military career anyway. We are, however, told that his wife would have had Anthea for an extended visit when her own daughters were married off, had Granville's death not intervened.

There's certainly not much about them beyond that, but then we also hear very little about Granville's widow and two (living) daughters, and the Darracott aunts (Mary, Sarah and Caroline, the sisters of Granville, Hugh, Matthew and Rupert) are IIRC only referenced once in passing by Anthea and no one appears to give them any thought. I think it may be a deliberate artistic decision, to portray Darracott Place as an isolated and insular small community that most of its inhabitants would love to leave and never return. I was certainly left with the impression that Granville and Oliver weren't much liked by anyone and weren't particularly missed.

Maryz Sun 10-Nov-13 10:57:57

Oh, I'm going straight back to read this one.

If it hasn't fallen apart, most of them have.

I know I'm late to these, but what is next so I can order it - I've recently found a secondhand place that will send to Ireland.

Pachacuti Sun 10-Nov-13 10:59:54

A Civil Contract is next, followed by The Nonesuch

Pachacuti Sun 10-Nov-13 11:03:43

I'm not sure it's entirely clear where Granville and Oliver were living at the time of their deaths; Granville clearly had his own establishment of some sort if his wife were planning to invite Anthea to visit, but at the same time his wife has gone to live with her married daughter and it's suggested that she had a choice between that and Darracott Place. Perhaps Granville just used to rent a London house for the Season and that's where Anthea would have been invited? But then who was paying for that?

LadyIsabellaWrotham Sun 10-Nov-13 11:09:56

Excellent textual work pachacuti. I obviously didn't take in quite how much Granville and Oliver stuff is in there - it' clearly is there but I didn't feel it for whatever reason.

Maryz Sun 10-Nov-13 11:11:14

Thanks Pacha.

I'm gutted I missed Venetia - it's my favourite. That and Frederica.

Pachacuti Sun 10-Nov-13 11:41:19

You can always go back and contribute to spark off the discussion again. I missed everything from The Toll Gate to Venetia because for some reason Cotillion dropped off my Threads I'm On and I just thought it had all gone very quiet... blush

Maryz Sun 10-Nov-13 12:19:52

I'm going to have to go and peer in the back of my bookshelves. All my GHs are ones I have had since I was a child (so 40 years old or so) and are literally falling to pieces. I had to throw out a few some years ago, because they were missing large chunks, including a lot of final pages.

So I think I'll order the ones you are going to talk about second hand, and build up a collection that way. Are you following a list?

LadyIsabellaWrotham Sun 10-Nov-13 12:32:33

We're doing publication order Maryz (with the exception of a few at the beginning which were part of a loose series). As per the list in her Wikipedia entry.

I have the same problem as you with some of my Heyers. They almost all came second hand in a job lot from a hospice shop twenty years ago so I had to replace a couple of them for this exercise because they were shedding pages like a forest in the St Jude Storm. I thought that my Ajax copy was battered but serviceable right up until it stopped abruptly about one page from the end sad. I'm still waiting for the post to deliver the replacement so I can find out the actual ending.

ancientbuchanan Sun 10-Nov-13 13:41:31

Mrs Challoner is prepared to sell her daughters into prostitution, just as Olivia's mother is.

I think it's the vastness of the endings that is really spectacular, although ( being unlettered) I don't recognise Anthea's quotation. Because you know that they have recognised each other half way through, there is no equivalent love tension as there is in TGS. So the question is, how is the book going to find s resolution? Hugo rescuing Richmond is the answer, and being recognised fully by his grandfather. Anthea is just a bit part player. It's a v different balance from most of the others. And it works. For me, it's as good as the end of Friday's Child, where I love the ripples of laughter supplied by Nemesis. And Eugenia ministering to another man in a bedroom in TGS. V clever to achieve it without the lovr interest.

Maryz, if you gp back to Venetia , lots of us will follow. It's my favourite along with TOS and Frederica. It's as mellow as the autumn it begins with.

ancientbuchanan Sun 10-Nov-13 13:50:49

Tautness, not vastness. Predictive text on phone..

Pachacuti Sun 10-Nov-13 17:36:25

So you missed the bit with the alien spacecraft, then, LadyIsabella?

Pachacuti Sun 10-Nov-13 17:56:53

It's what Agammemnon says to Ajax in Troilus and Cressida , ancientbuchanan (Vincent's repeated quotes to Richmond, Anthea and Hugo himself come from the same play). In Greek mythology Ajax (a cousin of Achilles) was supposed to be unusually large, and in Shakespeare's play (although not so much in the original sources) he's portrayed as a bit dim.

ancientbuchanan Sun 10-Nov-13 22:20:53

Ah, thanks. Yup, I knew the lliad but always hated that play and avoided it in three years of eng lit. Will go and reread.

Pachacuti Mon 11-Nov-13 10:39:51

Well, obviously I have the whole play memorised... or, alternatively, I Googled it once after a previous read of Ajax grin.

andthepiggotupandslowlywalkeda Tue 12-Nov-13 19:10:37

I've read through the previous threads as you've gone through, and have enjoyed them hugely, and now I finally have thought of something to say!

I'm not often too fussed about the plots in GH books, but I do love reading them because of the lovely one liners and characterisations. For example, in Ajax, I am particularly taken with Lady Aurelia - we've already had the dynamics of her marriage to Matthew explained, but this sums up their relationship so beautifully for me.
"[Matthew] found her ladyship attired in a voluminous dressing-gown, reading a volume of sermons... She raised her eyes, and after a moment's dispassionate study of his face, placed a marker in her book, laid it down and dismissed the maid.
'Well, Matthew?'"

It's those little snips of wit that really lift her books out of the ordinary for me.

Also, Pachachuti, thanks for the source of all the references. I feel more intelligent already.

Sarsaparillajones Mon 18-Nov-13 20:18:26

Ooh just stumbled across the virtual Heyerdahl book club and v sad I've missed nearly all the good books!

Anyone else think Hugo is similar to Jack in the Tollgate ? Both pretending to be a a class below where they actually are, both HUGE and giving the impression of dimness with much smarts 'hidden' beneath?

DameDeepRedBetty Mon 18-Nov-13 20:44:42

placemark so I don't lose this again!

yy to Sarsaparilla. The Tollgate is one of my favourites, and the ending of the crime theme is a very close relative of Hugo's manipulation of poor Ottershaw.

VikingLady Sat 21-Dec-13 21:00:12

Does anyone know when A Civil Contract is starting?

DeckTheHallsWithBoughsOfHorry Sat 21-Dec-13 21:02:03

Have you finished reading? If so, start! I've only got as far as their telling Mr Chawleigh about Jenny's condition and her hilarious tantrum and a new thread would spur me on wink

DuPanettoneDuVinDuFromage Thu 26-Dec-13 23:57:21

May I join the club? I stumbled across one of the threads while struck down with flu a few weeks ago and since then have been reading Heyers whenever I can (before that, I had only read The Convenient Marriage) then catching up on the relevant thread. I've just finished black sheep and now can't find the review - clearly that's because you haven't reached it yet! So I'll wait until it comes up and then re-read it, because I loved it!

I know for a fact there are some more GHs waiting for me under the Christmas tree (we are away at the inlaws' over Christmas) and I can't wait to get started on them!

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