All Pratchett quotations come from the American paperback editions, except for Unseen Academicals where I quote from the American hardcover.
Spoiler alert: below the cut there are mild, primarily character-related spoilers for the novels Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Going Postal, Thud, Making Money, and Unseen Academicals. There are also significant plot spoilers for Guards! Guards!, Feet of Clay, and The Truth--not the "big reveal" in any case, but mentions of major plot elements.
I. The Mysterious Mr. Drumknott
Pratchett gives readers very little concrete information about Drumknott--even his first name (Rufus) isn't given until The Truth. We know that he's young; it's mentioned in both Soul Music and The Truth (226; 145). The latter reference, from the point of view of William de Worde (who is himself young, not a Ridcully type who sees anyone under 40 as a teenager), is especially significant because Drumknott has at this point been Vetinari's secretary for some years. Timelines in the Discworld are notoriously unreliable, but it's reasonable to assume that Drumknott was promoted as a very young man.
We're given only the barest impression of what Drumknott looks like. Going Postal mentions his "pale face," and in Unseen Academicals, Glenda Sugarbean thinks of him as a "severe thin man" (69; 244). From his boot size (8, as mentioned in Making Money) we can infer that he's not very tall; it's likely that the "slight, clerklike figure" who gets out of Vetinari's coach at the beginning of Going Postal is Drumknott (124; 11).
His clothes are also a matter of inference, based on what we see Heretofore wearing in Making Money. Since Cosmo Lavish wants to be like Vetinari in every detail, and since he thinks of Heretofore as his Drumknott, Heretofore's "brown robe," later described as "an old-fashioned clerk's robe" likely mimics Drumknott's working clothes (91; 286). (Incidentally, Cosmo also "fussed about [Heretofore's] height at the job interview," although we don't learn exactly why .)
One unusually definite detail is that he walks and speaks very quietly. It's mentioned in virtually every book, often several times. In Going Postal he's described as "one of the most silent people Moist had ever encountered" (191).
Drumknott's life outside of his job is even more of a blank. He has a nephew who collects stamps, so Drumknott removes stamps from the incoming foreign mail, with Vetinari's permission, and passes them along (Going Postal 393). And in Thud, when Vetinari asks if he's a betting man, Drumknott replies, "I have been known to have the occasional 'little flutter,' sir" (296).
Drumknott's "little flutters" are an interesting contrast to Pratchett's overall presentation of him as cautious and, at least according to Moist von Lipwig, "prim" (Making Money 22). It suggests that Drumknott's private self isn't completely delimited by his public, professional self, where indeed he takes his work with extreme seriousness. In Going Postal, when Vetinari asks him to fake some confidential files to be not-really-accidentally revealed during a meeting, Drumknott's face shows "the pained expression of a man forced to betray the high principles of filing" and he "agoniz[es]" over the matter (69). "Deliberate misfiling," Pratchett writes, "ran fingernails down the blackboard of his very soul" (70). Pratchett writes comedy, and very few of his characters are never made to look ridiculous, but it's also worth considering the nature of Drumknott's job. During the scene I've just quoted from, Drumknott mentions that the clerks under his supervision are engaged in a "Concludium" trying to analyze exactly what the Grand Trunk Company is up to. A lot of Drumknott's work involves sorting through information and drawing conclusions, not to mention having any information available for Vetinari at any time. It's hard to imagine him doing his work successfully without being somewhat obsessive about things like proper organization (i.e., filing).
This moves us away from clear facts and into interpretation, so I now want to turn to a detailed examination of individual novels.
II. Early Days
Drumknott first appears in Men At Arms, where he's mentioned as "a clerk" whom Vetinari asks to fetch a ladder (74).
In Feet of Clay he's a more substantial presence, identified as "the Patrician's personal clerk" (meaning he's stepped into the place vacated by the unlamented Lupine Wonse). Sam Vimes knows him, and in fact turns to him for information about a coded book he's found in Vetinari's desk.
"What's this book? Is it his lordship's diary?"
Drumknott took the book. "It looks like it, certainly."
"Have you been able to crack the code?"
"Why should I, sir? It's not mine."
"You do know his last secretary tried to kill him?"
"Yes, sir. I ought to say, sir, that I have already been exhaustively interrogated by your men." Drumknott opened the book and raised his eyebrows. (182)
Later, Drumknott appears in a second scene, again in the context of interrogation.
Cheri Littlebottom strode into the palace kitchens and fired her crossbow into the ceiling.
"Don't nobody move!" she yelled.
The Patrician's domestic staff looked up from their dinner.
"When you say don't nobody move," said Drumknott carefully, fastidiously taking a piece of plaster off his plate, "do you in fact mean - ?"
"All right, Corporal, I'll take over now," said Vimes, patting Cheri on the shoulder. (280-81)
A couple of things are notable in these scenes: Drumknott's unflappability, his Vetinari-like fastidiousness (about plaster and grammar), and most importantly, his trustworthiness. It's never occurred to him to try decoding Vetinari's diary.
Towards the end of Feet of Clay, we finally see Drumknott and Vetinari together. Vetinari entrusts Drumknott with another secret, and the closeness of their working relationship becomes clear.
Vetinari watched [Vimes] go, and sighed. "He does so like a dramatic exit."
"Yes, my lord," said Drumknott, who had appeared noiselessly at his shoulder.
"Ah, Drumknott." The Patrician took a length of candle out of his pocket and handed it to his secretary. "Dispose of this somewhere safely, would you?"
"Yes, my lord?"
"It's the candle from the other night."
"It's not burned down, my lord? But I saw the candle-end in the holder . . ."
"Oh, of course I cut off enough to make a stub and let the wick burn for a moment. I couldn't let our gallant policeman know I'd worked it out for myself, could I? Not when he was making such an effort and having so much fun being . . . well, being Vimes. I'm not completely heartless, you know."
"But my lord, you could have sorted it out diplomatically! Instead he went around upsetting things and making a lot of people very angry and afraid -"
"Yes. Dear me. Tsk, tsk."
"Ah," said Drumknott.
"Quite so," said the Patrician.
"Do you wish me to have the table in the Rats' Chamber repaired?"
"No, Drumknott, leave the axe where it is. It will make a good . . . conversation piece, I think."
"May I make an observation, my lord?"
"Of course you may," said Vetinari, watching Vimes walk through the palace gates.
"The thought occurs, sir, that if Commander Vimes did not exist you would have had to invent him."
"You know, Drumknott, I rather think I did." (344-345)
Drumknott isn't just someone who helps Vetinari with the paperwork; Vetinari confides in him, allows him to express his views, and seems to be trying to train him to think like Vetinari does (by not directly explaining the reasons for his decisions, but hinting until Drumknott catches on). There's already a level of trust between them that Vetinari offers to no one else, including Sam Vimes (whom he trusts with his life, but not--probably to Vimes's relief--with his thoughts).
III. Renaissance Men
At this point I want to digress a little bit to talk about secretaryship and what it probably means for Vetinari and Drumknott. Being a secretary is not, nowadays, a prestigious job, but a few hundred years ago the situation was very different. During the Renaissance (and Vetinari is very much a statesman in the Renaissance mold) becoming secretary to a powerful man was a highly sought after mode of advancement for young men of intelligence and good education but middling social rank. The career of Thomas Cromwell shows how dangerously high a secretary could rise from very humble beginnings.
Besides being a powerful job, secretaryship was an intimate one. "Secretary," as a number of Renaissance writers on the subject point out, derives from "secret." The master shares secrets with his secretary, who repays this trust with loyalty. Angel Day, in his 1586 handbook The English Secretary, notes that a secretary is as much a friend as a servant thanks to his "fidelity, trust or loyal credit" (qtd. in Rambuss 40; spelling modernized by me). In fact, Day claims, such trust creates love: "our Secretary being one every way so weightily to be employed as he is, partaking as he doth with so many causes of importance, and undiscovered secrets and counsels . . . [must be] by a great deal to be beloved" (qtd. in Rambuss 46; spelling modernized). Robert Cecil, principal secretary to Elizabeth I and James I, goes even further, comparing the private exchanges of a secretary and his master to "'the mutual affections of two lovers,' which necessarily remain secret, 'undiscovered to their friends'" (Rambuss 47). The master-secretary relationship is, as Richard Rambuss argues, one of a number of forms of male-male relationship in the Renaissance that appear to have contained a strong erotic potentiality.
I don't claim that Pratchett ever had these texts in mind, although given the evident breadth of Pratchett's historical knowledge, it wouldn't entirely surprise me. Nevertheless, the historical background is useful for understanding both the Vetinari-Drumknott relationship and Drumknott himself, who is highly competent in a number of fields (in Making Money he leads the audit of the Royal Bank). Just as Vetinari is a Renaissance ruler, Drumknott is a Renaissance secretary.
IV. Turning Point
Drumknott is virtually absent from Jingo, only appearing for one line to hand Vetinari a piece of paper during a meeting. We're not told what he did during Vetinari's temporary resignation (although we don't see him working for Lord Rust) or Vetinari's even more temporary imprisonment. In other words, needs fanfic.
He returns in The Fifth Elephant for a couple of brief scenes. In the first one, he and Vetinari discuss the problem of Captain Carrot's resignation; it's clear that Drumknott was listening in on Vetinari's meeting with Carrot and that Vetinari knew and approved of the fact. We also see what Drumknott thinks of heterosexual romance. He refers to Carrot's resignation as an "emergency," and when Vetinari questions him, adds, "What else are we to call it, sir, when a young man of such promise throws away his career for the pursuit of a girl?" (73). In the second scene, Drumknott and Vetinari are together in Vetinari's coach (we don't learn why) and again, Vetinari confides in Drumknott about his plans for dealing with the Watch strike (260-61).
It's because of the next book, The Truth, that I've called this section "turning point." It's here that we see the extent of Drumknott's devotion to Vetinari, and their whole relationship appears to deepen as a consequence. This is the novel that made me a Vetinari/Drumknott shipper.
An early scene shows both the closeness and the limits of their working relationship. Vetinari, having seen the first edition of the Times, starts working on damage control:
"[P]lease also put out the word that I wish to see no harm coming to Mr. de Worde, will you?"
Drumknott, usually so adept in his understanding of his master's requirements, hesitated a moment.
"My lord, do you mean that you wish no harm to come to Mr. de Worde, or that you want no harm to come to Mr. de Worde?"
"Did you wink at me, Drumknott?"
"Drumknott, I believe it is the right of every citizen of Ankh-Morpork to walk the streets unmolested."
"Good gods, sir! Is it?"
"But I thought you were very much against movable type, sir. You said that it would make printing too cheap, and people would - "
"Are you poised for the exciting new millennium that lies before us, Drumknott? Are you ready to grasp the future with a willing hand?"
"I don't know, my lord. Is special clothing required? (70-71)
There's something bantering about this, but Drumknott also seems genuinely rather anxious that he doesn't understand what Vetinari means (and more so when he's accused of winking). This is the one moment in canon when Drumknott is, perhaps, afraid of Vetinari (even Sam Vimes is more often and more obviously afraid of him), and I find it telling that Drumknott seems most afraid of having overstepped his role and been too familiar. But if he is afraid, it's only mildly and briefly, since he soon dares to remind Vetinari that his approval of the Times contradicts his previous views.
Later in the novel, when Drumknott has what looks like an obvious reason to fear Vetinari, he doesn't. During William de Worde's attempted questioning about the stabbing incident and Drumknott's mysterious head injury, he defends Vetinari stubbornly and, in de Worde's view, irrationally.
"But your head's bandaged, too," said William.
"I think I must have fallen over when . . . when whatever it was happened," said Drumknott.
My gods, thought William, he's embarrassed.
"I have every confidence that there has been a mistake," Drumknott went on.
"Has His Lordship been preoccupied lately?"
"His Lordship is always preoccupied. It's his job," said the clerk.
"Do you know that three people heard him say that he'd killed you?"
"I cannot explain that. They must have been mistaken."
The words were clipped sharp. Any moment now, William thought . . .
"Why do you think - " he began, and was proved right.
"I think I don't have to talk to you," said Drumknott. "Do I?"
"No, but - "
"Sergeant!" Drumknott shouted.
There were swift footsteps and the cell door opened.
"Yes?" said Sergeant Angua.
"I have finished talking to this gentleman," said Drumknott. "And I'm tired."
William sighed, and put his notebook away.
"Thank you," he said. "You've been very . . . helpful."
As he walked along the corridor he said, "He doesn't want to believe His Lordship might have attacked him." (146-47)
Drumknott has no reason to believe anything else--his last memory before blacking out is Vetinari opening the office door for him--but even in the face of eyewitness testimony, he insists that there must have been a mistake. His trust in Vetinari and his protectiveness towards Vetinari's reputation are remarkable. I'm struck by how assertively he cuts off the interview, considering that his normal behavior is deferential (and not just towards Vetinari). It certainly gives the lie to William de Worde's initial assessment of him as "one of those people with no discernible character," although one could in any case argue that for de Worde, that just means anyone less autocratic and domineering than himself (145). On the basis of this scene, I consider it canon that Drumknott has some kind of profound affection for Vetinari; it doesn't have to be interpreted as romantic or sexual, but it certainly can be.
It's also worth noting that the stabbing and the confession by the false Vetinari resemble a crime of passion a lot more than they do a cold-blooded attempted murder meant to cover up an embezzlement scheme. What the witnesses hear Vetinari say is "I've killed him, I've killed him, I'm sorry," to which de Worde's reaction after some thought is "he'd have to be mad to talk like this" (115; 127). It's the reaction of someone who's killed a loved one, not of a tyrant who's murdered a servant. Of course it isn't really Vetinari speaking, but one does wonder why Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip thought it would be a believable reaction. (We learn later that stabbing Drumknott wasn't part of their original plan, but an improvisation; however, this suggests that the original plan was rather insubstantial . Were they just going to leave Vetinari unconscious next to his horse? A saddlebag full of gold isn't nearly as incriminating as a wounded secretary; the plan would make more sense if stabbing Drumknott had always been a part of it. It's just a plothole, but it's been nagging at me.)
Towards the end of the novel, Vetinari pays a visit to the Times offices with Drumknott accompanying him. This is only the second time we've seen Drumknott outside the Palace. The first was the carriage scene in The Fifth Elephant, mentioned above, and in that scene Drumknott had a structural role to play--Vetinari tells him, and therefore the reader, what his plans are. There's no such structural necessity for Drumknott's presence in the Times scene, nor any plot-related reason, since he does little in the scene and no doubt he'd be more practically useful back at the palace catching up on paperwork. Because there's no functional reason for him to be there, one can only assume a non-functional one: he's with Vetinari because Vetinari wants him to be. He's there as a companion. His faith has, it seems, been rewarded.
V. A Hovering Clerk
After The Truth there's something of a divergence in Pratchett's portrayal of Drumknott. In the watch novels, he remains in the background or outright invisible--he's not in Night Watch at all and appears only briefly in Thud (in which, endearingly, he brings a worried Vetinari an unasked-for cup of tea; Vetinari then solicits, and strongly concurs with, his opinion about Sam Vimes [296-97]). But in Going Postal and Making Money, both of which center on Vetinari's projects to reform and develop Ankh-Morpork, Drumknott is nearly always at Vetinari's side, whether he's making tea, noting that Vetinari has won his long-distance game of Thud, timing Vetinari's performance at Jikan no Muda, or describing the day's political cartoon so that Vetinari doesn't have to look at it (MM 75; GP 393; MM 270; MM 391-92).
He's present at Moist von Lipwig's first, stunned meeting with Vetinari post-hanging, as "a hovering clerk" and the person who whispers discreetly in Vetinari's ear after Vetinari says "the sisal two-step" instead of "the hemp fandango" (14; 25). The latter is the first instance of what will become a running joke, and it's interesting in a couple of ways. First, it implies that Drumknott's soul is not wholly devoted to filing--he's got a better grasp of street slang than Vetinari does. Second, it shows Vetinari depending on Drumknott in a way we haven't seen in previous books.
This dependence extends to revealing a mood of genuine (and for Vetinari, extraordinary) self-doubt. As they discuss the investigation into the Grand Trunk Company, Vetinari asks an unexpected question.
"Tell me, Drumknott," he said, "would you say I'm a tyrant?"
"Most certainly not, my lord," said Drumknott, tidying the desk.
"But of course that's the problem, is it not? Who will tell the tyrant he is a tyrant?"
"That's a tricky one, my lord, certainly," said Drumknott, squaring up the files. (80-81)
Vetinari then launches into a long philosophical discussion of freedom, citing Bouffant (probably the Discworld equivalent of Rousseau, with the name punning on Buffon, the naturalist who influenced Rousseau) and Freidegger (Heidegger). It's incomprehensible (it's gibberish, in fact, because Pratchett is writing a comic parody of philosophy, but there's no reason to think Vetinari himself isn't being perfectly serious). Vetinari concludes by asking:
"What position would you take here, Drumknott?"
"I've always thought, my lord, that what the world really needs are filing boxes which are not so flimsy," said Drumknott, after a moment's pause.
"Hmm," said Lord Vetinari. "A point to think about, certainly." (81)
The banality of Drumknott's answer is, I think, deliberate. He's no fool, and although he's understandably baffled by what Vetinari has just said, the only sensible reason to offer such a non sequitur as an answer is to change the subject. He pulls Vetinari out of philosophical qualms, back to the everyday and the work that needs doing. When Vetinari says "a point to think about," he's not being ironic, but responding to the very real point Drumknott has subtly made.
Drumknott is confident enough in his understanding of Vetinari to reassure a panicking Moist von Lipwig that the Times's political cartoon (about the penny stamp and "licking Vetinari's arse") won't necessarily lead to Moist being hanged again.
"Now, now, Postmaster," said Drumknott, pushing him gently back into his chair, "don't distress yourself unduly. In my experience, his lordship is a . . . complex man. It is not wise to anticipate his reactions."
"You mean you think I'm going to live?"
Drumknott screwed up his face in thought, and stared at the ceiling for a moment.
"Hmm, yes. Yes, I think you might," he said. (192)
"Complex," and Drumknott's hesitation before choosing the word, imply a significant intimacy, as does the fact that Drumknott has picked up some of Vetinari's mannerisms (staring at the ceiling in thought) and speech patterns. In fact, Drumknott explicitly positions himself as speaking from a position of privileged knowledge by saying "in my experience." He suggests that his experience of Vetinari is worth relying on.
Making Money shows Vetinari and Drumknott closer still, with a palpable affection between them, especially when Vetinari teases Drumknott about Moist von Lipwig's larcenous habits. In one scene, Drumknott suggests that Vetinari is perhaps wrong about Moist's criminal mind and Vetinari replies:
"I take some heart, Drumknott, from the fact that, once again, he has stolen your pencil."
"In fact he has not, sir, because I was most careful to put it in my pocket!" said Drumknott, in some triumph.
"Yes," said Vetinari happily, sinking into the creaking leather as Drumknott started to pat himself down with an increasing desperation, "I know." (77)
The joke is at Drumknott's expense, but Vetinari's amusement reads as fond rather than unkind.
In dealing with Moist von Lipwig, Vetinari and Drumknott seem to have worked out a kind of comic double-act that plays expertly on Moist's own discontents and fears.
"Can you recall, Drumknott, why our Mr. Lipwig should think that there used to be a deep pit full of spikes behind that door?" said Vetinari.
"I can't imagine why he would think that, my lord," Drumknott murmured. (14-15)
And a little later:
Moist stood up to leave, but hesitated. "What's wrong with being chairman of the Merchants' Guild, then?" he said.
With slow and ostentatious patience, Lord Vetinari slipped the ring back into its box and the box back into the drawer. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Lipwig?"
"It's just that you said it as though there was something wrong with it," said Moist.
"I don't believe that I did," said Vetinari, looking up at his secretary. "Did I use a derogatory inflection, Drumknott?"
"No, my lord. You have often remarked that the traders and shopkeepers of the guilds are the backbone of the city," said Drumknott, handing him a thick file.
"I shall get a very nearly gold chain," said Moist.
"He will get a very nearly gold chain, Drumknott," observed Vetinari, paying attention to a new letter. (15-16)
My favorite instance of this game is slightly more complex and refers to the running joke of Drumknott correcting Vetinari when he misspeaks.
[Vetinari] sighed. "Well, I can't force such a reformed person as you to -" he paused as Drumknott leaned down to whisper in his ear, and then continued "- well, clearly I can force you, but on this occasion I don't think I will." (76).
This is pure theater. Of course Vetinari doesn't need reminding that he can force Moist's obedience if he wants to; Drumknott's "reminder" simply allows Vetinari to play both roles in a game of good cop/bad cop. In all these scenes, Drumknott chimes in so deftly with support when needed that he seems to read Vetinari's mind.
At the end of the novel, we see him do exactly that. Or rather, he reads Vetinari's cues and anticipates his thoughts to perfection. Vetinari muses aloud on Moist's usefulness to the city and the importance of not wasting his talents.
Drumknott said nothing, but arranged some of the files into a more pleasing order. A name struck him, and he shifted a file to the top.
"Of course, then [after some time at the Royal Bank] he will get restless again and become a danger to others as well as himself . . . "
Drumknott smiled at his files. His hand hovered . . .
"Apropos of nothing, how old is Mr. Creaser?"
"The taxmaster? In his seventies, sir," said Drumknott, opening the file he had just selected. "Yes, seventy-four, it says here."
"We have recently pondered his methods, have we not?"
"Indeed we have, sir. Last week." (393)
We. We. And it's not the "royal we," because Drumknott says it too (and Vetinari never uses the royal we in any case). Vetinari and Drumknott have attained what Richard Rambuss calls the "symbiosis of master and secretary" idealizingly described by Angel Day and other Renaissance writers on secretaryship (43).
This isn't always the case, however. Early in the novel, Drumknott tries the same thing (after Moist's initial refusal to accept the job at the bank, he wordlessly hands Moist's file to Vetinari) and proves to have entirely misunderstood Vetinari's intentions (16-17). Vetinari disclaims any intention of explicitly threatening Moist, and adds:
"[T]here is more than one way of racking a man, Drumknott."
"Face up or face down, my lord?"
"Thank you, Drumknott. I value your cultivated lack of imagination, as you know." (17)
It must be cultivated, because as I've discussed at length above, through most of the book Drumknott is able to imagine Vetinari's thoughts and respond accordingly. His fault here is primarily lack of subtlety; Vetinari (bizarrely echoing Wodehouse's Jeeves) explains that it's necessary to "consider the psychology of the individual" and having done so, "you get him to build his own rack, and let him turn the screw all by himself" (17). If Drumknott sometimes fails to think entirely like Vetinari does, it's probably for the best; people who match his own deviousness make Vetinari anxious, as witnessed by the fact that he tells Drumknott to start surveillance on pet shop owner and crossword expert Grace Speaker (270). Vetinari nevertheless relies on Drumknott's ability to think like him: "Vetinari was very good at committees, especially when Drumknott took the minutes," presumably because Drumknott knows not to bother writing down anything Vetinari won't find useful (336).
Drumknott's understanding of Vetinari is not a one-way process. Vetinari sometimes displays an odd, intimate knowledge of Drumknott's life. He knows, and has an opinion about, Drumknott's preferred breakfast ("that bowel-lacerating grain-and-nut concoction you favor so much"), and he notices the state of Drumknott's footwear ("I'm pleased to hear that your new boots have ceased squeaking") (196; 270). The latter is less surprising than the former, but it's noteworthy that Vetinari chooses to comment on it. It's a personal remark, unrelated to the business at hand, and shows that Vetinari takes an interest in Drumknott beyond his usefulness.
Cosmo Lavish, a close if rather insane observer of Vetinari, seems to believe that a crucial step to becoming Vetinari is having a Drumknott of his very own; he frequently disconcerts Heretofore by calling him Drumknott (231, 269, 300). Drumknott, to him, is one of Vetinari's trappings, like the ring and the (rumored) sword stick--part accessory, part extension of Vetinari's identity. Cosmo's obsession holds up a distorted but nevertheless revealing mirror to the symbiotic Vetinari-Drumknott relationship.
VI. That Other Book
I'll admit both my ignorance and my bias at the start. I haven't read Unseen Academicals yet; I'm on the wait list at my library. What I have done is use the "search inside this book" feature at Amazon to find all the Drumknott bits. I've also asked some questions of people who have read the book.
What I know of Unseen Academicals hasn't made me especially happy. I didn't mind the hint of Vetinari/Margolotta backstory in The Fifth Elephant (in fact, as someone who wants to write Vetinari in pairing fic, I found it useful as a counterargument to claims that he's asexual), but I was much less pleased by the rumored ongoing romance mentioned in The Truth, and distinctly displeased that she visits Ankh-Morpork in Unseen Academicals (and has done so before, the book says). It's not just that this interferes with my pairing, although of course it does; I also find it improbable that Vetinari would have a romance with someone who is, after all, the leader of a foreign power. I'm told that Unseen Academicals doesn't make the romance definite canon, which is a relief.
Still, that doesn't make me any happier about this scene, in which Margolotta disparages Drumknott and Vetinari apparently concurs.
"Havelock, I appreciate that Drumknott is very competent, but he always seems to me to be a rather strange little man."
"Well, it would be a funny old world if we were all alike, madam, although I admit not very funny if we were all like Drumknott. But he is loyal and excessively trustworthy," said Vetinari.
"Hmm," said her ladyship. "Does he have much of a personal life?"
"I believe that he collects different types of stationery," said Vetinari. "I have sometimes speculated that he might change his life for the better should he meet a young lady willing to dress up as a manila envelope." (332-33)
Besides the distastefulness of Vetinari talking this way behind the back of someone who trusts him, there's a kind of reduction of Drumknott here. He's always been shown as somewhat obsessive and geeky, but in Vetinari's description here he doesn't sound much different from Stanley the pin-collector (later stamp-collector) in Going Postal. Even his sexuality, at least in Vetinari's speculation, is ludicrous. (Apparently the book later has a suggestion of romance between Drumknott and Margolotta's [female] librarian, but Amazon won't let me see the page and frankly, I prefer not to think about it.)
An actual exchange between Vetinari and Drumknott similarly reduces Drumknott's complexity and turns him into a comic type.
"Drumknott, if you saw a ball lying invitingly on the ground, would you kick it?"
The secretary's forehead wrinkled. "How would the invitation be couched, sir?"
"Would it be, for example, a written note attached to the ball by person or persons unknown?"
"I was rather inclining to the idea that you might perhaps feel that the whole world was silently willing you to give said ball a hearty kick?"
"No, sir. There are too many variables. Possibly an enemy or japester might have assumed that I would take some action of the kind and made the ball out of concrete or similar material, in the hope I might do myself a serious or humorous injury. So, I would check first."
"And then, if all was in order, you would kick the ball?"
"To what purpose or profit, sir?"
"Interesting question. I suppose for the joy of seeing it fly."
Drumknott seemed to consider this for a while, and then shook his head. "I am sorry, sir, but you have lost me at this point."
"Ah, you are a pillar of rock in a world of changes, Drumknott. Well done." (249)
This isn't the Drumknott who knows that it's "gang rumble" and not "gang crumble," or the Drumknott who enjoys a little flutter, or the Drumknott who reassures Moist von Lipwig (Thud 194). This is someone who just doesn't get it, who's so humorless and clueless that he's barely human. He's Malvolio Bent in Drumknott's clothes. My sense is that Pratchett uses this stereotyped Drumknott as a foil to Vetinari, who in Unseen Academicals is unusually chatty to people he wouldn't normally trust, gets drunk, and possibly has a romance. Vetinari is humanized by making Drumknott less human, made three-dimensional by making Drumknott two-dimensional.
Having said that, the book does contain one of my favorite Drumknott moments. While drunk, Vetinari has said to the visiting Miss Sugarbean that "Every job has its little perks. Why, I don't expect that Drumknott here has bought a paperclip in his life, eh, Drumknott?" to which Drumknott responds with "a wan little smile" (245). Later, when they're alone (and in fact just after the discussion about whether Drumknott would kick a ball), we learn Drumknott's true reaction.
"I was wondering if I could just add something, sir," said the secretary solemnly.
"The floor is yours, Drumknott."
"I would not like it thought that I do not buy my own paperclips, sir. I enjoy owning my own paperclips. It means that they are mine. I thought it helpful I should tell you that in a measured and non-confrontational way."
Vetinari looked at the ceiling for a few moments and then said: "Thank you for your frankness. I shall consider the record straightened and the matter closed."
"Thank you, sir." (249-50)
There's a comic and parodic element here--Drumknott takes paperclip pilfering far too seriously--but there's also a genuine sense of Drumknott defending his integrity. His scrupulousness and the satisfaction he finds in knowing that his things, however trivial, are his deepen his character rather than flatten it. And standing up to Vetinari takes no small amount of courage regardless of the point at issue.
But this moment doesn't, for me, outweigh the rest, any more than Drumknott's apparent jealousy when Vetinari allows Miss Sugarbean into his office outweighs the possible Vetinari/Margolotta and Drumknott/Margolotta's librarian romances. Unseen Academicals disappoints me as a fan of Drumknott and Vetinari themselves and as a Vetinari/Drumknott shipper (the two things are not identical--canon can destroy a fanon 'ship while not being out of character at all--but I think UA does both). I'm also disappointed that two recurring characters who could have been read as not-straight have been written into (implied) straight romances, and although UA does give readers an unambiguously gay male character (the first in all the Discworld novels) he's a one-off whom we'll probably never see more of. It's not much of a trade.
There are ways around these problems through interpretation and fanfic, of course. I've seen it suggested, not implausibly, that Vetinari disparages Drumknott to Margolotta because (bearing in mind that she is the leader of a foreign power) he's worried by her interest in Drumknott and decides to make him look unimportant. For myself, I think I prefer to regard Unseen Academicals as something that happened in an alternate Discworld and has nothing to do with the Drumknott and Vetinari of the other books. (It helps when the multiverse theory is canon!)
(ETA: I have read Unseen Academicals since posting this essay; my further thoughts on the book are here.)
VII. Running a Concludium
I want to end on a happier note, with some general discussion, not tied to specific moments in canon, about why I ship Vetinari and Drumknott.
The first reason is trust. As Patrician, Vetinari can't give trust lightly. Too many people want to kill, depose, or use him. There are only two people in Vetinari's life whom he seems to trust: Sam Vimes and Drumknott. I also, as it happens, ship Vetinari/Vimes, but that pairing is complicated by the fact that Vimes doesn't trust Vetinari one bit--in fact he makes a virtue out of not doing so. Vimes is perfectly willing to believe Vetinari might have stabbed Drumknott, just not that he would ever have said "I'm sorry" (The Truth 115). But Drumknott, as we've seen, trusts Vetinari absolutely.
The second and related reason is that their working relationship means they're already intimate with each other in some crucial ways. Their every interaction presumes trust, of course, and there's also the simple fact that they're together for many hours out of every day. People who work intensely and closely together often end up romantically involved; there's a reason why the boss/secretary romance (heterosexual version) is a cliché and why workplace romance is common despite many employers discouraging it. In the case of Vetinari and Drumknott, there's an additional factor: working together means that a personal relationship could be concealed. They're already together all the time, so who would know? This may seem coldly practical, but it's important for Vetinari, who tries very hard not to reveal any vulnerabilities his enemies could use (and would no doubt be reluctant to put a lover at risk of being kidnapped or murdered as a strike against Vetinari himself).
The third and by no means least important reason is affection. Hardly anyone in Ankh-Morpork likes Vetinari. But Drumknott does. Besides the evidence I've already discussed, there's that novelty mug on Vetinari's desk in Unseen Academicals, the one that says "to the world's Greatest Boss" (106). Who else could possibly have given him such a thing but Drumknott? And Vetinari, at least until that exchange with Margolotta, seems to like Drumknott as well, or he wouldn't have personal conversations with him or bring him along unnecessarily when he visits the Times offices or the Royal Bank.
The only creature Vetinari shows a similar unwary fondness for is Wuffles. This is not, I realize, an entirely flattering comparison for Drumknott. But Vetinari likes dogs better than he likes most people; he values (and needs) absolute loyalty. Vetinari can't have a relationship with someone who is, in terms of power, his equal. All Ankh-Morpork citizens are under his authority; anyone who's his equal will be both foreign and (like Margolotta) an actual or potential rival. As Vetinari's servant, his secretary, Drumknott happily accepts Vetinari's authority (unlike Sam Vimes), and that's what allows Vetinari to trust him and care for him. It's not an arrangement that most of us now would consider a good basis for a relationship, but the Discworld isn't our world: it's hierarchical and fundamentally premodern despite its new technologies. As Angel Day already said 400 years ago, the secretary and his master love each other because of, not in spite of, their roles.
Even Sam Vimes might agree. As he said in Jingo, "we're all someone's dog" (72).
I wish I had some fic recs, but hardly anyone writes this pairing and I haven't seen any Vetinari/Drumknott fic I've really liked.
However, I can rec some fanart by lady_twatterby. It's gen but can certainly be read shippily by those so inclined. Some of my favorites are Working Late, Happy Hogswatch, and this comic, which is based on the pencil-stealing scene from Making Money that I quoted in the essay.
Please feel free to rec good stories or art in your comments.
IX. Works Cited
Rambuss, Richard. Spenser's Secret Career. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.