The Unknown Ajax (1959): Georgette Heyer


When irascible old Lord Darracott announces the imminent arrival of his heir at Darracott Place, his family are somewhat alarmed – not least his son Matthew, who’d assumed that he stood next in line since his elder brothers’ deaths. However, it turns out that he has a previously unsuspected nephew: the offspring of his disgraced elder brother Hugh and a Yorkshire weaver’s daughter. The terms of the settlement don’t allow the family to wriggle out of such a shameful situation, and so the Darracotts close ranks and wait anxiously for their oafish, unknown cousin to arrive…

On first impressions, Hugo Darracott seems to live up to the family’s worst fears. He’s a big, bluff, kind creature with a warm spirit that the sharp-tongued Darracotts interpret as simple-mindedness. He stumbles into their midst like an amiable mooncalf, speaking a rich Yorkshire burr and utterly failing to meet the high standards held by his four new cousins: icily arrogant Vincent; fashionable Claud; shrewd Anthea; and boyishly lively Richmond. Old Lord Darracott himself despairs of this overgrown boy who’s been foisted upon him, and engages his other grandchildren to take Hugo in hand and try to knock off his rough corners. To make matters worse, he conceives the ideal plan to tie Hugo into the family, and announces that he should woo Anthea: a plan which meets with Anthea’s decided resistance. Fortunately, it transpires that Hugo is half-promised to a mysterious girl back in Yorkshire and so she can let her guard down – with relief.

However, as Anthea spends more time with Hugo, she begins to wonder whether the bluff, good-natured giant is actually more complex than he first appears. After all, he’s served as a Major in the Peninsular War and it seems odd that a military officer could really be so ‘gaumless‘, as Hugo himself puts it. Anthea also notices that, when he’s alone with her, Hugo happily speaks the King’s English: his thick Yorkshire burr only comes on when he’s facing the Darracotts at their most superior and insufferable. And it’s just possible that this lumbering fool has a sharper head on his shoulders than any of them. But if Hugo has been ribbing them about his accent and his intelligence, what other virtues might he have kept from them?

I’ll confess that it took me a while to get into this book. The first half was a bit repetitious as we watch Hugo being snubbed by his new relatives and gamely shrugging it off. There are also sections in Yorkshire dialect, with which I struggled (I’m not a fan of dialect in books, but that’s just me). From the midpoint, though, it all perks up enormously and suddenly we have a riot of schemes, smugglers, plots and sharply witty conversations – whether it’s Vincent blunting his pointed sneers against Hugo’s impenetrable hide, or Hugo testing his verbal wits against the discerning Anthea. For a book that barely ventures beyond the boundaries of the Darracott estate, it certainly has plenty of colour.

This isn’t one of my favourite Heyers, based on the first read anyway, though it’s still a lovely novel. I enjoyed the playful needling between Hugo and Anthea, and there’s one delicious scene (in which an Exciseman is bamboozled) that was utterly delightful. On a second read, I might find that I warm to the first half a little more, and it’ll certainly stay on my shelves for the time being. This is one of no fewer than thirteen Heyer novels that I picked up for £2 a piece at Jarndyce Books on Great Russell Street during a lunch break, so there are many more to come and – though I’ll be pacing myself – I can’t deny that my mouth is watering at the prospect of much more Regency derring-do and, doubtless, many bucks, belles, beaus, Hessians, curricles and reticules.

I also feel the shortcomings of my Shakespearean knowledge very keenly – for I had to look up the origins of the ‘Ajax’ quotes used throughout the novel. Troilus and Cressida, of course. In my defence, I haven’t yet seen it…

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Here are the other books I snaffled. Which are your favourites?


13 thoughts on “The Unknown Ajax (1959): Georgette Heyer

  1. Kerstin says:

    Nice selection there! The Talisman Ring was the set course book when I studied Heyer at university a gazillion years ago, and I love it for its silliness and laugh-out-loud moments. The two that stand out as somewhat different from your pile are An Infamous Army and Royal Escape of course. In the former, the Battle of Waterloo takes centre stage, with the love story somewhat tacked around it, which gives the book a somewhat different and more serious tone than her usual frothiness, and the latter is of course more straight-up historical novel, rather than romance, and Heyer is never as good in those than in her Regency romances. My personal favourites tend to change, but I have a soft spot for Devil’s Cub, Sylvester, The Black Moth (though that’s a very early one where she is still finding her feet as an author), and The Grand Sophy (which I wrote my essay about in that Heyer course at uni). I’m not much of a romance reader, but Heyer I keep coming back to for her wit and charm. The perfect light and frothy comfort reads.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thanks for this Kerstin! I hadn’t twigged that you’d studied Heyer at uni. What a fun course! Of those you mention, I’ve read and enjoyed Devil’s Cub and The Black Moth (as you say, she was a beginner, but it’s still a wonderful story for a seventeen-year-old author). As a matter of fact I have some other Heyers on my TBR pile that I bought a while ago, and The Grand Sophy is one of those (the others are the Masqueraders and Frederica), so I’ll look forward to that. As you know, I’m not a big reader of romance either – though I do occasionally read some absolute tosh on long journeys because my brain can’t cope with anything else – but I think Heyer rather stands above her modern imitators. It’s all cosy, inoffensive fun. Comforting, as you say.

      • Kerstin says:

        Ah, everyone I know names These Old Shades as their favourite. While I do like that one a lot as well, I thought I was rhe only one to prefer Devil’s Cub, so glad to see I’ve git company. And as one of the other commenters mentioned, some of those characters also appear in An Infamous Army. The Masqueraders is also an entertaining book.

      • The Idle Woman says:

        Ha ha – oh gosh, in that case I don’t know what’s worse: to be the only one who adores These Old Shades or to find myself part of a bandwagon! *grins*

  2. Catherine says:

    Hey! It’s Catherine (from the Museum)! I just had to send you this comment when I saw your new post because Georgette Heyer has been a guilty pleasure of mine for quite a number of years (my personal favorite is “The Devil’s Cub”) and it’s really nice to see that I’m not the only one to enjoy her prose…. I haven’t read “The Unknown Ajax” but it is now on my list!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Hello Catherine; welcome! Very glad to see you stopped lurking and decided to leave a comment 😉 Please don’t let it be the last! As for Heyer, I used to agree with you that she was a guilty pleasure, but now I’ve given up on the guilt and she’s just a pleasure. I read quite a few of her books before I started writing this blog and, indeed, her novels got me through my Finals at uni, so I have a lot to feel grateful to her for!

      It’s funny that you, like Kerstin, pick out Devil’s Cub as a favourite. I enjoyed that, but my all-time-favourite Heyer is These Old Shades (if you haven’t read it, it’s about how the Duke of Avon and Leonie met) and so Devil’s Cub just felt a bit like a sequel to me. Since I’m slightly in love with the Duke of Avon I just wanted more of him in it. 🙂 If you haven’t read that, I would urge you to make that your next Heyer because it’s just brilliant.

  3. Helen says:

    I haven’t read this one yet, but I’ve read quite a few from your pile of new additions. I particularly enjoyed The Quiet Gentleman and The Talisman Ring and I loved both the hero and heroine in Black Sheep. You have a lot of great Heyer reading ahead of you – I’ll look forward to more of your reviews. 🙂

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thank you Helen! It should be perfect summery fare. I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw them all on the shelf: they were out on the street by the shop door, so I couldn’t really fail to notice them. And I had planned to be so very good that lunch break as well…

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thanks! It’s nice to see that (apart from Devil’s Cub) different favourites show up for different people. I think that’s a sign of Heyer’s consistency as a writer: no matter what story she’s telling, she always does it well and with great humour. Thanks for pointing these two out: I’ll look forward to them!

      • whatmeread says:

        I love just about everything she writes, but some are more romantic (which I favored when I was younger) and some are funnier (which I favor now).

  4. RT says:

    Absolutely no guilt here either! Love Heyer. I read and reread her obsessively when I was younger and now I think I must start again. I’ve always had a soft spot for The Unknown Ajax, but of the pile my favourites are Friday’s Child and The Quiet Gentleman, followed by Black Sheep and The Nonesuch.

    All-time favourites are Frederica, The Grand Sophy, Venetia – and of course These Old Shades and Devil’s Cub. Since you like those, you should read An Infamous Army, which is different in tone but fascinating on Waterloo, and treats us to cameos of some favourite old characters!

  5. Betty says:

    Lovely review as ever! I have enjoyed Heyer since I was a teenager and still turn to them when a comfort read is needed. I too adore These Old Shades and Devil’s Cub, with Arabella and Venetia up there too. The Talisman Ring got me into trouble at school when I was reading it in a post-exam revision class (others still had exams) and started to laugh at some of the wonderful dialogue. I was glared at by the teacher so I smothered it and as I continued to read and it got funnier and I knew I had to stay silent. In the end, I was shaking with giggles and had to ask to be excused to go and laugh until I cried in the cloakroom!

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