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