Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Unknown Ajax, by Georgette Heyer


Things have come to a pretty pass at Darracott Place. Following the unexpected death of Lord Darracott's eldest son and grandson in 1817, the family is horrified to learn that the title and the (admittedly ill-funded and rather run-down) estate will pass to a previously unknown cousin, Hugo--a Darracott, in a manner of speaking, but also a former soldier, and the son of a Yorkshire weaver's daughter. Still, Lord Darracott hasn't given up completely. He's counting on his spinster granddaughter Anthea (she is twenty-two, after all) to teach the commoner a thing or too ... and if the low-born imbecile can be bullied into marrying her, thereby preserving some measure of the Darracott line, so much the better. But when the rather enormous Hugo (hence the Ajax reference) arrives on the scene, the family doesn't know what to make of him. He is unfailingly good-natured and amiable in the face of his cousin Vincent's cutting remarks, and he genially resists his cousin Claud's attempts to improve his fashion and eradicate his appalling Yorkshire dialect (much to the chagrin of both). But there may be more to the seemingly stolid Hugo than meets the eye. Meanwhile, the local Riding Officer is closing in on a band of smugglers, and he suspects some of the local gentry may be aiding and abetting their activities. Lord Darracott, outraged by the extortionate tax rates, is certainly sympathetic to the smugglers. But Hugo suspects that young Richmond--Anthea's brother, whose desire to join the army has been repeatedly thwarted by his grandfather--may be doing more than just sympathizing. Will the Darracott heir be able to win Anthea's heart and save the family from ruin?

In other words, it's a sort of Downton Abbey redux. Except this was published in 1959, so I guess that makes Downton Abbey an Unknown Ajax redux. (The commoner-becomes-heir part, not the smuggling part.)

Although there's adventure here (see above re: smuggling), this is a classic Heyer romance. There is plenty of witty banter, and nary a kiss to be seen. It is a romance of personalities, not physicalities. Which, if you're a fan of Jane Austen, should be familiar territory.

The book is full of Heyer's trademark humor and liveliness (along with an outlandish escapade, just for kicks). We find out early on that Hugo isn't the clueless lug he pretends to be, but is merely living down to his family's expectations. He is, as a matter of fact, quite clever and observant (and well-educated), and is possessed of a lively sense of humor and a tendency toward levity. Which means he can't help teasing the family by deliberately infuriating them with his deplorable Yorkshire accent and slang. But he's not the only source of humor. Cousin Claud, a confirmed dandy, is a hoot, and an excellent addition to any scene he graces. Mrs. Darracott (mother of Anthea and Richmond, and daughter-in-law to Lord Darracot) is amusingly scatterbrained and rather frippery.

As in all her books, Heyer clearly holds her characters in deepest affection--with the possible exception of the autocratic Lord Darracott, whose stubborn selfishness has caused grief to his family on more than a few occasions. But even he has his ridiculous moments, and anyway, his uppance is not long in coming. And other than Lord Darracott, the characters are all likable (if occasionally foolish), and reading about them is an absolute and unqualified lark. Plus, I learned quite a bit about the history of the smuggling trade along the Sussex and Kent coasts.

Definitely worth reading, particularly if you're looking for a romance in the Jane Austen vein and don't mind a dash of (slightly outlandish) adventure mixed in with your period romance.

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