- Title: The Unknown Ajax
- Author: Georgette Heyer
- Genre: Romance
- Format: Paperback
- Source: Own
- Reviewed by: Olga
- Rating: 4 out of 5
Description: Making the best of a bad situation, Anthea Darracott was civil to her newly-met cousin Hugh, but only barely. For Anthea, reduced to accepting the charity of irascible Lord Darracott, had been ordered to marry Hugh–the new heir to the Darracott fortune. Grandfather Darracott’s plan seemed perfect, to Grandfather: otherwise, Hugh, the offspring of Darracott’s son and a common weaver’s daughter, might bring an unsuitable and low-bred wife into the family. To prevent this disaster, Hugh must marry Anthea. Knowing this, Anthea detested Hugh on sight, and Hugh seemed indifferent to her. But no one had consulted Hugh, and he was forming plans of his own.
Review: Although this book is a bit slow, it’s mostly funny: a light enjoyable read. Before I talk about the plot, I’d like to sketch the family tree of the Darracotts, the family at the centre of the novel. The old Lord Darracott is an octogenarian patriarch and a veritable tyrant of the family. His oldest son and heir drowned recently, together with his own son. The second son, Hugh, has been dead for years, but before he died, Hugh committed a misalliance: he married a Yorkshire weaver’s daughter and, as a consequence, was cut off from the family. Unfortunately, his son, Hugo junior, the weaver’s brat, is now the heir of the old Lord Darracott.
The grumpy old lord bitterly resents the dictate of the law: he must leave his estate to Hugo, his unworthy upstart of a grandson. The lord’s third son, Mathew, and Mathew’s two sons, Vincent and Claud, also hate the new relative before they ever met him: if not for Hugo’s existence, they would’ve been the heirs. But Lord Darracott has no choice, so he issues a command – Hugo must present himself at his grandfather’s home to be ‘licked into shape.’
Into this welcoming family’s bosom comes the heir, a retired army officer, Major Hugo Darracott. Before Hugo arrives, the story lumbers ahead slowly, testing its boundaries, but as soon as Hugo appears, the action starts rolling.
Hugo is not happy with the situation either. He didn’t even know about the Darracotts’ side of his family until recently. A big man and seemingly a doofus, he speaks with a broad Yorkshire accent, and the Darracotts’ hostility and conversational barbs appear to be lost on him.
Only one member of the family doubts Hugo’s slow wit right from the start: Anthea, Lord Darracott’s granddaughter and the daughter of his fourth son, long deceased. She sees the twinkle in Hugo’s innocent blue eyes, and it makes her suspicious. Surely, he is shamming them all. Very soon, she is sure: he is not a bumbling country bumpkin he pretends to be. And he always makes her laugh.
As the story progresses, Anthea can’t help but like her new cousin: big, strong and utterly dependable. The developing love affair between Hugo and Anthea is saved from being sweet and boring by a number of spicy subplots, involving smugglers, a stubborn Customs officer, Claud’s ridiculous aspirations to dandyism, and Vincent’s disdainful sarcasm.
Among the cohort of colorful secondary characters, which is Heyer’s forte in all her novels, the protagonist Hugo shines. His large size perfectly camouflages his propensity for practical jokes. As the family supposes him to have grown up in a hovel, he can’t resist obliging them by playacting as a dull clod. His sharp mind, education, and ability to command come into focus gradually but irrevocably, and his kindness and people skills (although the term is modern, the concept is not) bring the family around one by one.
Most of those nuances are reflected in dialog, which is often witty or downright hilarious and always spot on, as only Heyer could make it. Every single person has his / her own manner of speech, unmistakable like the shapes of their noses.
I enjoyed this story, but there are a couple of aspects that made me uneasy. First – the romantic entanglement between Hugo and Anthea. They are expected to get married, but they’re first cousins. I know it’s supposed to be allowable, but such a marriage would be frowned upon in the modern world. It is too close a relationship for my taste: their fathers were full brothers.
Second – there are too many POVs in the book. The author is omniscient, seeing into almost everyone’s head, which is not my favorite writing trick; although Heyer brings it off beautifully, with her customary dry humor.
Other than that, a solid and laughter-inducing novel. Perhaps not the best by Heyer’s own standards but better than many a modern romance. And the writing is superb. Recommended to anyone.