Friday, July 2, 2010

The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer

I am beginning to detect patterns in my responses to Georgette Heyer's work. Sometimes she focuses all her energy on endowing one of the main characters, be it hero or heroine, with the bulk of the personality: the eccentricities, brilliance, and suavity that makes her best creations shine. Characters like Sir Walter Hawkridge (The Nonesuch), Captain John Staple (The Toll-Gate), and Miles Caverleigh (The Black Sheep) are more memorable than their female counterparts (Ancilla Trent, Nell Stornaway, and Abigail Wendover, respectively), not that these ladies aren't "up to snuff", as Heyer herself might say. Other characters I always remember as duos - Leonie and The Duke of Avon  from These Old Shades, Cotillion's Kitty Charing and Freddy Standen, Hero Wantage and Lord Sherrington of Friday's Child. These are her best books, in my opinion, and I am sad to say that The Unknown Ajax is not one of them.

This does not mean that The Unknown Ajax isn't a very enjoyable read, it just means that the hero, Major Hugh (commonly Hugo) Darracott, is the force that drives the story, not the heroine, Anthea Darracott. She is a very enjoyable character - smart, expressive, and determined - but it is Hugo who I will remember. It is one of Heyer's country house novels, with a bit of mystery thrown in. The story begins with grumpy and cantankerous Lord Darracott who, following his eldest son's death, is forced to acknowledge that the son he disinherited long ago, upon his marriage to a woman of low birth from Yorkshire, conceived a son who is now the rightful heir to the baronetcy. Not only is this quite shocking to the members of the family who thought they were now next in line to inherit, but all are prepared to meet a rough countryman, raised in squalor, and fully unprepared for society life. Though Hugo's initial appearance is much better than they expected, he instantly realizes what they think of him and proceeds to do his best to fulfill their expectations. See how he responds to his Aunt's apologies over the dilapidation of the house, caused by the frugality of Lord Darracott:
"Nay, don't fidget yourself on my account, ma'am!" Hugo said, laughing. "I'm not so nesh as my cousin! I've been used to sleep in a room that had a fire in the middle of the floor, and not so much as a vent to take off the smoke, so it will need more than a puff or two blown down the chimney to make me uncomfortable!"

His voice, which was a deep one, had a carrying quality. His words were heard by everyone in the room, and were productive of a sudden, shocked silence. He glanced innocently round the table, and added: "A mud floor, of course."

"How - how horrid for you!" said Mrs. Darracott faintly. 

Chollacombe, with great presence of mind, refilled the Major's glass at this moment, contriving, as he did so, to give him a warning nudge. The Major, not susceptible to hints, said cheerfully: "Oh, it was noan so bad! I was glad to have a roof over my head in those days!"

Mrs. Darracott looked wildly around for help, and received it from an unexpected quarter.

"Don't look so dismayed, my dear aunt!" said Vincent. "The locality of this dismal dwelling-place was not, as I apprehend, Yorkshire, but Spain."

"Portugal," corrected Hugo, as impervious to insult as to hints.

"Most interesting!" renounced Lady Aurelia majestically. "No doubt you have seen a great deal of the world during the course of your military service?"

"I hand and-all!" agreed Hugo.

"The billeting arrangements in the Peninsula," stated her ladyship, "left much to be desired."

"Aye, sometimed they did, but at others, think on, they were better nor like," said Hugo reflectively. "After Toulouse I shared quarters with the Smiths in a chateau, and lived like a prince. That was in France, of course, A chateau," he explained, "is what the Frogs call a castle - though it wasn't a castle, not by any means. You might call it a palace."

"Our ignorance is now enlightened," murmured Vincent.

"We all know what a chateau is!" snapped Lord Darracott.

"Aye, you would, of course," said Hugo, on a note of apology. "eh, but I thought myself in clover! I'd never been in such a place before - except when I was in prison, but you can't reetly count that."

James, the first footman, let a fork slide from the plate he had just removed from the table, but Charles, deftly nipping away the plate before Lady Aurelia, maintained his equilibrium. James was shocked, but Charles was storing up these revelations with glee. A rare tale to recount to his dad, no niffy-naffy as he was about the Quality! Properly served out was old Stiff-Rump, with a jail-bird for his grandson!

"What?" thundered his lordship, glaring at his heir. "Do you tell me that you have been in prison?"

"Aye, but it wasn't for long, sir," replied Hugo. "Of course, I was nobbut a lad then, and it seemed a terrible thing to me. I had the fever. too, mortal bad!"

Claud, perceiving that the rest of the company was deprived of speech, made a gallant attempt to respond. "Nasty thing, jail-fever," he said chattily. "Not had it myself, but so they tell ,e! Very glad you recovered from, it, coz!"

"It was being transported set me to reets," said Hugo. "A rare, tedious voyage we had of it, but-"

"Transported?" interjected his lordship, gripping the arms of his chair till his knuckles shone. "You were transported, sir?"
Of course, in fine Heyer style, Hugo proves to be the cure for all that ails Darracott Place. Lady Aurelia and Claud Darracott (who reminds me of the aforementioned Freddy Standen of Cotillion), are amongst my favorite characters in the book, and they prove some of Hugo's staunchest supporters.

An aspect that I particularly enjoyed is that Heyer incorporates more of an upstairs-downstairs perspective in this story. Frequently, she will spend time developing a nurse, valet, or abigail's character as they interact with their master, but this book goes farther, delving into the the rivalries between valets and the career plans of the footmen. These scenes are a source of great comedy, as in this one which greets Hugo as he retires to his chambers at Darracott Place for the first time:
Two gentlemen of the same calling, but of different cut, were confronting one another in a manner strongly suggestive of tomcats about to join battle. Each wore the habit of a private servant; but whereas the elder of the two, a middle-aged man stocky build and rigid countenance, was meticulous in his avoidance of any ornament or touch of colour to relieve the sobriety of his raiment, the younger not only sported a pin in his neckcloth, but added an even more daring note to his appearance by wearing a stripped waistcoat which only the most indulgent of masters would have tolerated. As the Major paused, in some astonishment, on the threshold, he heard, in mincing accents: "Vastly obliging of you, Mr. Crimplesham, I am sure! Quite a condescension indeed!"

"Do not name it, Mr. Polyphant!" begged Crimplesham. "We are all put on this earth to help one another, and knowing as I do what a labour it is to you to get a gloss on to a pair of boots - something that passes for a gloss, I should say - it quite went to my heart to think of you wearing yourself out over a task that wouldn't have taken more than a couple of minutes of my time. It is just a knack, Mr. Polyphant, which some of us have and other don't."

"And very right you were to cultivate it, Mr. Crimplesham! I vow and declare I would have done the same if I'd had only the one talent!" said Polyphant. "For, as I have often and often remarked, an over-polished boot may present a flash appearance, but it does draw the eye away from badly got-up linen!"

"As to that, Mr. Polyphant, I'm sure I can't say, but nothing, I do promise you, will distract the attention from a spot of iron-mould on a neckcloth!"

"I will have you know, Mr. Crimplesham," said Polyphant, trembling violently, "That it was a spot of soup!"

"Well, Mr. Polyphant, you should know best, and whatever it was no one feels for your mortification more than I do, for, as I said to Mr. Challacombe, when the matter was being talked of in the Room, if I had been so careless as to let Mr. Vincent Darracott go down to dinner wearing a neckcloth that wasn't perfectly fresh I could never hold up my head again."

"When Mr. Clause Darracott left my hands, Mr. Crimplesham, that neckcloth was spotless!" declared Polyphant, pale with fury. "If Mr. Chollacombe says other, which I do not credit, being as only a perjured snake would utter those lying words-"

"What the devil are you doing  in my quarters?" demanded the Major, bringing the altercation to an abrupt end.

This deep-voiced interruption was productive of a sudden transformation. The disputants turned quickly towards the door, guilt and dismay in their countenances, but only for an instant was the Major permitted a glimpse of these, or any other, emotions. Before he had advanced one step into the room, all trace of human passion had vanished, and he was confronted by two very correct gentlemen's gentlemen, who received him with calm and dignity, and, after bowing in a manner that paid deference to his quality without diminishing their own consequence, deftly relieved him of his hat, his whip, and his gloves.

"If you will permit me, sir!" said Crimplesham, nipping the hat from the Major's hand. "Having been informed that you have not brought your man with you, I ventured, sir, to give your boots a touch, young Wellow, though a painstaking lad, being but a rustic, and quite ignorant of the requirements of military gentlemen.

"If you will permit me, sir!" said Polyphant, possessing himself of the whip and the gloves. "You will pardon the intrusion, sir, I trust, being as my master, Mr. Claud Darracott, desired me to to offer my services to you."

"I'm much obliged to you both, but I don't need either of you, "said the Major, pleasantly, but in a tone that was unmistakably dismissive.
In many ways, this book reminded me of an earlier Heyer novel, The Quiet Gentleman, which is also about an unknown heir taking his place amongst a hostile family. I have to wonder if The Unknown Ajax isn't an improved version of the same story, having enjoyed it much more. I recommend this book to all who already enjoy Heyer. Because it is not her best, it is not the novel for the Heyer novice.     


  1. I just finished this book as well and did indeed enjoy it. It is certainly not "These Old Shades," but is good fun. I like the way Hugo understands immediately what he's in for and plays a bit of a fool for the family's sake, but obviously has the best head on his shoulders compared to the rest. I've only read 15 Georgette Heyer's so far, and have enjoyed them all - in varying degrees. This is all to supplement my Jane Austen re-reads every year.
    Enjoy your blog!

  2. Hi Jj! Thanks for stopping by! I took am recently hooked on Heyer, and fully agree with your sentiment that the biggest problem with Austen is that she only produced six novels. Heyer fills the void, but it just isn't the same.

  3. Alexa -

    I'm in full agreement with the last 15 minutes of Persuasion (2007) what a huge disappointment - and someone in their infinite wisdom changed the letter -- changed the letter - oh, come on! And the more I think about it - the wedding present was just a little creepy. Maybe it was to make those who don't know better think that something like that could happen - not sure.

    I'm in the process of reading the Alastair Trilogy right now and am totally enchanted with the Duke of Avon - even though I'm feeling like I shouldn't be. No Miss Austen to be true, but fun read for sure.

  4. I've read very little Heyer to contribute a thorough comment,Alexa. I just read Sylvester and Venetia, but I've got 3 others in my TBR list. I think reading Heyer is fun but I always feel as if she might have done more at characterization. It is like you when you watch brilliant comedy with no psycholgical depth. You smile and laugh at times at the characters' behaviour but you've got only glimpses of the inside . But, maybe, that's what Heyer intended to convey. Nothing more. And what's missing to me is what I would have added.Thanks, A. It was a pleasure to read your response. Have a great Sunday!MG

  5. Hi Jj - The Duke of Avon is magnificent. Unfortunately, his progeny are not quite "up to snuff", but Devil's Cub is still amusing. Have you read Regency Buck? I would before reading An Infamous Army, as it is the characters from that book who are at the center of the action. No, Heyer is certainly not Austen but quite fun nevertheless.

    Hi Maria - None of Heyer's books are particularly deep. Her work is fun and brilliant, in its own sort of way, but it is a long cry from the complex explorations that the Victorian writers indulged in (which I know you love as much as I do). I like Heyer when I am in the mood for something light and fun. Don't look to her for more than that for she will surely disappoint. That being said, some of her more eccentric characters, while not psychologically complex, do jump vividly from the page.