The Unknown Ajax (by Georgette Heyer)

There are some of Georgette Heyer’s novels whose plots I remember pretty well. Others are rather vaguer in my memory. One of the latter is ‘The Unknown Ajax’, which I last read in 2007. I recalled the general outline: that the autocratic head of the family is annoyed rather than upset about the loss of his heir - because due to the laws of the era, his estate must now pass to Hugo, a young man whom the rest of the family didn’t even know about. This is because Hugo’s father Hugh was disowned by his father when he married a weaver’s daughter.

When Hugo - who has been a military man - arrives, everyone assumes he will be a country yokel, probably almost illiterate, and not very bright. He is a large man, and his rather arrogant cousin Vincent dubs him ‘Ajax’, referring to the Greek hero who was tall and strong, but not much of a speaker. Hugo is clearly highly intelligent and well-educated, but he has a dry sense of humour, and enjoys, for a while, allowing his relatives to think him rather stupid.

After I had read a couple of chapters, I thought I recalled the plot, only to realise I had confused it with another Heyer novel. Hugo is never in any danger from his cousins - Vincent’s brother Claud is a dandy, and not particularly bright; their other cousin Richmond is a young man who thrives on excitement, and would love to join the army; however his grandfather has forbidden it.

Then there’s Anthea, Richmond’s sister. Her grandfather thinks she should marry Hugo, and neither of them like this idea at first. However Hugo gradually discovers that he likes her very much, and despite her reservations and bias, Anthea realises that Hugo is dependable, kind, good-natured, and rather lovable…

The love story, as with most of Heyer’s regency romances, is very low key. But there are some good interactions between Anthea and Hugo, as they get to know each other, and a great deal of ironic humour. Some of the novel revolves around Hugo gradually getting to know the rest of his family, and there’s also a thread about smuggling; the family estate stands between Sussex and Kent, not far from the sea, and it’s known that the wine and spirits in the household probably didn’t have duty paid on them.

I had mixed feelings about some of the storyline; Hugo is looked down on because of his ‘shabby-genteel’ notions of morality; while the rest of the family don’t exactly support smuggling, they’re quite happy to accept illegal goods when offered, and feel that the government are charging far too much tax. When Hugo becomes friendly with some of the preventative officers, and has sympathy for them, his grandfather is unimpressed. Then later in the book - in a scene which I did remember, as I came to it - he works out how to fool the officers after a crisis.

I had not expected to like this book as much as I did; it doesn’t rank amongst my absolute favourites, as the smuggling story didn’t really interest me. But on the whole I enjoyed it very much.

'The Unknown Ajax' is regularly in print in both the US and UK, widely available second-hand, and now available in Kindle form too.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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