The Unknown Ajax, by Georgette Heyer – A Review

From the desk of Laura A. Wallace: 

The Unknown Ajax is one of Georgette Heyer’s funniest Regencies.  It is populated with some of her more memorable characters and ends with a protracted scene reminiscent of comic opera, with a dozen people coming in and fading out in a seamless composition that builds to a climax as funny as a Heyer fan could wish for.  It might even be funnier than the ending scene in The Grand Sophy.

The setup for The Unknown Ajax is reminiscent of Downton Abbey—only the former came first, so it would be more proper to say that Downton Abbey is reminiscent of The Unknown Ajax.  The heir to a peerage and a large estate has drowned in a boating accident, along with his only son.  Everyone in the family thinks, therefore, the new heir is my lord’s youngest son, who has two grown sons of his own, but it turns out that this isn’t true.  Unbeknownst to anyone except the old lord himself, his second son, who had made a shocking misalliance with a ‘weaver’s daughter in Yorkshire, and been cast off, managed to procreate before his untimely death in Holland (in the quagmire which occasioned “The Grand Old Duke of York”).  So the story opens with Lord Darracott’s informing those of his relations who live with him that he has sent for his son and grandsons—and his heir as well.  He had informed no one until now because he had hoped that the new heir—son of the despised weaver’s daughter—was already dead, or that there might be some way to sequester the estate to prevent his inheriting when Lord Darracott dies.

What ensues when the heir arrives is a comedy, not of errors but of pride and prejudice, to coin a phrase.  Add in a set of Heyer’s wonderfully drawn secondary characters and you have a recipe for some highly entertaining scenes and dialogue.

There are the rival valets of the two brothers, who never miss an opportunity to turn the knife in each others’ bosoms.  There is the would-be pink of the ton, whose sole ambition in life is to replace Brummell in society, and who likes to test his new ideas on the hapless residents of nearby Rye, while (being terrified of matchmaking mamas) trysting with any willing and personable female of a lower order.  There is the serious-minded Customs’ Riding-officer, determined to stamp out smuggling along the Sussex and Kentish coast.  There is the cantankerous, autocratic and ancient patriarch who keeps everyone dancing to his hornpipe.

And there is a truly magnificent grande dame whose well-modulated voice is never raised, whose countenance rarely smiles, whose behavior towards her irascible father-in-law is always perfectly correct, and whose dignity is never compromised.  Even when she beats all of the young people to flinders in a lively game of copper-loo, her response to being asked if she always holds the best cards is merely:  “I am, in general, very fortunate.”  She expresses her opinions as pronouncements and makes the most splendid (though dispassionate) speeches that render her auditors without a thing to say.  Lady Catherine de Bourgh only wishes she could be as majestically formidable.

The final, hilarious scene begs to be produced as a play.  Heyer clearly saw it as a tableau on a stage, and it makes me wonder why she never tried her hand at writing plays.  The quotations and references to Ajax are all to the character in Shakespeare’s play Troilus & Cressida, which is based on the Trojan War.

This is a fun novel which would be a good choice to introduce Heyer to someone who hasn’t read her yet.  And if you’ve read it before, re-read it, and let it become one of your favorites again (your favorite Heyer being the one you’re currently reading).

Appendix:  As usual, I love everything about the Sourcebooks edition except for the “scannos,” some of which make nonsense of the text.  Following is a list of the ones I found:

  • p. 44:  reclining should be relining (Claud’s chaise).
  • p. 52:  “. . . and he added with relish;” should end with a colon.
  • p. 85:  long coats should be short coats, but this error is also present in my Berkeley 1977 printing.
  • p. 94:  “the principal open” should be “one.
  • p. 199:  arm-in-armly should be arm-in-arm.
  • p. 230:  la-amentable should be lamentable.
  • p. 252:  “He had thought from the outside” should be “outset.”

5 out of 5 Stars


  • The Unknown Ajax, by Georgette Heyer
  • Sourcebooks Casablanca; Reprint edition (September 1, 2011)
  • Trade paperback & eBook (384) pages
  • ISBN: 978-1402238826
  • Genre:  Regency Romance, Historical Romance


We received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image courtesy of Sourcebooks Casablanca © 2011; text Laura A. Wallace © 2011, Updated 10 March 2022.

16 thoughts on “The Unknown Ajax, by Georgette Heyer – A Review

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  1. Well, Laura, Thanks for another enticing and revealing review without spoilers! Because of recommendations around the internet, I just finished Cotillion and that was, let’s see, my 17th or 18th Georgette Heyer read? I’ll have my radar out for The Unknown Ajax until I can land a copy. Somehow, some way, I’m going to read ALL of them!


  2. Let me be the first to thank you for still another enticing but non-spoiler review, Laura. Having read most of your reviews here, I trust your judgment on what is worth reading and what is so-so. Because of the widespread praise around the internet, I just finished Cotillion and that makes, let’s see, Heyer read #17 or #18 for me? Some how, some way I’m going to read ALL of them and I’ll be searching for the Unknown Ajax for my very next!


  3. Jeffrey:

    I actually think people need a little “Heyer seasoning” before they can understand the world created in The Unknown Ajax. For one thing, the Yorkshire dialect reproduced by Heyer is quite hard to understand. Also, people need to understand about smuggling, valets, primogeniture, and social class issues before truly appreciating the book.

    I completely agree that the book should be done as a play or a Masterpiece Theater production. It’s far better than Downton Abbey, in my view! If anyone knows why her books are not done by other media, please let us know!

    The audio recording of this book is also wonderful, with the sole reader doing all the different voices and accents perfectly so that you can “see” the action on the stage — for indeed, especially the last scenes are written like a wonderful, farcical stage play.

    I do want to assure readers that the “grande dame” is as delicious as Laura has described her. She is the epitome of the well-bred lady, and her mastery of her husband and sons is played magnificently. Unlike Lady Catherine de Bourge, however, she is a force for good. She is no fool.

    And, any woman who does not fall deeply in love with Hugo Darracott does not have blood running in her veins! By far and away, my favorite Heyer hero!


  4. “The Unknown Ajax” is one of the very small handful of GH novels I hadn’t read until those beautiful new quality paperbacks came out 2 or 3 years ago. I read it finally last year and loved it, really very funny. This belongs to that little sub-genre of books in which someone well-born and educated is mistaken for a naif or hayseed and doesn’t correct anyone’s impressions because he is amused by them.


  5. You are right, this is one of my very favorite Heyers, and I love that final scene with a passion. It is such a pity that the new Sourcebook editions have so many errors–that really does impact one’s enjoyment.


  6. I love Georgette Heyer’s books and read this one while recovering from a pulled muscle injury. My laughter in places was painful, but it was the best distraction. I am so glad to see such a good review and it has made me want to stop the book I am currently reading to go back and reread this delightful romp.


  7. Thanks everyone for your comments!

    Jeffrey, I try very hard not to include spoilers beyond the initial setup of the novels. I personally hate spoilers so much that I never read reviews of anything! In writing these reviews I certainly don’t want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of discovery.

    Melinda, the reason that there are no other media of Heyer’s novels is primarily, I believe, because she had such a terrible experience with the 1950s production of The Reluctant Widow. If you ever get a chance to see it, do watch it, because it’s so bad that it’s good! But it soured her (and her son) from considering any other offers.

    A couple of the novels have been produced as plays in a community theater in Chicago, including The Talisman Ring, but I don’t know anything else about them.

    As for whether this novel is too difficult for a Heyer novice, you have good points. I was making the assumption that a person reading this review would have at least some experience with the Regency in general, even if only through Austen. But I also think that the book does a terrific job of explaining things like primogeniture without getting bogged down in the details. By the time you get to the third chapter you have inferred that inheritance goes through each of the sons (and their sons) in order of birth. But it’s a good point, and I probably wouldn’t give this to someone who had never read anything set during this period.


  8. I haven’t read this one yet. I do look forward to it. I’m only on my 10th or so novel. I’m currently reading Bath Tangle.


  9. Thanks for an excellent review, Laura :0) The Unknown Ajax features one of my favourite ‘Heyeros’, a man who keeps a few surprises up his (rather large) sleeve ;0) The final scenes are indeed delightful and very funny.


  10. Hi Melinda: I quite understand about the Yorkshire dialect through reading Wuthering Heights and not being able to so much as understand a single word of what Joseph was saying in print! Also, apologies for my double-post….don’t know how that happened. Community theater and Georgette Heyer look like a good marriage too!


  11. It took me a while to warm to the Unknown Ajax but coincidentally, I re-read it last week and I enjoy it more each time I read it. I was not well last week and tired and had too many new books and reviews and it all got too much. So I turned to Georgette again and read Pistols for Two, The Grand Sophy, Cotillion, Venetia, the Black Sheep, A Lady of Quality and my favourite of all, A Civil Contract.

    I feel much better now….


  12. How did Elaine do it? I’ve been sick for two weeks and I’ve only managed to complete a couple books the last couple days. One of which was Bath Tangle. And I’m only slightly better. maybe there’s a correlation….


  13. Great review. I haven’t read The Unknown Ajax yet and I love Heyer’s novels. I must admit that the dialect scares me – I had a hard time with The Toll-gate as the dialect really threw me off. I know that Heyer loved researching the common phrases of the day and loved it, but it still makes for hard reading!


  14. Terrific Review! I first read this book as an older edition from my local library, and loved it so much I just had to have it. This is the only Heyer book I pre-ordered when the new paperback edition came out a few years ago, I just couldn’t wait to have my own copy!
    I have read most of Heyer’s books, and now I’m reading many of them out loud to my sisters. I’ve just finished reading The Unknown Ajax to my youngest sister, and the climax is absolutely, hands down, the best Heyer climax I’ve ever read, even beating out the gripping climax of These Old Shades by a narrow margin because it is so seamlessly put together and hilarious. Furthermore the rest of the book leads up to it so well, with all the subplots combining to make the climax truly stellar, that one can’t put it down.
    The grande dame Lady Aurelia is one of my favorite minor characters, setting a standard of lofty greatness that Lady Catherine de Bourgh can only dream of, and my sister cracks up laughing every time she even thinks of the aspiring dandy Claude. The only thing that keeps this from being my very favorite Heyer novel is the fact that Anthea never seems to get the better of Hugo in a verbal exchange. However, at least Hugo isn’t as obnoxious about it as Worth in Regency Buck.
    For those who find the dialect difficult to make out, may I recommend reading the dialect out loud? The strangely spelled words frequently have a sound similar to what the word actually means in normal english, at least close enough to take a guess at, in my experience.


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