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
Trade paperback (384) pages
Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas. She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility: An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).
Cover courtesy of Sourcebooks © 2011; text Laura A. Wallace © 2011, Austenprose