The Unknown Ajax begins with the inhabitants of the rambling, ramshackle Darracott Mansion in a state of furor. This is not an uncommon occurrence for the Darracotts given that they are lorded over by the penny-pinching, cantankerous Lord Darracott who sets his various progeny and their progeny in turn quaking in their boots at his mere thought.
The scene is set with Lord Darracott receiving the news that his heir and the heir’s son have drowned. The news makes him particularly sullen and the reader is very soon made privy to the reason. The next in line is the son of a son who was cut-off years ago as he married a weaver’s daughter. The “weaver’s son” is the hero of the story and reader, is one of my favouritest heroes in literature. You see, this is my second re-reading of The Unknown Ajax and one of the reasons is definitely Hugo Darracott.
Heyer paints Hugo Darracott as bovine-like: huge, patient, and with a thick skin. I do not remember my first reading (which must have been at least 15 years ago) but I can imagine myself feeling slightly impatient with Hugo were I to be reading the book for the first time. For quite a part of the story one isn’t sure if a hero of a romance can be really that . . . simple. And hapless.
The truth of course is something else. Hugo Darracott, dear reader, is exactly the sort of understated hero who I fall head over heels in love with. He’s patient, he’s kind, and he has a “broad back.” One knows instantly and instinctively that he can be relied upon no matter what. In other words, those bovine like qualities are actually quite sexy.
He’s also a hero to a set of supporting characters who are probably some of my favourite in romance. Lord Darracott I’ve already mentioned. He doesn’t discriminate against whom to turn his nose upon. Everyone gets the same treatment.
Then there’s Lady Aurelia, a grand dame if there was ever one; a lady who “never reproved [her husband] in public” but whose mastery over her husband and her sons is evident. Here’s what Austenprose had to say and I couldn’t have said it better myself:
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 ensemble cast includes a fop, a “Corinthian,” and my personal favourite—two “gentlemen of the same calling, but of different cut,” Polyphant and Crimplesham, valets to the aforementioned fop and Corinthian. The rivalry between the two and the scenes in which they star, “suggestive of tomcats about to join battle,” is one of the many perfectly executed capers in this book.
I haven’t read Heyer’s entire oeuvre but I would be willing to bet that this is one of the funniest stories she’s written. Each character lends themselves to the mayhem and hilarity that pervades the story.
And as always, Heyer excels in dialogues. I love how her dialogues build up not only the characters but also the story. Ok, that sounds stupid. As in “Duh! Isn’t that precisely how it should be?” stupid. What I mean is that Heyer seems to have a gift for dialogue. She can have pages upon pages of dialogue with virtually no descriptions in between and yet move both the plot and her characters to a whole new set point with just that.
And speaking of dialogues, I thought Mrs Darracott’s prattle was really well done. She’s a bit of a chatterbox we are told and her ability to segue seamlessly from one subject to another is exactly what chatterboxes do I imagine. (Ok fine, there’s no imagination involved there. I speak from first-hand knowledge. Given that I’ve been labeled a chatterbox. At times.)
Which brings me to the banter between Hugo and Anthea (our heroine). Our heroine has just found out that Hugo is wealthy. Quite, quite wealthy.
“I know I told you I was mercenary, but I’m not Hugo! Only think how it would appear to everyone! As though I had been determined before ever I saw you not to let your odious fortune slip through my hands!”
He patted her consolingly. “You needn’t worry about that, love. When people see you wearing the same bonnet for years on end they’ll never think you married me for my fortune.”
“As nothing would induce me to wear the same bonnet for years on end—
“You’ll have to,” he said simply. “I’m a terrible nip-farthing. . . .”
“You seem to forget that you wished to purchase the moon for me!”
“Nay, I don’t forget that! The thing is I can’t purchase it, so there was no harm in saying it. Now, if I’d said I’d like to give you a diamond necklace, or some such thing, you might have taken me up on it. I remembered that just in time to stop myself,” he explained, apparently priding himself on his forethought.
“I should like very much to have a diamond necklace,” said Anthea pensively.
“Wouldn’t a paste one do as well?” he asked, in a voice of great uneasiness.
She had been so sure that he would fall into the trap that she was taken, for an instant, off her guard, and looked up at him with such a startled expression on her face that his deep chuckle escaped him, and he lifted her off her feet, and kissed her.
Be still my heart! This is exactly the sort of stuff that I can believe happily-ever-afters to be built on. (I might be biased though considering my husband can give Hugo a run for his money: if I had a dime for every time I thought I had had the last word. . . )
The climax of the story is funny, fraught and fabulous—a deeply satisfying conclusion to a deeply satisfying story. If there’s a Heyer you have to read, I would exhort that it be this!