Did you know that Georgette Heyer’s Regency novel, The Unknown Ajax has a Shakespearian connection? In today’s article, award-winning Regency romance author, Sheri Cobb South, explains the connection. She also explains why she is particularly fond of this particular story. In addition, she shares her memories as an avid reader of Georgette Heyer in quest of more of her books.
Please feel free to share your views on this book or on Regencies in general in comments to this post.
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I first discovered Georgette Heyer while I was in high school in the mid-1970s, and spent the next few years eagerly tracking down everything I could find in libraries, drugstore book racks, etc. Soon the number of unread Heyers dwindled to one long-neglected volume in my hometown’s public library. I have to admit that it was not particularly appealing to look at. It featured one of those heavy-duty cloth "library bindings" designed to withstand a nuclear blast, and one, moreover, in a bilious shade of green. Furthermore, having no dust jacket, there was nothing to give the slightest clue as to what sort of plot the reader might expect. Nor was the title very informative: it was called The Unknown Ajax. (It wasn’t until much later that I learned the title was taken from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, as were the many "Ajax" quotations within the text.) But while there was nothing about that particular edition that might have attracted a new reader to Heyer’s work, I was not a new reader. This unprepossessing volume was one of only a couple of Heyer’s Regencies that I had not yet read, and so, in spite of its unpromising appearance, I took it down from the shelf, checked it out, and brought it home.
As I read, the story began to seem strangely familiar. My older sister had finished high school only a year or two earlier, and among her classmates was a boy who joined the Air Force after graduation. When Tony arrived at basic training, he discovered that the other recruits had very fixed ideas about what to expect from someone hailing from rural Alabama. Instead of trying to correct the redneck stereotype, he played along with it, "recalling" fondly, among other things, how he used to take his girlfriend to the Sears store on Saturday nights so they could watch TV. In the process, of course, he exposed their own ignorance as being far greater than that they attributed to him.
To my delight, I realized Heyer had written a Regency equivalent of the same trick my sister’s classmate had played on his fellow airmen! Needless to say, I was charmed. I checked out that book many times over the next few years. I even became rather fond of that binding; its very ugliness guaranteed that it would languish on the shelf, waiting for me whenever I needed it.
That was almost forty years ago, and The Unknown Ajax remains my favorite Georgette Heyer novel. Hugo Darracott, the "weaver’s brat" who, discovering that his family expects a yokel in homespun, cheerfully lives down to their expectations, is my favorite kind of hero: the beta guy who is underestimated by everyone, until circumstances thrust him into the limelight, where he performs beautifully. And I do mean "performs": the final scene is one of Heyer’s best, and gives not only Hugo but every member of the ensemble cast a chance to shine.
I have to confess that, much as I loved it from the very first read, my seventeen-year-old self found the romance a bit lacking. While it’s true that there is no big "declaration scene," as I’ve grown older I’ve come to appreciate the subtle interplay between Hugo and Anthea, who falls in love with him in spite of her best intentions. In fact, I believe the necessity of reading between the lines for clues as to when this event begins to take place actually lends itself to re-readings more than other books where the feelings of the romantic leads are more explicitly stated.
Of course, no discussion of The Unknown Ajax would be complete without some mention of the supporting characters. The cast is large—surprisingly so in a book set in the country, without the backdrop of London Society—and features a variety of persons who are, in the words of Lord Darracott’s butler, "all of them related, and too many of them brothers." The brothers are Hugo’s cousins Vincent and Claud Darracott, whose father is cut out of the succession by the existence of Hugo. Claud is another incarnation of the aspiring dandy, a recurring character type which Heyer does so well. But where his character might have served no purpose beyond comic relief, Claud occasionally shows glimpses of surprising insight. He is the first to raise the possibility that his seventeen-year-old cousin Richmond’s boat might be used for smuggling, and although it never occurs to him that the boat might be used for this purpose with its owner’s full cooperation, he seems to have a better understanding of Richmond’s character than that young man’s idol, Vincent: "I should think the army would suit him down to the ground," Claud observes, drawing his grandfather’s wrath down upon his head, "for they always seem to be drilling, or maneuvering, or doing something dashed unrestful, and that’s just what Richmond is—unrestful!" In the denouement, this object of amusement, contempt, and/or outright scorn "[finds] himself for the first time in his life the star round which the other members of the family revolve[s]" and "[comes] artistically to his senses . . . in a manner that [wins] even his brother’s admiration."
Vincent, too, appears at first glance to be a familiar type-the top-of-the-trees Corinthian who drives to an inch, boxes with Gentleman Jackson, and slashes friend and foe alike with his rapier wit. But he, too, is not what he initially appears. His goading of his younger brother (which sounds more befitting a schoolboy of eight than a grown man of eight-and-twenty) and his not-so-thinly veiled insults toward Hugo reveal Vincent to be petty and small-minded in a way not seen in the heroes Heyer casts in this same mold. But then Vincent shows a capacity for self-awareness: "Had [Vincent] arrived at Darracott Place to find that Richmond had outgrown his youthful hero-worship it would not have troubled him in the least; but when he saw Richmond’s eyes turn away from him towards Hugo . . . he fell a prey to a jealousy which none knew better than he to be irrational." By the end of the book, Vincent has come to respect Hugo, almost against his will: "You irritate me intensely, you know. I have little doubt that you always will, but if ever I should get into a tight corner I do hope to God you will be at hand to pull me out of it, coz!" He even finds himself in the unusual position of supporting his brother’s opinions regarding Richmond in the teeth of their grandfather’s opposition, and surprises himself by risking the old gentleman’s wrath in order to plead the boy’s cause.
Nor does the catalyst for all this transformation escape being transformed himself. About two-thirds of the way through the book, Hugo, speaking of his maternal grandfather, tells Vincent, "Reet vulgar, he was . . . but worth a score of any Darracott I’ve yet laid eyes on!" But then, when Richmond’s escapades threaten the family with scandal and ruin, Hugo tells his cousins, "It’s not only Richmond who’ll be laid low, but every Darracott amongst us." It’s interesting to note that Hugo does not fully identify himself with his Darracott relatives until they find themselves in crisis.
And that, to me, is the heart of The Unknown Ajax. More than a love story, it is a story of family, of a group of persons with nothing in common but the blood that runs through their veins who are forced to unite in the face of calamity and who, in the process, learn to value each other.
There are other small pleasures, of course—the rival valets and the awe-inspiring Aunt Aurelia, to name only a couple—but since I’ve already enthused long enough, I’ll leave you the pleasure of discovering (or revisiting) them for yourselves. If you haven’t read The Unknown Ajax, or haven’t read it lately, by all means do so. Like Anthea, you just might fall in love with Hugo.
Sheri Cobb South is the author of a series of Regency-set mysteries featuring Bow Street Runner John Pickett, as well as a number of Regency romances, among them the critically acclaimed The Weaver Takes a Wife. Her next release, Dinner Most Deadly (aka John Pickett mystery #4) will be published this September in hardcover and Kindle editions by Five Star, an imprint of Cengage.