Heyer, Georgette. The Unknown Ajax.

NY: Putnam, 1959.

It’s about 1818 and Lord Darracot is an autocratic old bastard with a large, decrepit house down in the Kentish marshes who terrorizes his family and neglects his estate. But his heir and his grandson are suddenly dead in a boating accident, and the next son — whom the old man read out of the family for marrying a Yorkshire weaver’s daughter — has died in the wars in the Peninsula. The third son assumes he’s the next one up — but no.

The second son produced a grandson, Hugh, whose existence his lordship has known about for twenty-seven years but has never mentioned to anyone. And Hugh — or Hugo, as he prefers — will be the new Baron Darracot whether his grandfather likes it or not. Well, maybe he can marry off this unwanted interloper to his granddaughter, Anthea, and control him that way. So Hugo turns up at Darracot Place — and turns out to be a very large young man with the rank of Major in the 95th Rifles (the famous “Light Bobs”), a professional soldier since he was sixteen. And he has a very broad Yorkshire brogue that makes his new-found uncles and cousins wince. And he seems very naïve and just a little stupid.

Well, the family ought to know better than to judge an heir by his accent and Hugo enjoys himself, learning the ins and outs of his relatives’ personalities and relationships. Anthea, of course, has no intention of marrying anyone merely on her grandfather’s orders, but Hugo is quite taken with her anyway. And his cousins, Vincent and Claud, are a challenge — the former because he’s a waspish gambler with no money who expected to be the new second-in-line to the title, and the latter because he’s a dandy wannabe with not much sense. And then there’s Anthea’s younger brother, Richmond, almost nineteen but still treated by everyone as if he’s still nine, spoiled but still tightly controlled by his lordship, and on the point of explosion from repressed energy and ambition. His dream is of a military commission but no one will let him off the leading strings. And then there’s the long tradition of smuggling in the neighborhood, and a young lieutenant in the customs service who is determined to catch whomever is bringing untaxed goods ashore via the Darracot estate.

This is one of Heyer’s best-constructed and funniest romps, and Major Hugo is one of her most enjoyable characters. The action is continual and the climax is one of the best set-piece scenes in any of her books.


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