Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Unknown Ajax - Georgette Heyer

If you want to find Heyer in a bookshop chances are she'll be in romantic fiction which has never seemed particularly appropriate to me and even less so now when romantic fiction is generally somewhat more explicit than anything Heyer would have thought of writing. I've come to think of as much more an adventure stories for girls type if writer. Inspired by the Vulpes Libris Heyer week I thought I'd devote the weekend to rereading a favourite rather than struggling with how to write about a Patricia Highsmith without giving away to many spoilers.

Spoilers for a Heyer book aren't such an issue, partly because I assume that most people reading this will probably be familiar with her books already, but mostly because the joy is in the humour and detail of her work as much as it is the plot.

'The Unknown Ajax' is from reasonably late in her career when the quality can be a little bit patchy (the one thing I don't like about Heyer is when she goes over the top with contemporary slang) but this remains one of my favourites. I discovered Heyer when I was about 11 or 12 thanks to the suggestion of an excellent English teacher, devoured all her books in a mad binge over the next year or so, and reread them many times in my early teens. Over the years I've periodically turned to her for a comfortably entertaining read, and just as regularly been surprised by what I find.

My 12 year old self was more caught up in the romance - never sealed by anything more racy than a kiss, and only then at the very end - and took the rest for granted. 20 something me turned to these books in much the same frame if mind as I would an old black and white film on a Sunday afternoon. 40 year old me is delighted by the way that Heyer still stands up, though more aware of her class consciousness and ingrained snobbery.

There is a romance in 'The Unknown Ajax', it centres around the hero, Major Hugh Darracott - lately returned from the wars to find he's heir to a title, a falling down house, and all but bankrupt estates, and his cousin Anthea. None of the Darracott's can be convinced that Hugh, who they've refused to acknowledge/didn't know about isn't delighted by the prospect of joining their ranks. He for his part plans on escaping as soon as he can but finds himself increasingly taken with Anthea. She is a typical enough Heyer heroine, attractive, intelligent, capable, certainly aware of the restrictions placed on her by society and arguably slightly resentful of them, and fortunately gifted with a sense of humour. Hugh in turn is kind, honourable, trustworthy, and equally intelligent, as well as having that all important sense of humour. If nothing else an impressionable 12 year old can learn that mutual respect and shared humour are the bedrock of a good relationship. Beyond that there isn't much to say, there are some nice set piece exchanges between the pair and on Anthea's part a realisation that Hugh's presence is both comforting and disturbing in equal measure but she doesn't really figure that much in the story.

Instead what we have is a good old fashioned thriller type tale of smuggling. Anthea's brother, Richmond may be more involved than his family like to think, the family itself, held in thrall to a patriarch as autocratic as he is unreasonable are none of them very happy. The end result is an equal mix of genuine tension and farce as Hugh attempts to sort out a situation that could conceivably end with a hanging. Heyer is mistress of never quite overdoing it, everything is just feasible right down to the exciseman maintaining a strong suspicion that he's been had. Heyer might not be for everyone but if you think she's just a romance writer think again (though I admit the truly horrible cover on my copy does nothing to dispel the illusion).

14 comments:

  1. Like you, I discovered Georgette Heyer way back some 50 years and thoroughly enjoyed reading the entire collection. I found it so easy to identify with every heroine and yearn for every hero - ah, the joys of being a teenager :) Not sure I could re-read them now though! Elizabeth xx

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    1. I think they hold up pretty well to adult reading, though I couldn't guarantee you'd find quite the same books you remember. I approach them in much the same spirit as I do a Cary Grant film or similar 1930's or 40's screwball comedy's - which really they have a lot in common with - and find she never fails to cheer me up, mostly because she's really good at writing comedy.

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  2. This is one of those Heyers I came late to - I only read it for the first time last year - but I do enjoy it. Hugh and Anthea are my favourite sort of Heyer hero and heroine. I don't think this book sparkles like the best of Heyer's work, but it is still a very enjoyable read.

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    1. What I really like about this one is the sense of place, I could imagine Romney marsh in all it's eerie glory, the dilapidated house, and the deserted country lanes as late summer starts to turn to autumn with longer darker nights perfect for smuggling... I like it for the humour and adventure too but you do get the impression that the romance has, well lost it's romance, for Heyer in this one.

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  3. I think I mix this up with another of my favourites, The Quiet Gentleman, which has that similar theme of the unwanted heir. Both are very enjoyable indeed.

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    1. The Quiet Gentleman is one I like much more now than when I first read it, and again it's a cracking adventure story/thriller.

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  4. I'm with vicki, this is a favorite of mine along with The Quiet Gentleman. Hugo is just such a sweetheart, and I really watched enjoy watching him bamboozle the Darracotts. I think this has the funniest ending in all of Heyer's books.

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    1. It's a masterpiece how she gets the last few chapters to work. I read it trying to pick it apart and all the way through it stays just credible, and so funny with it. She really was a genius at this sort of thing!

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  5. When I read reviews like this I feel really tempted to try out Georgette Heyer - I can't believe I've never read her! Also, wanted to stop by to ask if you'd be interesting in joining in with the December Readalong that Kirsty from the Literary Sisters and I are going to do. We're reading Wuthering Heights, hoping to post about it in the first week of January - it would be great if you could join in too!

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  6. You should definitely have a go at Heyer, start with something like The Grand Sophy which is classic Heyer. She's the best sort of light entertainment. December tends to get away from me a bit so no promises about Wuthering Heights but I'll definitely try.

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  7. I didn't discover Heyer until recently, and have greatly enjoyed the few I have read so far - especially this one. Loved the fact that Hugh is much more than the family expects him to be. Also, one of my favorite parts was the view of the servants, and their jockeying for status based on which family member they served - it was a great belowstairs view you don't often get.

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    1. The rival valets are very funny. I used to think of Heyer as a guilty pleasure but I've got over the guilty part now, and lucky you with all those books ahead!

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  8. Heyer is definately on my list of authors I regularly return to again and again over the the last 40 plus years. The Unknown Ajax is high on my list of ones to read when you want intelligent, but light and witty. It has similarities to The Grand Sophy, but also the Quiet Gentleman. For anyone new to Heyer I'd suggest the Grand Sophy, Frederica (which contains a rare factual error by Heyer), Devil's Cub, Friday's Child (or Cotillion with a similar plot) or Sylvester. There are clear problems with class issues, and the odd element of racism in her historicals and murder mysteries. Even so the books bear re-reading several times, even when themes or scenarios are repeated, there is usually a variation that makes each one original. The only one I've never taken to is Cousin Kate. As someone commented on Vulpis Libris, to still be published 30 years after your death, especially when an author is not classed as a modern classic suitable to be a book included in English school courses shows the strength of her story-writing.

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  9. I'd add The Talisman Ring to that list and I'm very curious to know the mistake she made in Frederica? I haven't re read her detective fiction in a while so can't comment intelligently on that but I find the race and class issues easy to overlook in her romances. With the race issues - which I mostly register as references to Jews as money lenders I see nothing beyond a very typical attitude of her time, regrettable but not so prevalent that they really start to grate. With class she's undoubtedly a snob but her attitudes are so in line with my late grandfathers that I don't think I noticed them as a much younger reader. When I read her now it's more obvious but still very much a part of that high Tory, minor public school, upper middle class, pre war world view which you can still sometimes come across. At the same time as Heyer I started reading Dorothy L Sayers but when I re read Sayers now I find her far more problematic, not least in her attitude to words class. I think it makes more sense in Heyer and therefor grates less. Sadly though I think that emphasis on class is why she wouldn't film well now. One day I might listen to an audio version if one of her books and see how it reads.

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