It can’t be easy for a large, quarrelsome aristocratic family facing increasing financial ruin to find out that, thanks to an ill-fated boating expedition, their crumbling, mismanaged estate will eventually be owned by a cousin most of them have never met. It can only get worse when they hear that this cousin is the grandson of a weaver. GASP. (I will give you a second.) Oh, to be sure, he’s also the legitimate grandson of a baron—thus the whole estate deal—but to say his grandfather is not thrilled to leave the estate to someone he calls a “weaver’s brat” is a vast, vast understatement.
What none of them realize is that the heir in question, one Major Hugo Darracott, aka The Unknown Ajax, is hardly thrilled with his position either, perhaps because he realizes that he’s about to be used as a symbol of postwar British land management issues, which is kinda problematic when you’re in the early 19th century. And none of them yet know about Hugo’s besetting sin: a powerful sense of humor.
It does not, however, take long for Hugo to realize that his newly met family all assumes he’s been brought up in a shack and thus lacks all manners. Unable to resist the joke, he plays along, lapsing into a broad—very broad—Yorkshire accent, which convinces nearly everyone that he really is an uneducated yokel. Nearly everyone; for all that they are generally dominated by the men of their family, it does not take the women long to realize that Hugo can flip back and forth from the King’s English and his Yorkshire accent at will, leading one—the formidable Lady Aurelia—to deplore his tendency to levity; a second—the quiet, greatly harassed Mrs. Darracott—to find that Hugo is a kind, helpful man; and a third—Anthea, to fall headlong in love with him.
It’s not difficult to see why. If you ignore his continual jokes, or, as Lady Aurelia calls it, his tendency to levity—not that Anthea can—Hugo has several other excellent attributes: he’s kind, sensible, good looking—if extremely and unusually tall. And as it turns out, very, very, very very very rich. (To her credit, Anthea is not after Hugo’s money; in fact, when she finds out about it, she is deeply distressed, worried that other people will assume she’s a gold-digger.) And if all this were not enough, when he’s not cracking jokes, Hugo manages to get off some of Heyer’s most romantic dialogue.
Their banter is arguably the best part of the book, but the two are so well suited that for any suspense whatsoever, Heyer ends up having to focus on other plots: the unveiling of Hugo’s practical joke (to the mingled fury and joy of various family members); an ongoing feud between two valets serving very different brothers, and above all, the adventures of Anthea’s brother Richmond, who has decided that smuggling brandy into the secret tunnel beneath the house is an awesome idea—he’ll never be caught, plus, it’s not just morally justified (in Richmond’s view), but will please his grandfather (who has strong and very unhappy opinions about excise taxes).
Richmond is very very wrong. On both counts.
Few of the character types are new to Heyer readers: the valets are her usual fashion-experts obsessed with rank, boot blacking and linen; Lord Darracott is her crusty aristocrat; Claud Darracott one of her silly sprigs of fashion; Vincent her rude aristocrat; Richmond her overly eager stammering boy on the edge of manhood; Hugo her tall, competent, humorous hero. This does allow Heyer to play her two usual heroes off each other, as Vincent and Hugo spar together. But they do not, as might be expected, spar over the heroine; Anthea and Vincent have no interest in each other. Instead, they spar over Richmond. Heyer also manages to sneak in two rather less usual characters: Mrs. Darracott, one of her few sympathetic mothers, and Lady Aurelia, whose placid face and manners mask her competence and intelligence. Her husband has done well in government for a reason.
Only two minor notes mar my enjoyment of this book. The first is that I find myself just a touch uncomfortable with one small aspect of Anthea and Hugo’s romance, beautifully written, entertaining and realistic as it is. It’s just that for all that Anthea protests that Hugo really should meet more women before settling with her, she is the one who has barely left her home: she has had one short London season, and a few rare visits to other relatives. Since her grandfather rarely allows guests to enter his home, this means that she knows very few people outside her family, and has no friends her own age. She is not sheltered, exactly; she shows a sharp awareness of certain realities in life, and has learned to judge people well. It takes her only a few days to realize, for instance, that Hugo is playing an elaborate practical joke on his family, and is far more intelligent and educated than he’s let on. She is also aware of her grandfather’s toxic effect on everyone who shares a home with him. At the same time, she has to ask Hugo if Richmond’s upbringing is normal (short answer, no, even for someone in the aristocracy), and Claud points out, with reason, that Anthea knows nothing about London and other matters. I have absolutely no doubt that Anthea will be happy with Hugo: he does, after all, make her laugh, and he happily abandons his principles to ensure that her brother stays out of jail. But I can’t help thinking I’d feel slightly better if she had met more people, especially since, unlike Venetia, she seems to long for company, and she’s encountered even less of it than Venetia has.
But, as I said, I can readily believe that Anthea and Hugo will be happy together; they are certainly more suited than many other Heyer couples. My other issue is a bit more difficult to dismiss, and that’s the treatment of Lieutenant Ottershaw.
As Hugo painstakingly points out, more than once, Ottershaw is an intelligent, honorable man, attempting to enforce the law. It may be a terrible law—several characters point out its numerous flaws, and Lord Darracott even argues that bad laws can and should be disobeyed. How much Heyer agreed with this argument is a bit difficult to say. She did, after all, write this book while fighting with Inland Revenue and protesting multiple tax laws that she felt were unjust and morally wrong, and many of her earlier books had contained sympathetic descriptions of smugglers. She also does not have Hugo, or anyone else, report Lord Darracott’s definite irregularities to the estate trustees, as Hugo is well within his grounds to do. Lord Darracott has not only been a terrible landlord, but also has been illegally pulling money out of the estate to buy one grandson an expensive horse and small yacht, and provide funds to another grandson; fortunately his two remaining grandsons have their own fortunes, or the estate would be in even more trouble than the serious trouble it is already in.
The worst of this is that, as Hugo notes, the crumbling, debt ridden estate—similar to many other estates in Britain after World War II—can be made profitable even in a postwar period of high taxation, thanks to its natural resources, though it will take considerable time, money and effort. The land can, after all, support numerous sheep, more than other areas of the country. (Exactly how Hugo came by this sudden sheep knowledge, thrown out at random during a horseback ride through the country, given his military background and his ongoing and credible statements that he knows little about management and wool, is an excellent and unanswered question.)
This focus on poor estate management is, for Heyer, not only a plot point, but also a painful reaction to watching the English country houses she adored transform so rapidly in the postwar period. It was not a new problem, but after World War II, it had accelerated. Heyer used The Unknown Ajax both to rail against short-sighted estate owners (as she had in Penhallow) and create a fantasy of how these estates could be saved (as she distinctly had not in Penhallow.) You can almost hear her shouting—or at least wanting to shout—YES, you can save your homes and continue to live in the 19th century! Even with this horrible postwar taxation! (The Darracotts, too, are financially suffering from the high taxes imposed during and after the Napoleonic Wars; the connection to England after World War II is not that much of a stretch.)
I can’t disagree that poor estate management—and continuing to spend money that isn’t there—is at the root of the Darracotts’ financial problems. I can, however, say that according to Heyer’s own text, Hugo is remarkably and unusually wealthy; his private fortune brings in between fifteen to sixteen thousand pounds per year (compare to Mr. Darcy’s ten thousand pounds) and he has additional investments elsewhere. Basically, he’s the Warren Buffett of Regency England, and while it’s nice to hope that an army of Warren Buffetts might rush into to prop up crumbling estate homes and keep them safely in family hands, it’s hardly likely.
But back to Lieutenant Ottershaw. As I noted, Ottershaw is an honorable man who, in the course of doing his job and upholding the law, correctly realizes that young Richmond is engaged in smuggling. It’s not that hard to figure out; Richmond has his own private yacht and access to a mostly uninhabited house in the middle of nowhere; assures everyone that said house has a ghost; and tells people that he cannot possibly be disturbed at night because of health issues. These health issues are correctly dismissed by Ottershaw (and others, who note Richmond’s energy and hours spent on horseback). Richmond’s social position, as the grandson of a lord, protects him to an extent—but only an extent. All Ottershaw needs is evidence.
Thanks, however, to the minor incompetence of his underlings, who shoot Richmond and worse, let Richmond escape, Ottershaw never does get that evidence. Far worse, however, he finds himself facing sanctions and probable termination from his job—even though he is completely right. Meanwhile, Lord Darracott, who has spent a lifetime mismanaging the estate, fighting with and terrorizing his children when not cutting off all contact, ignoring the qualities of his youngest surviving son, Matthew, who is the only member of the family (apart from Hugo) doing anything at all useful, misjudging his grandsons, and verbally abusing people, ends up feeling very very sorry for himself at the end of the novel. I guess that’s something.
The theme here is, I guess, don’t go after aristocrats—they’ll always win. It’s the theme I’d expect from Heyer. Still, after several pages that assure us that Ottershaw is an honorable if ambitious man, seeing him ruined because a family wants to protect a spoiled scion of the house—ouch. It doesn’t help that most of the characters agree that Richmond only turned to smuggling because he has nothing to do—his grandfather has refused to allow Richmond to join the army or take up any other profession. (It’s particularly bad since Lord Darracott openly admits to his main objection—when he last had a son join the army, said son married distinctly beneath him—to Hugo’s mother.) It really doesn’t help to see several signs that Lord Darracott’s terrible estate management and outright waste is not only harming lovely historical buildings, but also worsening the financial circumstances of his tenants.
Very typical of Heyer. So while I can’t resist a hero who spends most of a novel cracking jokes before suddenly and smoothly stepping up to save the family, I do rather wish that sting weren’t in the last few pages.
Mari Ness is working on managing her kitchen before she moves up to the estate level. She lives in central Florida.