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The Unknown Ajax (thoughts)

March 8, 2010

I’d like to welcome Georgette Heyer to my blog, which is today’s stop on her Classics Circuit tour.

As I was reading The Unknown Ajax, which is my sixth or seventh Heyer, I tried to pinpoint why I enjoy her novels. It couldn’t be the characters…they were all pretty much stereotypes, with a few distinguishing features added. And it couldn’t be the plot, since you could see everything that was going to happen from a mile away. I have no inherent interest in Regency England, so it’s not the setting either. And yet, her books always bring a smile to my face. I think there’s two reasons. The first is that, sometimes, as a reader I just need a break. I want a story I can float along with, in which the good end happily and the bad unhappily, and there’s no deeper meaning than that. In that, I see Heyer like some kind of simple, rich dessert. I can depend upon it to taste delicious, because it’s chock full of sugar and cream and chocolate and the other things that make baking a no-brainer. Sometimes, I need a bit of comfort food, rather than more exotic fare, however delicious it may be. But at the same time, if I were to start eating it every week, I would quickly become tired of it. It’s a strict, in-case-of-emotional-emergencies kind of thing. So there’s the relaxation factor of Heyer. But even when I’m reading ‘break’ books that don’t demand my full capacities, I still have expectations. And that’s where the second reason comes in…sure, Heyer might follow formulas with her Regency pieces and stay within the bounds of convention. But she does so with style. Her research and historical accuracy is impeccable. Her writing style leans towards the show rather than tell side. Her dialogue sparks. And her leading men are always appealing. I couldn’t live on Heyer alone. But when I’m exhausted and my poor brain needs a vacation, I’m happy to reach for a Heyer and grateful that she has such an extensive backlist.

Aarti recommended that I read The Unknown Ajax, since it’s marvelous and no one else on the tour had selected it. Since she’s a Heyer expert, I deferred to her, and I’m happy that I did so! I knew nothing about the book going into it, although within the first chapter, I could guess what was going to happen. ;) The book is set in an out-of-the-way country estate, whose down-at-its-heels aristocratic family is led by crochety Lord Darracott. One of his daughters-in-law, who has been a widow for many years, lives on the estate with her own high-spirited daughter and coddled son (the latter being the Lord’s favourite grandchild). Their life is far from a bed of roses, but seems unlikely to change, until the Lord’s eldest son dies with his own only son in a boating accident. Thanks to primogeniture inheritance laws, the Lord’s new heir is a man he’s never set eyes on before; the only offspring of a marriage between the Lord’s second eldest son and a weaver’s daughter, which resulted in the Lord cutting off any contact. Got all that so far? So, the Lord demands that his new heir come to the estate, and with the idea of trying to whip this lower-class man into a gentleman also summons two of his other grandsons. This sets the stage for all sorts of farcical adventures, and I quite enjoyed the ride.

Anthea, the granddaughter is much what I’ve come to expect from a Heyer heroine. She knows her own mind and isn’t afraid to say so, Hugo, the new heir, is quite the hero…a former Major in the army, 6’4″ in his stocking feet, and known to break out into Yorkshire brogue on occasion. The supporting cast is amusing as well; Anthea’s cousins, Victor and Claude, are London gentlemen. The former is a vitriolic Corinthian who resents Hugo’s existence, since it cuts off his own chance to inherit. The latter is a wannabe dandy, and definitely a marvelous comic relief character! Their mother is a smoothly unruffled, majestic aristocrat, who mainly chooses to ignore everything going on as beneath her notice. She was my favourite of the minor characters.

I’m finding it difficult to review this, since I don’t think there’s much else to say! It’s a strong Heyer novel, and it lived up to all of my expectations. It hasn’t displaced the reign of my favourite (Friday’s Child) or even my second-favourite (The Talisman Ring), but it’s definitely worth a read. If you’re craving a light, romantic comedy with strong writing and historical authenticity, definitely give Heyer a try! I bet, like me, you’ll find yourself reaching for her in the future whenever you need a smile.

I will add, though, that I find the comparisons to Austen unwarranted, and troublesome to both parties. Heyer’s novels are not a substitute for an Austen lover who’s come to the end of her canon, and if you go in expecting her to be similar, I think you’ll be disappointed. But if you go in expecting a frothy meringue of a good time*, Heyer can deliver that!

Do you have an author you turn to when you need a break from heavier reading?


Footnote One: I’ve heard that some of her historical novels are much more serious. Since my own Heyer reading has been confined to her Regency romances, I can’t speak to that. So take my opinion with a grain of salt. :)<

52 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2010 6:16 am

    Frothy meringue of a good time – I like that! But why the asterisk? Is it someone else’s quote?

    • March 9, 2010 9:47 pm

      No-I’ve started footnoting my posts, lol, so the asterick linked to the footnote. ;)

  2. March 8, 2010 6:37 am

    I’m reading one of her historical novels for the tour, Royal Escape. I suppose it is serious in that Charles Stewart is fleeing for his life, but the way in which it is written is “light.” I have no idea if that makes any sense at all!

  3. emilyborges permalink
    March 8, 2010 7:01 am

    “sometimes, as a reader I just need a break. I want a story I can float along with, in which the good end happily and the bad unhappily, and there’s no deeper meaning than that” English is not my first language but this is exactly how I feel about all romance/chick lit lit. Love your blog.

  4. March 8, 2010 7:07 am

    I’d never read a Georgette Heyer book before The Grand Sophy for the Classics Circuit, but I think she’s going to quickly become a comfort author of mine too. :)

  5. March 8, 2010 8:26 am

    Yay! I’m glad you liked this one as I was worried :-) I really like Hugo and how he works to the stereotype but also against it. And while I dislike the name Anthea, I suppose it was “period.” And Heyer is definitely my go-to light, frothy and fun read. I am reading her now, but it’s a more contemporary mystery called Penhallow which isn’t very popular. But hopefully it’s witty and funny, anyway!

    • March 9, 2010 9:48 pm

      I read one of her Golden Age mysteries last year. :)

  6. March 8, 2010 8:58 am

    Great post, Eva! I try to stretch myself as a reader, but every so often I want something lighter and fun, something I am pretty much guaranteed to enjoy. I’ve never read Heyer before, but it sounds like maybe I should give her a try!

    Funny you should mention Austen, because she is often one of my “go to” authors for when I need something that will bring a smile to my face. I also like to read Jasper Fforde, JK Rowling, and Agatha Christie when I want something diverting and not overly taxing!

    • March 9, 2010 9:50 pm

      Austen is my go-to author for any time I need a lift. :) But I think she’s in a total different class from Heyer, lol.

  7. March 8, 2010 10:29 am

    I see someone has already commented on this sentence, but I like it too: “sometimes, as a reader I just need a break. I want a story I can float along with, in which the good end happily and the bad unhappily, and there’s no deeper meaning than that”

    I read my first Heyer for the circuit and am still composing my thoughts but mine was definitely one of those kind of reads, and it suited my mood at the time.

    • March 9, 2010 9:52 pm

      Thanks Laura! Looking forward to seeing your review. :)

  8. March 8, 2010 10:55 am

    I have never read her and feel as though I should be banned to my room until I do. Her books sound wonderful!

    • March 9, 2010 9:52 pm

      lol-I hope you enjoy her when you try her! I don’t think she’s for everyone though. :)

  9. March 8, 2010 12:01 pm

    Her historical novels are anything but frothy. In fact, they can be a slog through a thick mud of over-research and period slang. I really liked one, tolerated another and couldn’t get past the first couple chapters of another. But the mysteries and “romances” are definitely froth! I’m glad to discover her in the past year or so (even though her romances are no Jane Austen and her mysteries are no Agatha Christie!).

    • March 9, 2010 9:59 pm

      Eek-well that’s not good! I agree-she’s not in the same league as Austen or Christie.

  10. March 8, 2010 12:02 pm

    I have been a HUGE fan of Heyer since I first read my mum’s old copy of Beauvallet when I was a teen. Then I started collecting them from second-hand bookshops – it wasn’t till around 2000 that they started reprinting them so I have some very lovely old editions and some rather ugly ones! I have I think every single one (but not her detective novels).

    I used to re-read them constantly but I haven’t since I finished uni and moved overseas. I set myself a goal this year of re-reading them all, but I haven’t even started! This one doesn’t stick in my head much, I think I only read it once, but I’m glad to hear you like her books as well. For me, her sense of humour and the silly banter makes them great comfort reads, but I also like her more serious ones like Simon the Coldheart and William the Conquerer. (I think that’s the title anyway!)

    I agree with you about Austen. Frankly, I’ve never compared the two. Plenty of contemporary authors have written Regency Romances, but no one’s really done as good a job as Heyer. I learned so much about the customs and dress styles etc. She had a great eye for detail!

    (sorry, another long-winded comment!)

    • March 9, 2010 9:59 pm

      Beauvallet was my first Heyer! :) I haven’t read any other regency romances, so I can’t compare, but Heyer does a good job.

  11. March 8, 2010 12:10 pm

    This one is in my TBR pile somewhere.

    • March 9, 2010 10:00 pm

      lol! I say that about way too many books. ;)

  12. March 8, 2010 12:30 pm

    I like Georgette Heyer’s historical novels, too. They really are the perfect ones to turn to when you want to take a break from heavier stuff. But my number one “escape from reality or heavier reading” books have to be the Amelia Peabody mysteries by Elizabeth Peters! :)


    • March 9, 2010 10:00 pm

      You know, I tried Crocodile on the Sandbank and just didn’t like it all that much…Amelia drove me crazy! But a couple book bloggers have mentioned her being a favourite, so maybe I was just in an off mood and should give the second one a go. :)

  13. March 8, 2010 12:45 pm

    I like to add a bit of YA into the mix with heavier reading, although I don’t think my heavy reading is as heavy as yours. I have yet to read Georgette Heyer but I do hope to soon. I shall go to Aarti for recommendations.

    • March 9, 2010 10:01 pm

      I can see using YA to mix things up! Most of my fave YA authors write on the heavier side, lol. But I do LOVE Melissa Marr!

  14. March 8, 2010 3:14 pm

    I’ve been interested to read a few of the Heyer Circuit posts, as I’ve never read her and hadn’t really thought of her as an author worth looking into until recently (hope that doesn’t sound too snobbish!). I definitely understand the need for “break” reading, though, and this sounds enjoyable – maybe I’ll search her out one of these days. [My partner & I tend to listen to Harry Potter audiobooks when in need of a brain-break. ;-)]

    • March 9, 2010 10:02 pm

      No, it doesn’t sound too snobbish. :) Definitely give her a go…I can’t guarantee you’ll like her (I’m not a Harry Potter fan myself), but if you do, you’ll have a huge backlist to look forward to. :)

  15. March 8, 2010 6:02 pm

    Heyer books are hard to review, aren’t they? Even the ones you love the most. She is the perfect easy, comfort reading – so dependable every time. Despite my love of Heyer, I haven’t actually read The Unknown Ajax but it’s wonderful to know that I have another delight in store for me (much like your second favourite Heyer, The Talisman Ring, which I also haven’t read). In fact, as real life is getting a little overwhelming right now, perhaps it’s time to track down a copy…I could do with a perfect Heyer hero right now – though when could you not, really?

  16. March 8, 2010 6:33 pm

    Love your review! I’ve been meaning to try to read something by Heyer for a while now, and this one sounds great! Sometimes a light, predictable but entertaining read is exactly what you need ;)

  17. March 8, 2010 6:36 pm

    I agree that Heyer should not be compared to Austen at all. To do so is grossly misleading. I am still undecided about Heyer herself, although I do see your point that she tends to cleanse the palate as is a good break from something more weighty. Still…I wasn’t overly impressed with my first foray into Heyer’s work. You have convinced me that I should try another one of her books to make sure that I just picked one that did not showcase her talent the best. Thanks!

    • March 9, 2010 11:09 pm

      I don’t think she’s everyone’s cup of tea…I read her with tongue firmly in cheek, otherwise she’d drive me crazy! So it’ll be interesting to see what you think of your second Heyer read. :)

  18. March 8, 2010 6:55 pm

    I enjoyed your review even though I had the opposite experience with Heyer. I’m glad you mentioned Friday’s Child being your favorite. That’s what I read for the Classics Circuit and it was not my cup of tea, so that tells me I’m probably better off not giving her a second chance. I definitely get needing a break now and then with a good chick lit/romance book, but she just didn’t do that for me.

    • March 9, 2010 11:10 pm

      As I just said to Michelle, I don’t think she’s for everyone! I definitely think she’s spoofing most of the time, so if that isn’t someone’s humour style, it’s not going to work. I haven’t been impressed by any other chick lit/romance author I’ve ever read, so maybe we just have different tastes. :)

    • Jackie Perrins permalink
      May 3, 2011 12:31 am

      If Friday’s child was not one of your favourites, all the more reason to try The Unknown Ajax, The Toll Gate, Cotillion, The Grand Sophy, Frederica or Venetia. These are far more interesting and less “soppy” than Friday’s Child, which I like, but would not rate one of her best.

  19. March 8, 2010 11:56 pm

    Friday’s Child is my favorite Heyer Regency romance so far with the Grand Sophy a close second.

    I agree about the erroneous comparisons to Austen. They are like two dfferent genre’s set in the same era. Heyer’s humor is ribald and outrageous. Austen’s ironic and reproving. I admire and enjoy them both and do not think they are similar. I recommend Heyer for the same reasons you stated: a light, fun and highly entertaining read. Escapism.

    I love your analogy of Heyer being like a rich decadent desert that you would get sick of if you ate it too frequentlty. In my mind Austen is a whipped parfait that looks light and frothy, but is full of dense creme. There I go comparing them. There similarity lies in their underlying density!

    Thanks for the great review. I so enjoy reading your blog and admire your writing.

    • March 9, 2010 11:11 pm

      It sounds like I’ll have to read Grand Sophy!

      I like how you differentiate Austen and Heyer-so true! And thank you for the compliment. :)

  20. March 9, 2010 12:20 am

    Rebecca Shaw and Joanna Trollope. Very nice light reading

    • March 9, 2010 11:11 pm

      I haven’t read either of those! Are they contemporary authors?

  21. March 9, 2010 2:16 am

    I do like a light read, probably far more often than you do, and I always keep Heyer in mind for that! I’m looking forward to reading my choice for this tour.

  22. March 9, 2010 4:48 am

    How can I have still not read any Heyer with so many of you wonderful bloggers and book recommenders so often raving about her? It must be dealt with, its shameful.

    • March 9, 2010 11:11 pm

      lol! I wonder what you’ll make of her. :)

  23. March 9, 2010 7:23 pm

    The Heyer I’m just about to give up on is not a light read; it’s one of her historical fiction novels (my post will be this Saturday ;-) ). But, based on your review and some others throughout this month’s circuit, I’ll give her another try. “The Unknown Ajax” looks like one I may want to read.

    • March 9, 2010 11:12 pm

      Aww-that’s too bad. :( I hope her regency books work better for you!

  24. March 10, 2010 10:43 am

    I haven’t read this Heyer, but I wanted to let you know that I agree with you on all points related to Heyer, why we read her and her relationship (or lack thereof) with Austen. She is comfort food, she is fun, has style, makes me smile, and has a niche. I find it essential to have some Heyer’s at the ready when I need a break.

    Great post.

  25. April 5, 2010 8:57 am

    For a long time my “break” author was Alexander McCall-Smith. But I have so many new authors still to try it’s been a while since I’ve reread No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency! Heyer was a light fun read for me, but not a favorite. I wonder if I went in to it with less expectations again I’d like it more?

  26. Patty permalink
    February 6, 2011 7:05 pm

    Men jealous over boots(hessians) that outshine all others; lilac-colored coats for men; and a romantic hero willing to promise the moon to his standoffish female cousin have me coming back for more. Admittedly, I listened to The Unknown Ajax read by Daniel Philpott while driving to work all the while thinking, when is this story going to get into gear. But I have since listened to it 3 times and each time I chuckle and am delighted by her characters. There is something appealing about the romance between Hugo and Anthea. Maybe it’s his steadfastness. I don’t know if I would have had the patience to read the book but I certainly appreciated the audible version:)

  27. February 21, 2012 10:40 am

    I love Georgette Heyer’s novels. Their are indeed a light read and absolutely comfort food, but so well done! I loved Grand Sophy and The Corinthian. But my favorite was The Civil Contract which is less frothy and has a more realistic bent than the others. But for a fun read I think the Unknown Ajax is my favorite. Though the characters are stereotypical they each bring a unique color to the story. And I think some of the dialogue and they way Anthea and Hugo’s romance progresses is quite well done. I read it as an audio book and that was a delightful.


  1. Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, by Jennifer Kloester – A Review « Austenprose

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