REVIEW: A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer
Sourcebooks is having a sale on Georgette Heyer ebooks this week (August 14-20), so I thought it would be a good time for another Heyer review. I noticed that A Civil Contract is one of the books on sale, and I’ve been wanting to write about it. Heyer fans really split on this book, as you can see in the comment thread to my review of Sprig Muslin. Ros said that it was a favorite of hers because “the love it depicts is more romantic than any whirlwind adventure. Real love is so often seen in the domestic and the mundane.” GrowlyCub, on the other hand, can’t get past “some of the truly unforgivable things Adam thinks and does … I don’t believe that Adam loves Jenny and all the doing is on her part, none of it on his.” I know where Growly is coming from, but I side with Ros on this, and I’ll try to show you why.
Captain Adam Deveril is forced to leave his regiment during the Spanish campaign because his father dies unexpectedly and Adam succeeds to the Viscountcy. The only surviving son, he has responsibility for his widowed mother, his two unmarried sisters, and the tenants and dependents of the family estate of Fontley Priory. Adam never wanted the title, but after his elder brother died in battle he knew it was inevitable. When he arrives home, he discovers that things are even worse than he thought. The estate is mortgaged to the hilt and the only way to save it is to marry money. Adam is in love with his beautiful, willful childhood neighbor and friend, Julia, but their hopes for marriage are doomed when Adam resolves to meet his obligations and provide secure futures for his family and everyone who depends on Fontley.
He’s short on time to fix the mess his father left behind, so Julia’s father introduces him to Jonathan Chawleigh, a wealthy merchant with a daughter of marriageable age. Chawleigh really wants an Earl or higher, but Jenny isn’t beautiful, so he settles for a mere Viscount. Chawleigh settles the estate’s pressing debts and mortgages in return for Adam’s promise that he will be a good husband and welcome Jenny into aristocratic society. For her part, Jenny has mixed feelings about entering that world, but she loves her father and she has a long-standing crush on Adam, whom she has known through her schoolfriend, Julia. Jenny has no expectations of more than civility and kindness from Adam, given his feelings for Julia, but she knows he can’t marry Julia and needs to marry money. So they are wed, with Adam knowing little about Jenny (she is shy and tongue-tied in his presence) and Jenny determined to give him a comfortable life.
More than perhaps any of Heyer’s novels, class issues are at the center of this story. The characters embody different class positions and attitudes, and the romance is shaped by class-driven demands and desires. Heyer depicts Adam as an essentially kind person who is uncomfortable with his snobbery toward the Chawleighs and fights it. Jenny, whose father has spared no expense in raising her as a lady, is well aware of how she and her father are perceived by Adam and his family:
“Whether you will like the fens in winter-time is another matter. Well, if you don’t, you must tell me so, or if you are bored to tears, which I’m afraid you may be. When is this absurd Grand Spectacle to take place?”
“On August 1st.”
“August? My dear girl, we shall find ourselves in a hurly-burly of—”
“Cits?” she suggested, as he broke off abruptly.
A slight flush betrayed him, but he made a quick recover. “Nothing so respectable! Jackstraws and counter-coxcombs! Does your father know of this project?”
Her eyes narrowed in a sudden smile. “That was a masterstroke!” she said disconcertingly. “Lord, do you think I don’t know Cits was on the tip of your tongue? Yes, Papa knows, and sees no objection. But if you don’t care for Lydia to go—”
The secondary characters reflect different attitudes toward class and status. Adam’s mother is horrified by Mr. Chawleigh’s vulgarity, but his sister
Charlotte Lydia takes to him after her initial dislike of the marriage:
Mr Chawleigh, observing the merry look in Lydia’s eye, took an instant fancy to her, and bore down on her. She was not as beautiful as her sister, but what he called a big, handsome girl, with no nonsense about her. By way of breaking the ice he told her that he was downright ashamed of himself for having provided no smart beaux for her entertainment. “There’s only my Lord Brough to be split between you and Lizzie Tiverton, and that’s what I call a shabby way of doing things. Not but what there won’t be much splitting done, if his lordship’s got as much sense as I think he has!”
Lydia, who partook far more of her father’s robust character than her brother and sister, was not at all offended by this speech. No one like Mr Chawleigh had previously come in her way, but by the time the assembled guests sat down to the Gargantuan meal provided for them he and she were in a fair way to becoming fast friends; and several times her mother was pained to hear her spontaneous, schoolgirl’s laugh break from her. Lady Lynton, conducting herself throughout with impeccable, if chilly, civility, later took Lydia to task for laughing at Mr Chawleigh, and read her a lecture on the want of breeding she had shown in wounding his sensibilities.
But Mr Chawleigh’s sensibilities were not even grazed. His shrewd eyes twinkled at Lydia, and he presently told Lady Lynton that he didn’t know when he had taken more of a liking to a girl.
Similarly, Adam’s influential aunt, Lady Nassington, realizes the necessity of having Jenny accepted into the ton, and she sets about “turning her out like a woman of quality.”
In Jonathan Chawleigh, Heyer creates one of her most nuanced middle-class characters. Chawleigh is unabashedly vulgar and ambitious, but his ambitions are for his daughter. Heyer makes us feel how deeply Chawleigh would enjoy the aristocratic life he is buying for Jenny, but he never seeks it for himself. And he knows full well how his son-in-law regards him and his tastes. When he acquires a Chinese bowl that Adam admires, Chawleigh offers it to him:
“Doing you a favour to take such a treasure from you? My dear Mr Chawleigh, I could not!”
“Now don’t say that!” begged Mr Chawleigh. “You take it, and I’ll know I’ve hit on something which you do like, and that’ll give me more pleasure than what putting it into one of my cabinets would, for it’s something I was thinking I never would do. You don’t drive the curricle I had built, for you, nor—”
His cheeks burning, Adam interrupted: “I—I found my father’s curricle, almost new—! It seemed a pity—and I had a fancy to—”
“Ay, well, no need to colour up! Your taste don’t in general jump with mine. Lord, did you think I hadn’t twigged that? No, no, a Jack Pudding I may be, but no one’s ever called Jonathan Chawleigh a bleater!”
“Certainly I have not!” Adam said, trying to hide his discomfiture. “As for my not liking what you’ve given me, sir, ask Jenny if I wasn’t delighted with the shaving-stand you placed in my room!”
“That’s nothing! You take this bowl, my lord, and it will be something.”
The small and large tussles between Chawleigh and the Viscount are not always enjoyable to read, but over the course of the book they reach an understanding and respect for each other that is hard-earned but sincere. For me, their relationship is almost the best part of the book. But I have to say “almost,” because the best part is the character of Jenny. Jenny is unabashedly plain, middle-class, and unromantic. But the more I reread A Civil Contract, the more I like her. Heyer introduces her heroine utterly unsympathetically, and just in case she hasn’t conveyed her message adequately, she has Adam compare Jenny to Julia:
Uncharitable persons had been known to describe hers as a little squab figure. Adam was not a tall man, but her head only just topped his shoulder. There was a suggestion of squareness about her; she was already plump, and would probably become stout in later life. She was certainly not a beauty, but there was nothing in the least objectionable in her countenance. Her eyes were not large, but they were of a clear gray, well-opened (except when she was amused, when they narrowed to twinkling slits), and holding a look of grave reflection; her hair, elaborately crimped and curled, was mouse-coloured; she had a small, determined month, a button of a nose, and a complexion which would have been good could she but have overcome an unhappy tendency to blush fierily whenever she was embarrassed.
She was as unlike Miss Oversley as she could be. There was no brilliance in her eyes, no allure in her smile, no music in her flat-toned voice, and not the smallest suggestion of the ethereal either in her person or in her bearing. Where Julia seemed to float, she trod with a firm, brisk step; where Julia could be enchantingly arch she was invariably matter-of-fact. She enjoyed a joke, but did not always perceive that one had been made; and she looked as though she had more sense than sensibility.
No blinding flash of recognition struck Adam, but he was able to identify her with the commonplace girl whom he had too often found in Mount Street a year earlier.
Jenny becomes a bit better at styling her hair and wardrobe to be more flattering (with Aunt Nassington and Lydia’s help), but she never becomes anything more than “almost pretty.” She gives in to her father and to Adam over and over again, because she loves them. And yet, I cannot feel anything but respect for her. She knows what she’s doing, and she isn’t satisfied merely to marry Adam and bring him her dowry, she becomes his partner, most of all at his beloved Fontley, where Adam was at first afraid to see her:
She had none of the Dowager’s graciousness; she could never bring her tongue to utter the easy expressions of sympathy which would have won for her an instant popularity; but it was not long before it began to be realized that her brusque tongue concealed a far greater interest in the affairs of her lord’s people than the Dowager had ever felt. The sturdy common sense which made it easy for her to distinguish between the shiftless and the unfortunate might not win universal popularity for her, but it did win respect; she gave freely, but with discrimination; her advice was always practical; and if her blunt strictures were frequently unpalatable they left no one in any doubt that her ladyship was as shrewd as she could hold together.
I’ve now written nearly twice as many words as I usually do in a review, and I still haven’t talked about A Civil Contract as a romance. This is because the book is not “romantic” at all, in the normal way that we think about it. Adam and Jenny freely agree to their Marriage of Convenience, get to know each other with the ups and downs that process entails, and come out at the other end with a lot of respect, affection, and understanding for each other. Jenny deeply loves Adam, but Adam is still more appreciative and affectionate than anything. So how can it be satisfying to a romance reader?
For me, the satisfaction comes in my certainty that they will have a real, enduring HEA. Well, that and also the fact that Adam realizes that his beloved, beautiful Julia is basically going to turn into his mother as she ages. Now that is satisfying. But as insensitive and oblivious Adam has been to Jenny, by the end he’s stopped trying to convince himself it will be fine, because he realizes that in many ways he came out ahead.
I also think they’ll last because Adam is just not that interesting or adventurous as a person, which is a very good thing for the future of the Viscountcy. He and Jenny will bring the estate back into good health, treat their servants and tenants well, and raise children who will be a credit to them. Adam won’t stray because he’s more interested in agriculture and husbandry than he is in women and gambling and horses (unlike his father), and also because he is a very decent person. For her part, Jenny loves rural life far more than city life. It’s not an exciting ending. But it’s the life they want, and neither could have achieved it without the other. And by the end of the novel, even Adam has figured that out. We see it in his exchange with Julia:
“Oh, how much you have changed!” she exclaimed bitterly. “You had nobler ambitions once!”
“Well, it was certainly my ambition to command the Regiment one day,” he admitted, “but I don’t think I was ever as romantic as you believed me to be. Perhaps we never had time to learn to know each other very well, Julia.”
She did not answer. Footsteps were approaching, and a moment later the door opened, and Jenny came in, a letter in her hand. She said cheerfully: “I don’t mean to interrupt you, but one of Lambert’s servants has this instant ridden over, and you’ll want to know the news, Adam. Charlotte was safely delivered at eight o’clock this morning, and it’s a boy! Isn’t that capital? Hell be able to play with Giles! Lambert says—” She stopped, meeting Adam’s eyes, which were brimful of laughter, gave a gasp, and said unsteadily: “Now, Adam, for goodness’ sake—!” She saw that Julia was looking blankly from her to Adam, and said apologetically: “I beg pardon! It’s just a silly joke—not worth repeating!”
When a man is sharing inside jokes with his wife while the Great Lost Love of His Life stands there, befuddled, you know he’s over her.
There is so much more in the novel. I’ve only touched on the wonderful secondary characters, both above and below-stairs. The Battle of Waterloo plays a key role in the plot, and there is a very nice secondary romance for Lydia. I could also go on about how I think the conflict and eventual harmony between the aristocrats and the merchants reflects Heyer’s acknowledgement that the Cits she always snarked on were integral to the successful development of Britain and her empire. But I’ll stop and just tell you to go buy the book and read it. Grade: A-