A Civil Contract

Most historical romances end in a wedding or a proposal of marriage, but Georgette Heyer’s A Civil Contract begins with the proposal. Adam Deveril has recently inherited his family’s estate, but Adam’s father, Lord Lynton, had frittered away the fortune required to maintain the estate, and Adam faces the difficult possibility of having to sell not just the family’s London house but also his beloved country estate, Fontley. So the proposal that opens the novel is for Adam to enter into a marriage that will provide him the money he needs to rescue his home and his family from poverty; in exchange, he will provide his new bride with the status that comes with being married to a viscount.

Adam’s bride, Jenny Chawleigh, is actually the good friend of Adam’s former fiancée, Julia. Jenny is quiet and plain, but her father, a wealthy businessman, is determined to see his daughter rise in society. Jenny’s marriage to Adam is an arrangement meant to give both partners something they cannot get on their own. But where does love enter in? Can love grow in such an arrangement? Or will Adam continue to pine for his beloved Julia? And will Jenny find her place or continue to live in the shadows?

Teresa: This is the first Heyer I’ve ever read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I especially loved Jenny her for her practicality and her determination to make a bad situation work. I liked her almost from the beginning, but she totally won me over in how she dealt with the melodramatic Julia. She just took the situation in hand, decided what had to be done for the benefit of them both, and did it—and made Julia go along with it. What strength and good sense she had!

Jenny: I have to admit, I am apparently more of a literary snob than I thought I was. Even though I have an absolute principle that people should read whatever gives them pleasure, and I never (or, okay, seldom) judge those preferences, I had to call all over town to find this book, and each time I asked for a Georgette Heyer book, I felt like explaining, “It’s for my blog! I have to read it!” But, like the other Heyer book I read, I fell in love with it. The writing was robust and wryly funny, the main characters were good-hearted without being angelic, and the plot was engaging.

The main thing that interested me about this novel is that it was… well, not quite anti-romantic, but close to it. A marriage not undertaken for love, but for money, where the couple doesn’t hate each other but is barely acquainted, and where one partner was previously deeply attached, has little chance of being swept off its feet into traditional romance territory. And, in fact, it isn’t. I loved that about this book.

Teresa: Yes, this is far from being a traditional romance. In fact, I understand that Heyer fans are divided about this book. Some consider it her best, and others don’t like it at all. But, in the end, I found it deeply romantic. In so many romances, I’m unconvinced that the couple will be happy together. All we see are their intense feelings, but intense feelings aren’t necessarily enough to sustain a deep relationship. Here, we really get to see that Adam and Jenny have similar temperaments and a loyalty that grows over time. Their marriage of convenience is a marriage that will last.

I was particularly interested in the almost certainly deliberate parallels to Sense and Sensibility, which Jenny actually is reading at one point in the book. Julia, with her fainting spells and melodrama, is so much like Marianne, and Adam enters into a marriage for money, just as Willoughby did. And yet that marriage, which made Willoughby an object of scorn, is the marriage we end up rooting for. The difference, of course, is that Adam is no Willoughby, and he ends up marrying an Elinor of sorts.

Jenny: Yes, good spot on the Sense and Sensibility. (I also noted a reference to Byron’s brooding refusal to dance at a ball — surely the antecedent of Mr. Darcy — and some mockery of Gothic ruins. I think Heyer was having some fun!) But let’s talk about Adam for a minute. If this isn’t a romance, is Adam a hero? I began the book by liking him: he is obviously courteous, intelligent, sensible, and “has a smile of peculiar sweetness,” which would recommend him in my books even if he were a villain. As time went on, though, I continued to respect him, but liked him less. His coldness to Jenny, his refusal to let her into his life in any real way, and his continued conversations with Julia made my heart ache for his wife, and gave me a lot less sympathy for Adam than I had at the beginning. (I will say that I ended the book liking him again. But it was a narrow shave.)

Teresa: I liked Adam from the start as well, and I never really stopped liking him, although I found his behavior frustrating at times. I just saw his coldness as a response to Jenny’s reserve, because in comparison to Julia, she could also have seemed cold to him, even though as readers we know that’s not the case. And Jenny did push him and Julia into social situations. My main area of frustration had to do with how he took his feelings toward Mr. Chawleigh out on Jenny. He just assumed she approved of her father’s actions and that she would go along with all her father’s ideas; he just wouldn’t listen. But I saw a lot of that as having to do with his bruised pride at having to depend on someone else. His unmeasured knee-jerk reactions just struck me as a human response to a difficult situation. It’s not pretty, but it felt honest. Adam’s not idealized at all, but I think his good heart shone through the whole time.

I was especially impressed with Adam’s insistence that Mr. Chawleigh remain part of their lives, even though Chawleigh drove him nuts. Both Jenny and her father seemed to expect him to be barred from the house, and although Adam had some good fumes, he never went that far. And it was wonderful to see these two men come to understand each other. But that was a hard battle. Chawleigh’s personality is just so big! He’s actually the character I had the most conflicted feelings about. I loved his generosity and desire to give his daughter the best of everything, but I was maddened by his unwillingness to find out what she wanted and with his obsession with having the most expensive things, even if those things weren’t suitable or even desired.

Jenny: Actually, the part about not consulting Jenny felt realistic to me, on the part of both men. Why would Chawleigh ask his daughter what “the best” is? Why would he think she knows anything about it — or anything else, for that matter? Not only is he a man who believes he knows best on nearly every topic (though he is oddly humble in a few spots), Jenny’s a woman. That probably explains Adam’s easy ability to take Jenny for granted, too. Yes, she makes him comfortable. But that’s what wives do. We, the readers, see how hard she works, but it’s very much behind the scenes. That felt very accurate to me. It also gave the unromantic, but loving, ending the power it needed: both characters have come a long way in accepting things as they are.

All in all, I can see why pure romance or chick-lit lovers might have a divided opinion on this one, but I think this nonromantic romance was exactly the ticket for me. Will you be reading more Heyers?

Teresa: Oh, I do intend to read more Heyers. I do enjoy a romance (and even chick-lit) now and then. I don’t read a lot of it because it’s too hard to find the good stuff, but Heyer showed such skill and wit in her characterizations here that I think there’s a good chance I’d also enjoy a more traditional sort of romance from her. It’s nice to have a new-to-me author to turn to when I’m craving a good love story.


This review is part of the Classics Circuit, which has featured Georgette Heyer throughout the month of March. The next tours will feature Emile Zola and Alexandre Dumas. Sign-ups for the May/June tour, on the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, are open through April 2.

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28 Responses to A Civil Contract

  1. Deb says:

    This is one of my favorite Heyer novels; I like the realism in the reasons why the bride and groom are wed, and how they eventually come to see something worthwhile in each other beyond the obvious things each brought to the marriage.

    In addition to writing many regency romances, Heyer also wrote some mysteries in the 1930s (I must admit, they haven’t aged as well as Heyer’s romances–a read a couple last summer and they verge on unintentional camp).

    I read across all genres. If a book is well-written, I don’t care what genre it’s in. The best website for romance novels is the Smart Bitches (I’m not being crude–that’s their name). If you’re looking for recommendations for good romance novels, that’s the place to go:

    http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com/index.php

    • Teresa says:

      Deb, I enjoy books in just about any genre too, although I do get more frequent cravings for certain genres that others. And yes, I know about the Smart Bitches. I don’t read them often as romance is not one of the genres I crave most, but I do enjoy their posts!

  2. I love A Civil Contract: as you say, a lot of Heyer fans don’t like this one, but it’s one of her few Regency novels that deparates from the normal formula and shows, I think, a more mature view of romantic relationships. As much as I like Jenny, I do remain sympathetic to Adam throughout the novel. I want to smack him at various points, but I still understand his point-of-view and I think I would have found it unnatural if he had come to appreciate Jenny too quickly after their marriage.

    Mr. Chawleigh’s interior decorating scheme is always a favourite memory – in a book that deals with more serious issues, he provides wonderful levity.

    • Teresa says:

      Claire: Oh, I agree with you–if Adam hadn’t acted like he needed a smacking, it wouldn’t have been realistic.

      And Chawleigh cracked me up again and again, with his decorating, his indignance. He’s hysterical and sometimes maddening, but I couldn’t help but love him for his big heart.

      • Mahathi G says:

        I loved it!! Particularly because it isn’t a traditional romance. I really liked your review (I think mine is too long and a bit too enthusiastic) :) I have Claire to thank for this book, because I only read it after reading that it was one of her favourite Heyers.

  3. Stefanie says:

    Love the back and forth conversation about the book! Well done :)

  4. Aarti says:

    I really liked this “quiet” romance by Heyer, and your joint review of it! The only thing I would have *slightly* preferred was if Julia wasn’t such a selfish twit. It seemed very unrealistic, to me, that Adam was in love with someone so ridiculous, and I feel like Heyer did that just to make Jenny seem much better, though I didn’t think it was quite so realistic.

    • Teresa says:

      Aarti, I definitely see your point about Julia. I kept hoping her marriage would chill her out a bit, taking a Sense and Sensibility-esque turn much like Marianne’s marriage, but if anything she seemed worse after her marriage. Her earlier behavior could be chalked up to youthful melodrama, but her later behavior, not so much. Maybe Heyer thought we needed to dislike her to feel happy about a marriage for money.

  5. Jenny says:

    I would just like to register my strong support for books with heroines called Jenny. That is all.

    • Teresa says:

      You crack me up, Jenny. Alas, the only literary heroine I know of named Teresa (not Theresa or Therese or any variation that is not my name) came to a very bad end indeed. Jenny ends up much better off than Teresa Durbeyfield!

  6. gaskella says:

    I’m going to have to start reading Georgette Heyer again, I devoured all her Regency novels as a teen, but nothing since. Every time someone posts a review of one, I get an urge … must act on it.

    I very much enjoy your occasional conversational reviews – what will you discuss next?

    • Teresa says:

      Annabel, so far we’re devoting these to Classics Circuit reads (that means we can both participate in the circuit, which we love). So our next is Theresa Raquin, coming next week in fact.

  7. Katy says:

    This one sounds interesting! I read my first Heyer this month and am racking up a list of her books that I want to read next. :)

    • Teresa says:

      Katy, This was my first Heyer too, and because this is a favorite for so many people, I’m worried that the rest of her work is ruined for me. But I do plan to peruse my library shelves at some point and try a few others.

  8. Janet W says:

    What a wonderful review. I really think everyone was as they should have been, would have been. Julia just had to be the centre of attention. Save some pity for her step-daughters, poor things.

    Interesting, Adam making a killing at the end of the book by believing in the Iron Duke. Come to think of it, has there ever been a hero in a romance who didn’t act that way? I love this book in a quiet, always slightly sad way … because altho yes, they are indeed happy, it’s never quite as brilliant and bright as other Heyer couples.

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

  10. sanchiad says:

    I’ve read this Heyer three times over the years and have swung back and forth on liking it and disliking it. It’s one of her most finely drawn, but sometimes it’s too much of a contrast with her other romances. Never uncomfortable, but somewhat sobering at one level.

    • Teresa says:

      sanchiad, I can see how this wouldn’t appeal if you’re craving a really cheerful romance, although Chawleigh provides plenty of comic relief. I’ll be interested to see how it compares to Heyer’s other works for me, since this was my first of her books.

  11. Juxtabook says:

    I love Georgette Heyer and read and re-read her novels. I have read all her historical romances at least 3 times each! A Civil Contract is one of my favourites. I also particularly love Arabella, Sylvester, False Colours (with twin brothers who are a bit Marianne and Elinor like), Venetia, Frederica, The Unknown Ajax and The Nonesuch. What I like most of all is that the women in her works are so different and have either brains or an independent spirit or both! They are seem to capture very real relationships. her men are more wooden: she claimed to only have two sorts and called them Hero A and Hero B.

    I like the fact she often examines the marriages these aristocratic couples make. As well as A Civil Contract, A Convenient Marriage, Friday’s Child and April Lady deal with the post-alter scenarios, but they have very different heroines to the dependendable Jenny. Adam and Jenny’s marriage works in the end because they are both kind what ever other faults they have. It is interesting to see Heyer play with convenient marriages that have the potential to be more passionate.

    As you can see I have quite a thing about her work. I read her first in my teens but two English degrees and twenty years have not dimmed my enthusiasm. They survive!

    I love the discussion format by the way!

  12. Christy says:

    I haven’t read any Georgette Heyer though I keep seeing reviews of her books seemingly everywhere. I just didn’t know where to start, but I think this review has convinced me to make A Civil Contract my first.

    • Teresa says:

      Christy, This was a great place for me to start. My only concern now is that, because it’s a favorite for so many people, that I’ll find her other books to be a let-down.

  13. Rebecca Reid says:

    “this is far from being a traditional romance.” Maybe I need to give Heyer another chance. I felt the “traditional romance” I read was superficial and far too predictable.

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca, I wouldn’t say this was unpredictable–it’s a romance, you know it’s likely to end well. But I didn’t find it to be superficial. (It’s not super deep or anything, but it’s sufficiently complex for satisfying light reading.)

  14. Pingback: A civil contract | Susan Hated Literature

  15. Rohit Nanda says:

    An enjoyable read A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and original, this book is going in by “to read” list.

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