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.