This review contains some spoilers
I know from reading Jennifer Kloester’s excellent biography of Georgette Heyer* that A Civil Contract was not an easy novel for Heyer to write. Before starting work on it, Heyer wrote to a friend that she wanted to write a new kind of novel that would be “neither farcical nor adventurous”. Heyer wrote that the novel would depend for its success on whether she could make the hero as charming as she believed him to be and also on whether she “could make a quiet story interesting”. (Kloester p 330).
However, completion of the novel was delayed because Heyer’s mother became ill and required care. When she went back to writing it, she wrote to her friend that the manuscript remained
much where it was – & where it ought to be is in an incinerator & would be if I hadn’t pledged myself to write it. To be honest with you, I do not want to write this book. Or any other book. I have no inspiration, no energy, no enthusiasm, & no power-of-the-pen! I sit & look at the bloody thing, & wonder what can have possessed me to embark on it.
I am very glad that Heyer overcame writer’s block and completed the novel. For while I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it if I’d read it when I first discovered Heyer’s novels at age fourteen, having read it for the first time forty years later I think it is one of her best works.
This is the story of Adam Deveril, Viscount Lynton, who fought in the Peninsular War. Returning to England after his father’s death, Adam finds that his father’s extravagant spending has reduced the family fortune to a pittance. Adam’s financial situation is so dire that if he doesn't find a way to acquire money, he will be unable to support his sister and, crucially, he will have to sell the family home. All of this means that Adam cannot marry his beloved, Julia Oversley. In order to save the family estate, Adam agrees to contract a marriage of convenience with plain and practical Jenny, daughter of the fabulously wealthy but vulgar merchant, Jonathan Chawleigh, who wants his daughter to achieve the social status that marriage into an aristocratic family will bring. Jenny, who is an old school friend of Julia’s, marries Adam knowing that he continues to love Julia. They have a child, Adam manages to win back some of his fortune through speculation and they ultimately settle down to a happy and comfortable – if not passionate –life together.
Heyer did manage to achieve something different with this novel. While it doesn't have the sparkling comedy or wit of many of her other novels, it does have other qualities. At its heart, the novel is an exploration of what makes a successful marriage. And Heyer’s conclusion is that it’s not blinding, heart-stopping passion which makes a relationship last, but friendship, kindness, tolerance, patience, a commitment to the same goals and a shared sense of humour. That’s not something I would have understood or appreciated as a teenager. As someone who has been happily married to the same person for almost thirty-five years, it's now a message that rings true.**
That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with a bit of blinding, heart-stopping passion in a marriage. And this is why there’s an undertone of sadness in the final paragraphs of the novel, as Jenny, while assured of Adam’s love for her, is nevertheless conscious that she had had an “impractical dream” of inspiring in Adam the “passionate adoration” that he had felt for Julia. However, Jenny is right in concluding that “life Sense and Sensibility in particular. Heyer establishes the link to Sense and Sensibility very early on, by describing Jenny as someone who “looked as though she had more sense than sensibility”. Shortly thereafter, Jenny says that she is reading a book which is “by the author of Sense and Sensibility”. Jenny remarks that she liked Sense and Sensibility, although Julia “thought it too humdrum”.
It’s not surprising that Julia thought Sense and Sensibility humdrum, because Julia is very much like Marianne Dashwood, in both temperament and in fate. (She eventually acquires an older suitor who knows that she loves another man). Indeed, the novel can be read as what would have happened if Willoughby had married a rich but physically unattractive woman a lot like Elinor Dashwood in temperament, while still having to see Marianne socially. For Jenny has a lot in common with Elinor: she’s sensible, competent, practical and puts other people’s needs – well, Adam’s needs, anyway – ahead of her own. She’s also a little like Fanny Price from Mansfield Park (another novel which Jenny is reported as having read), but only insofar as she is in love with a man she knows loves another woman. Adam’s character can be distinguished from that of Willoughby, though. He is not a cad and while selfish and at times insensitive, he is mostly aware of his faults and makes some effort to overcome them. Of all Adam's shortcomings the worst is probably that he doesn't realise that Jenny actually loves him, and is not just sensible and kind.
The parallels to Austen added a lot to my enjoyment of this novel. However, there’s more to it than that. Adam and Jenny are interesting characters in their own right. Jonathan Chawleigh is a masterpiece. (Heyer wrote that he “continually tried to steal the whole book, & had to be firmly pushed off the stage”. Kloester page 334). Adam’s sister Lydia is enchanting and his annoying mother and overbearing aunt are a lot of fun. The novel also benefits from its historical setting. Heyer sets the narrative at the time of the premature celebrations that followed the initial defeat of Napoleon in 1814 and the financial panic which preceded the victory at Waterloo the following year. Her research is excellent and historical detail is conveyed in an unforced manner, without resorting to the dreaded information dump.
While my fourteen-year-old self would not have appreciated this novel to the extent it deserves, my adult self appreciates it a lot. And while I rather wish I’d read it some years ago, I’m very glad that I've finally done so.
This was another enjoyable buddy read with my friend Jemidar.
*Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller
** ETA: I don't mean to imply that these factors are a substitute for love in a successful relationship. Rather, they are an important part of what constitutes love.