This review contains some spoilers I know from reading Jennifer Kloesters 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. 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 Julias, marries Adam knowing that he continues to love Julia. And Heyers conclusion is that its 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. As someone who has been happily married to the same person for almost thirty-five years, it's now a message that rings true.** Thats not to say that theres anything wrong with a bit of blinding, heart-stopping passion in a marriage. And this is why theres an undertone of sadness in the final paragraphs of the novel, as Jenny, while assured of Adams 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. 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. Shes 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. 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.
But Julia's father has the same idea as Adam's manager: if he can't marry for love, he should save his land and home and marry someone with money. Adam is trying his best to be kind to Jenny, but he resents her father's showering them with ostentatious gifts, and he's still in love with Julia, who never misses an opportunity to let him know that she's also still painfully in love with him. Jenny (who's actually been in love with Adam ever since she met him through Julia) is trying to make the best of their marriage as well, but it's difficult when you're rather shy and unattractive and your husband is in love with your beautiful, vivacious best friend ... A Civil Contract was the April 2016 monthly read for the Georgette Heyer group, and we've had some rousing discussions in the discussion threads about whether Adam made the best choice, whether Jenny was a terrible person for marrying the man her best friend Julia was in love with (but forbidden to marry), and whether this is even a good book.
Although marriages of convenience are standard regency romance fare, Heyer takes this and stands it on its head by keeping the hero and heroine from ever (yes, EVER) discovering wild, heart-stopping *lurve*. ACC isn't for the HEA obsessed, but for those readers who like a little more realism added to their regency reading romps. If you're thinking of reading Heyer for this first time, don't pick up A Civil Contract, as it really doesn't fit her general mold.
Imagine pitching it as a rom com/costume drama script to a Hollywood studio executive: Studio Executive (EXEC): So what do we have here? Pride and Prejudice was pretty good, and that little Anne Hathaway movie did OK. SW: The hero --- Adam Lynton --- has to marry the heroine, Jenny, because otherwise he would go bankrupt. You see, the guys dad, the late Viscount Lynton, left the ancestral estate so deeply in debt that the only way to save it is for Adam to marry rich. EXEC: So this Adam guy --- he just ran with it? SW: Actually, shes kinda short and plump --- a little squab figure is the word thats used to describe her in the novel. EXEC: (grumbles) Hows that gonna sell the movie? SW: But shes a sensible girl, and pretty shrewd too. SW: Before he was compelled to marry Jenny, Adam dated Julia ---the beautiful daughter of Lord Oversley, another rich nob --- and Jennys best friend from school. But the two still have the hots for each other, even though Adam is now kind of married. EXEC: So thats what the audience has to sit through the movie? Despite all this, Heyer managed to tell an enjoyable, even occasionally amusing story about the coming together of basically decent people who try to do their best under tawdry circumstances. The one interesting thing about Jenny for me is her true motivation in accepting the marriage of convenience. She rationalizes her actions as making the best of a bad situation (The choice is not between you, Julia, and me, but between me and ruin!), but it doesnt ring true to me (Come on Jenny, admit it, youve got the hots for the guy since like, forever --- and you snatched him up when theres opportunity.
Rather than lose the estate (Fontley)Adam gives up the girl he loves & marries Jenny - daughter of a Cit. While Jenny always loved Adam, Adam (view spoiler)comes to love Jenny and appreciates he is better with a practical wife who will create a comfortable home, than Julia who is in modern terms, a bit of a drama queen!
Adam, on the other hand, is deeply infatuated with the sylph-like Julia Oversley, this year's most popular and sought after debutante. He realizes that he can't marry Julia, given that once Fontley is sold he will quite literally not even have a pot to pee in, but in the interests of love, he is going to sacrifice himself on the altar of bachelorhood. Chawleigh has no illusions about Adam being likely to fall in love with his daughter, the ordinary Jenny, but that's all right with him. And youll tell me what you wish me to do or if I do something you dont like wont you?" And so it begins. She is obviously in love with Adam - she had been friendly with Julia and had met him while he danced attendance on her much prettier friend. Speaking to Julia as she makes the claim that it is Jenny who has gained the most as a result of the marriage, Adam says: "He did not answer for a moment, and then he said gently: I owe Jenny a great deal, you know. I had nothing to give her but a title and I wonder sometimes if she sets any more store by that than you would." Finally, charmingly, convincingly, Adam falls in love with "his Jenny," not in the infatuated way that a callow youth loves a lovely girl, but with gentle and real commitment: "Yet, after all, Jenny thought that she had been granted more than she had hoped for when she had married him. Well, you cant have it both ways, she thought, and I couldnt live in alt all the time, so I daresay Im better off as things are." And so, Heyer convinces me that, in the end, they will be a truly happy couple. Adam will fondly remember his brief but passionate love for Julia. But he will always come home to Jenny, because she, as it turns out, is the love of his life.
This is one time I wish the heroine could have gotten a fabulous lover who would make her feel as loved and adored as Adam initially felt for Julia. The writing itself is very good, but every time I read this novel I always wish Ms. Heyer had put in some illuminating moment for Adam to realize what a great treasure he found in Jenny and would have him tell her how much he adored her.
It's one of the most hotly debated about Heyer stories because it is hate and loved in equal turns. Personally, I think it is one of her best and delves deep into the unromantic side of romance, unrequited love, secret love, friendship, class differences, and marriages of convenience all in one. Heyer really put in the time with how a marriage of convenience, particularly with partners from a different class, would work out for them and their families. It leaves things at a point where it is easy to see the direction for the future depending on how the reader understood the vague subtleties. This one is a not so obvious gem and great if the reader is looking for marriage of convenience and class difference tropes all in one.
Beginning in 1932, Heyer released one romance novel and one thriller each year. Heyer remains a popular and much-loved author, known for essentially establishing the historical romance genre and its subgenre Regency romance.