Originally published 1961
When I first discovered Georgette Heyer in my teens, and started devouring her books wholesale, this was never one of my favourites. The plot – how two people enter into a marriage of convenience and how that works out – is low-key and almost sad, and it’s certainly more reflective and much more tied into real events than many of her Regency-set novels. Nothing really much happens: there are no high jinks with smugglers, or similar adventures. The hero and heroine are quiet, self-contained people – not at all demonstrative – and this is in great contrast to the majority of Heyer’s books, where there is high spirits and a sense conveyed that nothing can really go wrong. So this book is much more appealing to me now, as an adult, than back in the 1980s, as a teenager.
There’s an excellent plot summary on Wikipedia, though beware spoilers. In short, Adam Deveril is forced to sell out of the Army in 1813 upon the death of his father, Viscount Lynton, and discovers that he has been left with a pile of debt. In order to honourably settle with his creditors, and provide for his two younger sisters, Adam thinks he must sell Fontley, the estate where he and his family grew up, return to the Army, and live off his pay. Rather than proceed to these extremes, Lord Oversley (friend of the family and father of Julia, with whom Adam has been in love for some time, but whose own circumstances are such that neither can think of marrying each other) suggests that Adam enter into a marriage of convenience with Jenny, daughter of a rich City man, Jonathan Chawleigh. While reluctant, Adam is brought round to the idea, despite the fact that Jenny is not very tall, plain, and painfully shy; and her father is loud, brash, and prone to talking about how much money he’s spent on things. Of course, Julia hates the idea, too: while she’s also in love with Adam, she feels as if her friend, Jenny, has betrayed her by agreeing to the marriage.
Adam and Jenny gradually negotiate married life, despite their different outlooks and upbringings, and their families and friends. It’s quite a different marriage of convenience compared to Horatia and Rule’s in A Convenient Marriage, for example, which is a far more traditional romance. There is some humour – particularly in the characters of Adam’s mother (a snob who delights in feeling herself ill-used by the world), younger sister Lydia, who is charming and outspoken and open-minded enough to enjoy Mr Chawleigh’s company – although it’s not as evident as usual. Heyer doesn’t make anyone a complete villain: despite Chawleigh’s vulgarity and over-bearing nature, he’s well-meaning, loving, and genuinely passionate about his interests – Adam contrasts his love for his china compared with the knowledge Jenny has, but no love for. Likewise, Adam is no shining example of heroism, though he comes to appreciate his father-in-law, and even realises that the quiet affection he feels for Jenny is actually more comfortable than the young man’s passion for the beautiful – but spoiled and selfish – Julia. It’s also much more psychologically nuanced than many of Heyer’s other works – such as that Adam doesn’t fall in love with Jenny, or when Lord Oversley, for example, specifically informs Adam that he’s sure that Lynton died accidentally (of a broken neck in a hunting accident), and certainly did not kill himself purposely, something that I can’t imagine being mentioned in Bath Tangle, for example.
The setting is very much tied into real events. Adam’s reluctance to sell out, for example, at a time when the Peninsular War was still ongoing and Napoleon seen as still a menace to the security of Europe, is important, since it also informs his keeping track of events. In 1815, too, towards the end of the novel, the events of Waterloo provide a means of Adam gaining some financial independence of Mr Chawleigh. Likewise, there’s a lot in the book about the agricultural reforms of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, since Adam is trying to make Fontley more profitable, and real people, such as Mr Coke of Holkham, are referred to, as well as other current events such as the visit of the Grand Duchess and the marital troubles of the Prince of Wales. Unlike The Quiet Gentleman, which I also re-read recently, which could almost have been set at any time in the late 18th or early 19th centuries, A Civil Contract depends for its plot on being set in this moment of history – it also ties in nicely with Heyer’s An Infamous Army, which takes Waterloo as its primary subject (and is a romance only in a minor way).
I suspect that if you don’t like romances in the normal run of things, you might like A Civil Contract; I am very fond of its quiet charm and its realistic characters and plot.
Note: If you’re interested in Heyer’s novels, I suggest you look on the Tor.com website where Mari Ness did a read-along a couple of years ago, and which discusses the books in some depth.