After a stressful week I was looking for some escapism, so I settled on a book I haven’t read in years – Georgette Heyer’s A Civil Contract.
Like most of Heyer’s other Regencies, this story is not a typical romance (yes, it’s true, in my opinion she doesn’t write typical romances). A Civil Contract is far more subtle and nuanced than a straightforward falling-in-love tale. I can understand why it is not a favourite with many of Heyer’s fans; it describes a difficult relationship with complicated characters who aren’t always painted in the best of lights.
The hero is at times selfish and thoughtless, while – especially to modern readers – the heroine can seem something like a doormat. Alas, it was a fact that a woman’s happiness at that time very much depended upon keeping her husband happy.
But Heyer knew what she was doing when she wrote this – creating a portrait of a relationship that grows and matures before a reader’s eyes.
Faced with ruin, Viscount Lynton, Adam Deveril, decides to rescue the family finances in the only way he can – by marrying a wealthy heiress. He is introduced to the fabulously rich Cit, Mr Jonathan Chawleigh, who is keen that his only daughter enters the highest stratum of Society. Although in love with the beautiful Julia Oversley, Adam agrees to marry the plain and unprepossessing Jenny Chawleigh, thereby benefitting from Chawleigh’s financial support and saving his family from penury.
So, not a promising start for the marriage. The groom is in love with somebody else, and the bride – while secretly admiring her new husband – knows that he will never have the same romantic feelings for her.
But little by little, Heyer shows us how the relationship between the couple evolves. Jenny, aware that she has ‘taken’ Adam from Julia, her best friend, acts wisely in ensuring that the broken-hearted pair are not forced apart. It is through this generosity of spirit that Adam begins to see that his lost-forever first love isn’t the ideal he’d always thought, and that there might be more to the plain little woman he has married.
Jenny’s one aim in life is to ensure Adam never regrets his marriage – she does this by becoming the perfect wife and home-maker, and by making friends with Adam’s family.
As with every good story, matters don’t always go smoothly. There are misunderstandings and arguments, not just between Adam and Jenny, but Mr Chawleigh too. And what a comic creation he is – a man who loves his daughter to distraction, and doesn’t understand that his plain-speaking and ostentatious wealth are considered vulgar by his sensitive new son-in-law.
But all’s well that ends well. This isn’t a fairytale romance, but rather a realistic portrayal of a marriage. Both partners come to understand that they must abandon their unrealistic dreams of impractical infatuations and settle for a more enduring relationship based on respect, friendship… and love.
A romance novel that is not really a romance, but filled with all of Heyer’s trademark writing – wonderful characters, thoughtful dialogue, and brilliant comic episodes – not to mention Heyer’s careful insertion of actual historical events.
Read this and you won’t be disappointed.