Today, award-winning Regency romance author, Julia Justiss, tells us about her very favorite Georgette Heyer novel, A Civil Contract. This is a very delicate love story, one which a modern reader might not fully appreciate on first reading. But once you are prepared with Julia’s insights into this romance, you should find it just as delightful as she does. So, can a plain, shy young lady find true love with a handsome viscount?
All are welcome to share their thoughts on this story, or Regencies in general, in comments to this post.
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A reader of historical fiction and non-fiction history in high school (Egyptology and World War II submarine warfare, along with the colonial history of Annapolis, where I volunteered as a tour guide,) I didn’t happen upon Regency romance until I was in college. A dorm mate and English lit major who saw me reading American romance writer Emily Loring recommended I read a British author she considered a much better writer, the creator of wonderful characters and a richly detailed Regency world. I picked up my first Georgette Heyer, and I was hooked.
As quickly as time permitted between classes and exams, I read and collected every Heyer I could find. Although Devil’s Cub and An Infamous Army are also favorites, for the poignancy of its situations and characters, my all-time favorite is A Civil Contract.
The heir to a title but a bankrupt estate is a familiar Regency trope, as is the Cit’s daughter whose money saves him. What sets this story apart is that, unlike the norm, the nobleman is not immediately in love (or lust) with the heiress; in fact, throughout most of the novel, Adam Deveril, Viscount Lynton struggles not to resent his commoner wife.
Nor does the heiress make the usual miraculous transformation, with the aid of a clever haircut and more flattering gowns, from wallflower to beauty. Jenny Chawleigh is plain, rather stout, and so shy she has great difficulty holding a conversation with the handsome man she ends up marrying. And she stays that way.
Further complicating their relationship is the fact that throughout most of the story, Adam remains in love with the beautiful Julia Oversley, the fiancée he was forced to give up when he returned from the Peninsular War and learned how drastic were the financial straits in which his father left the estate. To add insult to injury, his father-in-law Jonathan Chawleigh, a bluff-spoken Cit with neither polish nor manners, manages to continually remind him that he owes the Chawleigh fortune for salvaging his family home and the futures of his mother and sister.
Adam thinks Jenny married him to gain a title—certainly her father wanted a title for her—but the truth, which Jenny never tells him, is that she fell in love with him years earlier. A school friend of the elegant Julia, she met Adam when they visited him as he was convalescing from injuries suffered in the war. It’s a testament to how invisible she is next to her beautiful friend that Adam doesn’t even remember having met her. But when his estate needs rescuing, she’s prepared to marry a man she knows is in love with her friend because it is the only way she can help him.
With his fashionable mother deploring his choice, her husband still bewitched by his former fiancée, and a father whose unsubtle generosity irritates her husband every time he presents them with some new gift, Jenny has a difficult road. But in her quiet, practical, unsentimental way, she weathers every slight, whether it’s the Society that looks down on her common origins or the sometimes barely-concealed resentment of the man she married, always fixed on providing comfort and assistance to those she cares about. When Julia dramatically faints away at a social gathering upon meeting Adam again for the first time since his marriage, it is practical Jenny who defuses the potential scandal by tending to her old school chum. Supported by Adam’s sister, who soon becomes a friend, she quietly goes about refurbishing his run-down manor, cleaning, polishing, and even tracking down the original textile patterns with which to replace worn-out curtains and upholstery.
In the end, there is no grand, sudden light-bulb moment when Adam discovers he is actually madly in love with his shy wife. But by the time their first child is born, he has come to understand and appreciate his father-in-law, and realize that he will have a much happier life married to his quiet, caring Jenny than he would have had if he’d wed the flighty, self-absorbed Julia. It may not be love of the head-over-heels variety, but it is a love that will endure.
A typical romance this is not. But for anyone who appreciates a love story that cuts much closer to the spare bones of real life, A CIVIL CONTRACT is a classic treasure.
Julia Justiss created her first plot ideas for Nancy Drew stories in the back of her third-grade spiral. Absorbing a love of all things past while growing up near Historic Annapolis, she stumbled upon Georgette Heyer in college and has been vicariously living in the Regency ever since. The last book in her Regency romance series, Ransleigh Rogues, was published this past May. Now, Julia is hard at work on a new series which will debut in March of 2016, Hadley’s Hellions.
Connect with Julia online at:
Pinterest (great Regency fashion, objects and places!) www.pinterest.com/juliajustiss