Sep 052015

Silhouettes of a man and woman in Regency dress against a background of the number 80

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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Dark-haired woman in a grey dress is seated at a desk, writing with a quill pen. A vase of flowers is in the background.

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:
Twitter @juliajustiss
Pinterest (great Regency fashion, objects and places!)

  15 Responses to “Regency Turns 80 — A Civil Contract

  1. I do like Heyer’s quiet sensible heroines.Jenny is a lot like Drusilla in THE QUIET GENTLEMAN, isn’t she? My only quibble with this book was that I was never convinced that Adam was really in love with Jenny. He was fond of her, yes, and happy with their comfortable life, but I was always hoping for more for Jenny.

    • Lillian, it is interesting you say that because that is how I remember A CIVIL CONTRACT. I remember it as slightly sad. But perhaps I must reread it because it’s been a long time since I read it and I was a lot younger then.

      • It’s quite true that Adam never has an “ah-ha” I’m in love with her moment, and Jenny does have an internal thought, after their son is born, about “will he ever love me as much as he loved her.” But the subtlety I get from Heyer is that Adam will continue to become more deeply in love with Jenny as time goes on, and that she is patient enough to wait for him. This story could have had Adam look like a jerk or an ingrate, and Heyer treads a careful path in making very real the heartbreaking road both Jenny and Adam tread as they wrestle with reality to forge a future.

  2. This is a wonderful comfort read, I’ve always loved it. Adam may not be head over heels in love with Jenny, but he definitely falls OUT of love with Julia. And the HEA leaves us hoping he will care more deeply for Jenny as time goes on, now that his eyes have been opened.

  3. Julia, This is such a beautifully written, thoughtful review. I’m going to have to re-read this. (I still have every single Heyer book since I discovered her in the 70s.)

    • Cheryl, I have all my Heyers, too. Re-read them periodically. She has such a Bill Cosby sense of humor, that deft observation of the foibles men and dogs, and writes them both so beautifully!

  4. When I first read Georgette Heyer I was in my early twenties and a college student and young mom. I was introduced to her by a friend who was getting a graduate degree in literature. It was love at first sight. I especially loved The Grand Sophy (except for the antisemitic scene) and Venitia. However, I recently re-read a few of these and at the ripe old age of 73 (and never a raging beauty) A Civil Contract is my new favorite. All the Heyers are humorous, but A Civil Contract deals more realistically with human imperfection and reationships.

    • I agree, Ruchama. The poignancy of the situation is so real. After all, there are a lot more timid girls of average looks than raving beauties in real life. Having one whose stubborn, quiet determination ends up providing the help that he really needs to the man she loves, so that he eventually begins to see that marrying her was as good for him as it was for his impoverished estate, makes me want to cheer every time I read it.

  5. This is not one of my favourite Heyer novels but I have copies of all and have read them many many times including this one. I find that once I start reading it I enjoy it more. I really feel sorry for Jenny and am so glad that Adam comes to appreciate her and even her good hearted father as I am also glad that he realises Julia would never have made him happy. Thanks for the great review.

    • You’re welcome, Glynis! I do think Heyer strikes a very fine balance in Adam. In a way most modern non-aristocrats can’t really understand, he feels the duty to his name and estate so strongly that he forces himself to turn away from the woman he loves and marry a woman for whom he feels nothing, to whom he’s not even very attracted. His resentment of the situation is so human, and so are his struggles to overcome that resentment and begin to appreciate both his plebeian father-in-law and the quiet woman he marries. I think the book would have been less poignant and less memorable if he’d executed that turn-around quickly, rather than having to struggle with himself to gradually get there.

  6. Julia, your take on it has made me think! For me, “A Civil Contract” has always been rather like Jenny: something good and worthy that one wants to like, but cannot seem to every get excited about. I’ve always thought that if, at the end, Jenny realized that her romantic love for Adam was just as unreal as Adam’s for Julia, and if both Adam and Jenny turned instead to a pragmatic view of marriage and life, then I wouldn’t mind so much. What bothers me is that it always feel to me like Jenny is still romantically in love with Adam, but Adam decides that romance is empty, and Jenny realizes that he will never love her back in the same way that she loves him. To me, that’s rather tragic.

    But what really struck me about your take on it, Julia, is that if this had been my first Heyer, perhaps I’d have viewed it differently! I might have thought of her more as a modern Austen, with her more seriously flawed heroes (e.g. Wentworth, Edmund) and rather unromantic view of marriage. As it was, my first Heyer was “These Old Shades,” followed by “The Unknown Ajax” and “Venetia” and “The Corinthian”…so by the time I got to “A Civil Contract,” I was expecting romantic romance. Now I’ll never know!

    • I’ll have to disagree, Cara, that it would have been better if Jenny had fallen out of romantic love with Adam–that would remove some of the heartstring-pulling poignancy. Not only is he her knight-in-shining-armor at the beginning, but by struggling to accept the situation and come to appreciate her many virtues, he REMAINS the knight in shining armor. I do think there is a strong inference at the end that Adam, who has come to realize Julia would have been a high-maintenance wife who would need constant attention and reinforcement, comes to appreciate the contrast between that and the extremely competent, quietly efficient woman he married, who asks so little for herself. I think Heyer hints that appreciation will grow into to a deep and sincere love–maybe not the “head-over-heels” variety, but a sweet, tender, and mutually supportive love.

      • Ah. I see your point, Julia. Interestingly enough, I think we’re pretty much seeing the same thing. It makes me sad in what I think of as a romance/entertainment, so I say “rather tragic” as a negative thing… whereas it makes you sad in what you think of as a novel of character and history, so you say “poignant,” as a good thing. Does that make sense?

  7. I adored this book! The romance grew subtly and naturally and was completely satisfactory.

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