A Civil Contract, by Georgette Heyer – A Review

A Civil Contract, by Georgette Heyer (2011)Guest review by Laura A. Wallace

A Civil Contract is an atypical Georgette Heyer novel.  While the setting is firmly Regency, beginning at the time of the Battle of Orthez (February 1814) and ending with that of Waterloo (June 1815), it is neither lively nor witty.  It is a quiet book, with a love story that grows gradually, without any sparkle or adventure.  The eponymous contract is a marriage contract between an impoverished, newly-acceded peer and a wealthy “Cit” (Citizen of the City of London)’s daughter.  It is an inauspicious beginning:  the aristocrat is in love with someone else, the bride is homely, and the Cit is vulgar.

However, what follows is a sensitive, nuanced exploration of human relationships that from today’s perspective may seem almost quaint:  commitment, respect, duty, honor, fidelity, civility, resentment, and generosity.  I say “quaint” because the most cursory glance at current divorce and familial statistics show an absence of almost all of these qualities (saving resentment) to such an extent that a marriage and family where they prevail seems almost naïve, or even alien.  Imagine a marriage where commitment, civility, and respect are more important than passion and romance, even at its inception, yet fidelity and appreciation are also central.  This isn’t a “romance” novel:  it’s an “intimacy” novel, in a non-sexual way.  (The couple does have sex, though the only way you know this for certain is that they have a baby:  Heyer almost never writes about sex directly.)

Money plays a big role in the novel, and a feminist reading would no doubt analyze the connection between money and sex.  But I think that to reduce it to money and sex would fail to do it justice in almost every respect.  Yes, of course the contract is an exchange of money for social position that is literally consummated on the body of the woman, but that is the least important aspect of the situation.  The real story is how they grow together and create something new:  a lifetime together based not in physical urges but in common goals and a determination to make it work and find contentment.  When money comes to the fore, it is more usually (though certainly not always) a point of contention between the hero and his father-in-law rather than his wife:  it highlights the differences of class and the meaning of nobility (which, in Heyer’s world, is not always exclusively associated with a character’s station at birth).   With more time and space, I could take it a step further, and analyze the tension between money and power being played out over the pregnancy.

Despite the serious overtones, the novel does not lack for the comic relief or the masterfully-drawn secondary characters at which Heyer excels.  The most notable is the Cit (the father-in-law), who is hopelessly vulgar, but also shrewd, generous, and kind.  (In her new biography of Heyer, Jennifer Kloester describes him as “one of [Heyer]’s comic triumphs” and quotes her as saying that he continually “tried to steal the whole book, & had to be firmly pushed off the stage.”)  The recently-widowed dowager peeress, on the other hand, is languishing but selfishly manipulative, and when these two strong-willed persons encounter one another, she is completely nonplussed, while her elder daughter cannot help but “regard him with much the same nervous surprise as she would have felt at being addressed by an aboriginal.”  Even more entertaining is the clash of titans between the Cit and the hero’s aunt, who presents the bride at court.  She routs him completely, leaving him in the unfamiliar circumstance of having nothing to say.   Further amusement comes from the hero’s second sister, an irrepressible damsel not yet out who initially conceives the idea of saving the family fortunes by becoming a famous comedic actress, an ambition that survives (even after her brother’s marriage) until she encounters Kean’s performance in Hamlet, when she decides that she must become a tragic actress instead, in order to play opposite him.

Many Heyer fans name A Civil Contract as their favorite Heyer novel.  I personally have found that my appreciation of it has grown over the years, and I did not always like it so well as I do now.  I once thought it was a sad book, but I no longer think so:  it is a hopeful book, and ultimately a very positive one.

The Sourcebooks edition is typical:  a lovely (though Victorian) cover, good paper, and an easy-to-read typeface, with only a few “scannos,” one of which is “Playoff” for General Platoff.

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

A Civil Contract, by Georgette Heyer
Sourcebooks (2011)
Trade paperback (432) pages
ISBN: 978-1402238772

Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas.  She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility:  An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).

© 2007 – 2011 Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose

32 thoughts on “A Civil Contract, by Georgette Heyer – A Review

  1. I have never read a contrary criticism of this offering from Georgette Heyer. Thanks for such a detailed and informative review, Laura…..like I needed more convincing to read this one!

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  2. The CD of A Civil Contract, read by Phllida Law, is also excellent, capturing the humor, pathos, and growing warmth and understanding between Jenny and Adam. The only part of the book I find painful is the way Jenny’s body becomes a battleground between Adam and Jenny’s father — which aspect of the patriarchy will win out in the “care” of Jenny while she is pregnant? Fortunately, the side of good sense, and even of Jenny’s wants, wins out, but it’s a near thing!
    Otherwise, the book is charming, gently funny, and highly perceptive about what constitutes a good marriagle. I like Jenny’s practical goal: Adam will be “comfortable” in his life with Jenny, even if he is not madly in love with her.
    The other struggle: for Adam to stand on his own feet financially is also nicely resolved at the end of the book because of his understanding of military affairs, which is a nice touch, since Adam is a wounded military officer who served with Wellington. On the other hand, Adam also shows throughout the book what it means to be a nobleman, a good agriculturalist, and a caring adult male — In my view, A Civil Contract is one of Heyer’s most complete and satisfying novels.

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  3. Although atypical — perhaps “An Infamous Army” is closest in tone — this remains one of my favorite GH books, and I believe it was one she herself was particularly pleased with.

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  4. This is definitely in the top 5. One of the things that makes it so poignant is Jenny’s feelings for Adam.

    Another note on the dispute over “which aspect of the patriarchy will win out in the ‘care’ of Jenny while she is pregnant” is that (again) it is Adam’s aunt who puts Jenny’s father to rout!

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  5. Thanks for reminding me of how powerful Adam’s aunt was in helping Jenny at that point in the book! As I said, I generally skip that part b/c it is too painful! I do think, however, that the fashionable doctor probably had helped some women who had gestational diabetes, which is why he ordered a reducing diet. In any case, Jenny was a trouper!

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    • Dr. Croft, the fashionable accoucheur, was the real-life practitioner in charge of the Princess Charlotte’s pregnancy, which ended in the death of both mother and child on November 6, 1817. Croft shot himself three months later.

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  6. The “reducing diet” was fashionable and was prescribed in Princess Charlotte of Wales’s case in order to reduce the size of the child at birth.

    Thank you, everyone, for your kind comments!

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    • Which is what a reducing diet is used to do for those of us who had gestational diabetes. My daughter ended up at 9 and 1/2 pounds, and I had to have a Caesarian — after many hours of labor — something that I think was still deadly for women in the early 1800s. So, I imagine the reducing diet was thought to protect the life of both child and mother because a smaller child is easier to deliver.

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      • I hadn’t really thought of Dr. Croft’s reducing diet as being connected to gestational diabetes – I guess I should have as I was put on the diet for my last two pregnancies, purely as a precaution. I didn’t think of it as a reducing diet after a nurse told me in no uncertain terms that I was not to wait until I was hungry to eat!

        I have always had the impression that the medical practices of that era were based entirely on theories connected to the “humours,” unsullied by empirical data . . . Perhaps I was wrong?

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        • Well, I had to eat 1800-2000 calories a day, so I gained very few pounds after the first 5 months of pregnancy when the Gestational diabetes was diagnosed. The fear was that I would have to go on insulin if I did not keep to a strict diet — I think I had a pretty bad case.

          In terms of 1815 pregnancies, I would imagine that the reducing diet would be to keep the baby small so it could be delivered more easily and wouldn’t get stuck as my daughter did, leading eventually (after 27 hours) to a C-section. I personally would have picked being a spinster rather than risk pregnancy. With so few economic choices and the stigma or spinsterhood, most women chose marriage.

          Jenny in The Civil Contract reminds us that being well-to-do did not necessarily lead to better pre-natal care . . .again, Heyer touches on the serious and the historically accurate in her books in marvelous ways! One can learn a great deal from her about writing and history from her books.

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  7. I am constantly amazed at the depth of Heyer’s talent. This is definitely going on my to-be-read list, thanks to this lovely review.

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  8. I loved your review. It really did this Heyer gem justice. I love the witty and romantic entries in her catalog, but this one has been a favorite from my first reading. It is rather unique among Heyer’s novels. I’m not sure what it says about me that my first reading as a younger woman did not leave me dissatisfied, but perfectly happy with the end result. It felt real. I guess I’ve always had more sense than sensibility.

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  9. Have to join in the discussion again as I so love this book and it is my favourite Heyer. It is deeply satisfying in a way that her others, though all wonderful, are not. As a teenager I found it rather staid but as I read and re-read it and grew older and wiser I loved it more and more.

    Always feel that Jenny is Sense and Julia is Sensibility.
    I feel another read coming on!

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  10. I have read several Heyer novels but not this one. It sounds fascinating. I’d love to read this one after reading the review.

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  11. This one when I first read it took me by surprise as I was voracious in finding and devouring all of Heyer’s books once I discovered her. After a steady diet of light, Regency banter, the tale of Adam and Jenny was so poignant. I feel that this was one of her best writing efforts though very different from her other successes.

    Thanks for the post!

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  12. One of the key aspects of this Heyer novel is that it explores the nature of marriage, not courtship–one reason its appeal grows as the reader matures. Heyer demonstrates beautifully how essential to Adam’s comfort Jenny becomes, and how essential comfort is for the long-haul. One of my favorite scenes occurs when Jenny orders new curtains for Adam’s study at his ancestral estate–and takes the trouble to find the exact pattern of cloth originally used. Adam hates Jenny’s father’s flash decorating, and she’s terrified he’ll resent the new curtains simply because they represent a change her money has brought about–but when he approves of and accepts them, it’s a sign he is beginning to truly accept Jenny. Subtle but wonderful. And so true to the nature of marriage.

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  13. As a great fan of Georgette Heyer, I really appreciated this review. I think I have overlooked this story in the past, in favor of some of her more lively romances. But now I feel a great desire to revisit this story and see if my (relative) maturity changes my perspective. Thanks for the review!

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  14. Quite a review… Very interesting. Something slightly out of my comfort zone though, it seems. Which is why it promptly landed on the to-be-read list!

    Contentment is a feeling I’ve struggled with myself, and sometimes find it hard to read in novels. It’s a sort of “what… is that it? That’s all there is in life?” -feeling. I find the characters simply gave up, sat down and accepted the fate of living their lives in a sort of bleak, moralised and humdrum dickensian order, all very much inside the proverbial box.

    Some have commented that they read this whe younger, and didn’t quite appreciate it as they do now… Is that perhaps why? It’s contented, and accepting of things as they are, as opposed to the slightly rebellious, sparkling and happy witticism that other novels offer?

    I shall nevertheless have a go at it in the days before Christmas. If it’s anything like Bleak House, it will go down. And if it does indeed turn out to be a bit too depressing, there’ll be plenty of time to counteract the feeling with Jane Eyre, followed by a cosy read of P&P – and all shall be well again. ;)

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    • Issy – I am now contented. I am 65, a double divorcee, two gorgeous daughters and now a lovely granddaughter. Have had some difficult time but now think I have a very happy life and contentment is a lovely feeling. It is not giving up at all, just accepting the blessings of my life as it is at the moment.

      A Civil Contract is a lovely book, my favourite and I think GH’s best so do read and let us know what you think. It is nothing like Bleak House I can assur eyou and it is not depressing. I find A Civil Contract a delightful book

      Have a very contented Christmas!

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      • Elaine,
        Beautifully put in all it’s simplicity. I must thus conclude that contentment is that warm, calming feeling one may experience, if lucky, from having truly lived life. Which might explain the many things we do not, or can not, enjoy and accept to the fullest in our early years, in the way we can do a few years down the line – in the light of more experience and wisdom. It is in most cases, then, a matter of maturity :)

        I shall read A Civil Contract with an open mind, and hope to have matured enough to appreciate its depiction of the subtle changes, discoveries and joys in life.

        …And since you have already discovered contentment, I can only wish you the most delightful of Christmases with your loved ones!

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        • Dear Issy – that is it exactly. To be contented one must feel a sense of satisfaction with one’s life. I am not sure I have done the right things at times and have had tricky times, well we all will, but now when I look back and realise how blessed I am, yes I am contented.

          But please don’t think that this is an easy option or that it stays with you all the time, I still get my fed up days as much as everyone!

          I would love to hear what you think of A Civil Contract so do email me if you so wish, my email address is linked to my blog and I also send you best wishes for a happy and contented Christmas! x

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  15. Idle curiosity: Does anyone know why Sourcebooks puts out lovely editions but with odd Victorian covers? Why do they do that? Probably there is a sensible practical reason, but I cannot imagine what it could be.

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    • I don’t think it’s fair to say that they are all Victorian. Some are Regency, some are 18th century. What they all are is 19th century (in that respect generally Victorian) genre scene paintings, some of which those artists placed in the past, and some which they didn’t.

      I give Sourcebooks the benefit of the doubt and assume that the number of paintings available from their artwork source is comparatively limited in Regency offerings, especially if you try to match up the scenes with the books. In fact, looking at the thumbnail covers inside the front cover, there are only two or three that I would call decidedly Victorian. Most are Regency, and most (but not all) of the ones that are 18th century are in fact 18th century stories.

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  16. I am 14, and I just finished reading this book a week ago, and I have to say, I quite liked it- there were some laugh-out-loud moments, as well as the quiet, undestated feel to it- I would like to see more Regency novels like this…

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