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A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer

Posted: Wed August 10th, 2011, 2:42 pm
by Michy
I've only read a few of Georgette Heyer's books, but that is enough for me to know that A Civil Contract is not her typical story; nor is it typical of a Regency romance by any writer, for that matter. This is not a glittering, comedic tale of love between a gallant fop and a ravishing, aristocratic miss set among the English ton. Instead, it is a story of something much more realistic and far, far less romantic: a marriage of convenience.

Adam Deveril, an officer in Wellington's army, is suddenly called back to England on the death of his father. There he learns that his father has completely squandered the family fortune through gambling and high living (including buying fabulous jewelry for his mistress). Literally everything is gone; Adam is faced with the unhappy prospect of having to sell even the family's beloved, historic country estate and is not sure if, when all of the creditors have been satisfied, there will be even be enough left to provide a living for his mother and sister. His financial agent assures him that his only hope for raising money quickly is to marry a wealthy heiress.

Naturally Adam is repulsed by such an idea. However, within a couple of days just such an opportunity presents itself and ultimately, realizing it is the only way to keep his beloved estate (he is already resigned to selling the London townhouse and everything else) he agrees to marry Jenny, only child of a filthy-rich, self-made man who desperately wants to gain a foothold in the aristocracy for his daughter. He was hoping for marriage to an Earl, but he likes Adam and so settles for a Viscount.

Although many if not most such arranged marriages no doubt ended up as shams, with one or both spouses having affairs and staying married to each other only for the sake of appearances, the children, and the finances, in A Civil Contract Georgette Heyer tells a lovely story of a couple who tries to make their marriage of convenience work. Nearly all of the effort is on Jenny's part, who agreed to marry Adam (her father didn't force her) because she loved him. She is plain of face, short and stout, and, despite the best schooling money could buy, shy and sadly lacking in grace of speech or movement. Nevertheless she is a noble character, with understanding, keen insight and good sense, amazing generosity of spirit and a totally selfless desire to please her husband and his family and to not offend their aristocratic sensibilities.

Unlike most Regencies, this one doesn't center on glitter and glitz; although there are parties and routs and crushes they are relegated firmly to the background. Instead, Heyer focuses on the mundane day-to-day experiences of Adam and Jenny as they attempt to navigate the minefield of emotions and strained relationships inherent in such arranged marriages (especially, as in this case, when the young man really isn't money hungry but is a painfully proud aristocrat who feels the bitterness of having "sold himself"). Although there are touches of Heyer's trademark whimsy and humor, namely in the characters of Jenny's bombastic father and Adam's flighty sister, A Civil Contract is markedly quieter and more somber in tone than Heyer's typical stories. It is a gentle story, handled with deftness and nuance, that manages to never be dull from the first page to the last, and with a suspenseful scene near the end that provides a wonderful climax and resolution to the story.

This is a book that I think would especially appeal to fans of Jane Austen.

Four stars.