I’ve been feeling a bit low for the past few days (the beginnings of a cold and a diagnosis of arthritis, along with the lack of a job situation have all conspired against me) which really put me in the mood for Georgette Heyer.
I’m not sure why I picked ‘A Civil Contract’, it’s not a particular favourite - I prefer young Heyer where it’s fairly straight romance with lots of swashbuckling, cross dressing, and humour. They’re old fashioned but classic. The later books are more interesting, but they’re also more problematic. References about going to the Jews to borrow money are distasteful in a book written in the 1920s, but much more than that in one written in 1961*.
The biggest problem I find with ‘A Civil Contract’ though is how it exposes Heyer’s ingrained snobbery. It was enough to make me think that I wouldn’t post about this book, but then it seemed better to grasp the nettle and get on with it.
What makes ‘A Civil Contract’ so interesting, especially coming from someone known as a romance writer, as how much of an anti romance it is. It’s written by a woman who is yelling from the rooftops what utter nonsense the whole genre is. A quote from Publishers Weekly on the back of my copy states that ‘Her heroines are all young, beautiful, spirited... the predicaments are romantic, full of suspense, hilarious’. That is not this book.
The heroine (Jenny) is resolutely plain, not ugly, but ordinary. She is however very rich. When the hero (Adam) finds himself inheriting so much debt that he’s going to have to sell everything, leaving at least one sister homeless it’s suggested to him that he marry money. He’s not keen, already in love with a childhood friend (Julia). He can’t marry her because he can’t support her and she’s remarkably high maintenance.
Jenny’s money comes from her father, a phenomenally rich self made man with a taste in interior decoration which is pure Russian oligarch. Adam’s father inherited a fortune and squandered it before breaking his neck out hunting.
There’s a riff on Sense and Sensibility here, with Adam representing sensibility, and again for a romance he’s an oddly emasculated character - which is most of his predicament throughout the book (which is neither romantic or hilarious).
And this is where the book gets interesting to me, Adam is kind of a shit for much of the book - which he more or less comes to realise. I think Heyer expects us to value his breeding and good manners rather more than I’m inclined too (although to be fair he’s also only about 26 so perhaps not as emotionally mature as he might be). His immediate family, with one exception, is worse.
Jenny and her father are continuously presented as insensitive or vulgar, and again I think Heyer genuinely expects us to despise them a little for it, but at the same time as a more or less self made woman herself she clearly admires that ability to make money. There’s always a tension in how she describes Jenny’s father, and to some extent Jenny herself.
The character of Julia is interesting too. She’s just the beautiful, highly strung, young woman that you might expect an immature young man to fall for. She could be portrayed as a straight out bitch (there are moments) but again, for all her appalling behaviour she’s portrayed with a certain amount of sympathy. She actually reads as someone suffering from depression with fairly extreme mood swings. The point is that she might be desirable, but it would have been a very unhappy marriage (Heyer pairs her off with an understanding older man with whom she might well be happy).
For the rest of it Heyer goes out of her way to underline that romance is not in and of itself enough to base a happy marriage on. Friendship and shared interests are the glue that holds a relationship together. It’s not particularly exciting but it’s real. Jenny’s love for Adam is romantic, her decisions are a set of sacrifices and compromises which eventually pay off for her but she’s never going to get the passion that she dreamed of.
Meanwhile the climax of the book is Adam betting what money he has in the outcome of Waterloo. We follow him through a tense 48 hours waiting to see if his gamble pays off, and maybe that’s why I chose to read this book again.
Years ago I found a clipping from The Times amongst some family papers. It was the first report of victory at Waterloo. Reading it gave me goosebumps, a part of that was Heyer’s description of the news coming through in this book. More recently poking around one of the regimental museums in Edinburgh castle I saw one of the Eagles that had been captured at Waterloo - and again it was Heyer’s description that came back.
Whatever her faults she was a master at bringing history alive. This book also reminded me of this Post and all the other things she pointed me towards.
*I’m wary about describing Heyer as anti-Semitic, but that doesn’t mean I find her prejudices any less ugly, or forgivable.