Thursday, February 27, 2020

A Civil Contract - Georgette Heyer

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.


  1. I first read this as a teenager, and was very disappointed in its rather anti-romantic outlook!
    Incidentally, in the early 19th century, Christians were banned from lending money with interest, so all banking and money lending was undertaken by Jewish people. Although it sounds objectionable to us now, 'Going to the Jews' was a euphemism for borrowing money, a factual rather than derogatory comment, which Heyer presumably picked up during her extensive research.

    1. This is why I’m wary of describing Heyer as an anti-Semite based on what’s in her books. It’s not clear to me if she’s using slang that fits the period or something more than that. However by 1961 it’s a choice to use that phrase that other writers might not have made. I don’t personally find her prejudices particularly offensive in the context of her writing, but that’s my choice, and I think they do need to be acknowledged. When she uses the phrase in this book she’s specifically talking about what we’d now think of as loan sharks. Adam gets a loan from his bank, Drummond's which had been established in the 18th century, based on the value of his assets in the end. They would certainly have charged a fee for their services if not interest on the loan extended to him.

  2. Bath Tangle is another Heyer which seems to work against the conventions of romantic fiction. I wonder if there's a Heyer sub-genre here?

    Which is the one in which she describes the famous ball at Waterloo?

    1. I think there are a couple that describe that ball, but non of them are particular favourites (An Infamous Army must) so I cant remember off hand. I think she wrote romances more in the adventure sense , non of them really fit very comfortably into the current role we expect of a romance. She’s also such an interesting set of prejudices and achievements.

    2. An Infamous Army is the one I was thinking of.

      I agree what you say about adventure, and most of the ones I enjoy most are those that are slightly silly and involve cross-dressing, highwayman and murder mystery. GH does light-hearted fun (if you consider murder fun) so well that when she does something else it is quite a shock - I seem to remember An Infamous A slightly traumatised me as it wasn't what I was expecting.

      By the way, I meant to add that I'm so sorry about your diagnosis of arthritis. I hope you're OK.

    3. Those are my favourites too, although the more I read her the more depth I think she has (maybe wishful thinking?). She’s not bad when she’s serious, but she had such a gift for comedy and exploiting the absurdity in her plots that she’s hard to beat in that mood.

      The arthritis thing isn’t news I wanted to hear. It was picked up in an MRI scan to assess what’s wrong with the tendon in my right foot (it’s torn). On the whole I guess it’s better to know now, and without that scan I probably wouldn’t have realised anything about it for the next few years at least. Middle age is a bitch.

    4. I too would rather know than not know. Is there anything you can do to ameliorate it?

      Too true about middle age, and it's only going to get worse from here. Thank God for GH and gin.

  3. Thanks for this very balanced review. I am trying to understand why the book irritated me so much although no one is entirely good or bad in it.

    The main protagonists behaviour I find understandable but impossible to respect. Adam's losses are enormous in term of status and money but he still had just enough for his sister's portion and his army salary without marrying for money. Jenny gets to marry the man she loves thanks to her father's money although other candidates could have been found, knowing she is benefitting from the misfortune of others. She means not only to share his life and have his children, she wishes to replace his former fiancée (the only person who befriended her at school) in his affection. Both had choices and made healthily self centered ones. Both keep fairly their side of the bargain. I am surprised though at the criticism of Adam and the sympathy for Jenny that I find in most reviews. They entered a marriage of convenience, where love was not on offer. I believe that in such arrangements even fidelity was not expected and Adam is far more considerate of Jenny than she had a right to expect under the circumstances.

    Adam's former fiancée Julia might be exasperating but as someone who sees her life collapse, has not been educated to deal with real life and gets no support least of all from her family, she evokes more sympathy from me.
    Julia's husband and Jenny's father are far easier to like, mostly Jenny's father, the only person who seems capable of selfless love in the novel.
    It seems to me that Heyer criticizes equally the nouveau riches for being ruthless and vulgar and the aristocracy for being incapable. Parents come off worst of all, whether Adam's profligate father or Julia's useless family.

    I wonder if Heyer disliked writing this novel and if it influenced the treatment of the characters ?

    1. I think she disliked writing straight romance so comes up with something a bit more difficult. I love Heyer for the way that we can read this so differently too. When I read it this time I found Adam exasperating, but your points are fair and something I’ll take with me if/when I read the book again. Your view of Julia is kinder than mine, but yes, she gets a fairly raw deal, and again I love Heyer for making her a complex enough character that we can have these different views.