A Civil Contract - Georgette Heyer book club 27

(55 Posts)
DeckTheHallsWithBoughsOfHorry Fri 27-Dec-13 15:39:21

I've read this book a lot - it's always been one of my favourites and DC1 is named for Lynton - but this particular re-read has been enlightening. It's the first time I've read it since I've realised I'm a feminist (aren't we all?) and also I've been reading it with a newborn which makes the last quarter or so more poignant and immediate.

Civil Contract is a novel of change, of shattered dreams, and readjusted expectations. From the first chapter, where Adam has to give up his consuming identity as Captain Deveril in favour of Viscount Lynton (note that Heyer almost always calls him Adam, unlike her other noble heroes who get all their titles and styles in equal turn) everyone is dealing with disappointment and mostly stoically accepting less than their dreams. Jenny gets the man she wants, but less than completely; Julia gets the marriage of her dreams, but not the man; Adam fulfils his destiny but only by renouncing his more exciting and glamorous hopes; Chawleigh sees his daughter established but without the coveted "of".

In the end it is perhaps only Brough and Lydia whose dreams come true, but they are dreams they didn't know they had at the outset - the years apart while Adam was in the Army saw Lydia become a woman, and Brough is sideswiped by her.

Lydia is great value in the novel. It is mostly serious and slightly tragic; she offers the light relief. "I like you the best of all my family [...] Not that that's saying much." Her schemes to restore the family's fortunes may be naïve but Adam recognises from her acceptance of their circumstances that he must make sacrifices, if only to keep her off the stage!

It is often through Lydia's eyes that we are shown the early tension in the Lyntons' marriage. If Heyer had to tell us they were at odds, it would jar. Through Lydia she can instead show us, which is always more interesting. She is young, and gauche and sheltered, and learns a lot about the real world during the year we see. "Sacrifice Lydia could appreciate; a smiling sacrifice was much harder to recognise, and very hard indeed to understand."

We also see Mr Chawleigh translated through Lydia. The fatherly/avuncular role he assumes with her is probably what he would have liked to have with Jenny, but she is too sensible and accepting.

Jenny has always loved Adam ("I married him because there was nothing else I could do for him") but although she loves him she has never expected that to be reciprocated. And she never embarrasses or burdens him by expressing her adoration. He is her beloved, but she can only offer him practicalities: money, the food he likes, the right servants, a tidy house. "You'll tell me what you wish me to do - or if I do something you don't like - won't you?" And to Lydia she declares: "I only want to tell you that he'll be comfortable: I'll see to that. You don't think that signifies, but it does. Men like to be comfortable. Well, he will be! That's all!" She declares she will turn a blind eye to any affairs he might have (though notably he turns Julia down on that point) without expecting similar generosity, and acknowledges her expected role as mother of his sons children. "The trend of her mind was practical; she entered into married life in a business-like way, and almost immediately presented the appearance of a wife of several years' standing." She is never his bride, always his wife, with the lack of sentimentality that implies. It isn't until quite far on that they are familiar with each other, and much later of ever that their exchanges are remotely intimate.

At their first formal meeting she surprises him (pleasantly) by not raving over Byron. She listens to what he says, though, and tries to learn more - his adventures in the Peninsula, his farming. They are the only central couple we ever see where her wealth is greater than his, and it's a painful sticking point, not to mention the fact that his fortunes are largely restored by the end.

Jenny, in fact, upsets me on this reading. I hadn't noticed before quite how accepting and submissive she is. It makes her perfect for former soldier Adam, but I feel sad for her. The mask drops during her pregnancy and a few epic tantrums, but it's also made clear that neither she nor Adam will tolerate such outbursts in future. And it only takes one word from him to halt her - it's slightly thrilling but again it's sad that she buries herself so much. She had no expectation of happiness before her marriage - she was raised to please others.

Adam suppresses himself too, of course. In the early months of their marriage he is still crippled by pride and resentment and retreats behind a wall he builds against the vulgarity of wealth that he feels she represents. "When Adam was angry he retired behind a barrier which was as impenetrable as it was intangible." Between Julia and Jenny the refrain is "Easy to despise what you've always had" but for him it's the opposite. He defends what he has always had at nearly all costs, and it is a great wrench for him to be able to treat money with less than disdain. He resents being better treated once the change in his circumstances is known; he makes a point of telling Wimmering and Drummond when he is acting against Mr Chawleigh's advice. He dreads any improvement to Fontley, as does Charlotte, because of the vulgar renovations in Grosvenor Street.

We looked at wealth and class in Ajax - there the particulars were masked; here nobody is in any doubt as to anyone else's status. Everyone understands why Adam and Jenny have married, and consider it a fair bargain on both sides. There's a nice bit where the Patronesses are discussing Jenny's invitation to Almack's, which neither she nor Adam realistically expects. In the end she is admitted for her nobility of character (and practicality, when Julia swoons), not blood, and to annoy the Dowager. The gulf between the nobility and the "Cits" is felt and acknowledged by all parties, although handled more graciously by some than others. Adam's insistence on receiving his father-in-law despite his own preferences and their difference in rank is part of what we are to admire in him. But also Mr Chawleigh mentions that his wife was socially beneath him - and in the end it is Jenny's yeomanry roots that make her a practical housewife and chatelaine, skipping over the merchant class which provides the wherewithal.

It's Aunt Nassington who provides the class education - neater for her to present Jenny and go head-to-head with Mr Chawleigh over matters of form such as dress and adornment. Given that he has previously taken advice from the grotesque Mrs Quarley-Bix...! "Jenny, warned by Lady Nassington, offered her guests no extraordinary entertainment, or any excuse for the ill-disposed to stigmatise her party as pretentious. She relied for success on the excellence of the refreshments for, as she sagely observed to Lydia, guests who had been uncommonly well fed rarely complained of having endured an insipid evening."

There are a few explicit parallels drawn with Harry Smith, to whom Adam is supposed to be known. Those of us who have read Spanish Bride will recognise the story of the brave and lucky injured young officer recuperating in London but left scarred both physically and emotionally, leaving him older than his years. And as I mentioned above, we see the same intractability and intolerance to opposition and impertinence - their obedience to duty and authority must be mirrored by those with whom they have dealings, but they are incapable of recognising their own faults and flaws.

And it's during Adam's recovery that he fell for Julia. Lady Lynton encouraged them, being ignorant of the financial bar, and Oversley apologises for letting them develop impossible dreams: "there's noone I'd liefer have for a son-in-law than you, if the dibs had been in tune, but I knew they weren't, and I ought to have hinted you away." Oversley doesn't believe they are in love with each other, but rather with the idea of each other (the hero, the sibyl) and although Adam will always be in love with the idea of Julia he is over his infatuation with the person herself once he is busy with what he finds more important than love - his duty.

"One could never have everything one wanted in this world, and he, after all, had been granted a great deal: Fontley, and a wife who desired only to make him happy. His heart would never leap at the sight of Jenny; there was no magic in their dealings; but she was kind, and comfortable, and he had grown to be fond of her - so fond, he realised, that if by the wave of a wand he could cause her to disappear he would not wave it. Enchantment had vanished from the world; his life was not romantic, but practical, and Jenny had become a part of it."

Julia on the other hand does not grow up during the book. She cannot see past her dreams of the little white cottage and her dashing soldier; "I can't live if I'm not loved"; only Rockhill who is undeceived is able to manage her. Indeed it may be his experience as the father of teenage girls that gives him that ability. I think Julia will be unbearable and very like Lady Lynton as she ages - maybe that's why Adam's mother likes her so much. One has to wonder if she accepts Rockhill at least partly to sting Adam.

Charlotte and Lambert I think are little more than a plot device to allow for certain logistical necessities, as Heyer has to kill off two intervening siblings between Adam and Lydia as it is to keep their difference in age plausible. But I do enjoy "Lambert says".

I find the novel more timeless than many of the others. That's my sentimentality over baby Giles though, possibly. But the domesticity of Jenny's feeding him, gazing at him, etc, isn't fixed in time as the reported battles are. I'm living that now. So although I feel sorry for Jenny, I love her and I am her, and Civil Contract will always be one of my favourites.

The book ends happily, peacefully and timelessly:

"He gave a shout of laughter, and the pain in her heart was eased. After all, life was not made up of moments of exaltation, but of quite ordinary, everyday things. The vision of the shining, inaccessible peaks vanished; Jenny remembered two pieces of domestic news, and told Adam about them. They were not very romantic, but they were really much more important than grand passions or blighted loves: Giles Jonathan had cut his first tooth; and Adam's best cow had given birth to a fine heifer calf."

HoratiaDrelincourt Sat 31-May-14 21:29:08

Nonesuch here.

And bugger me if it isn't the longest essay I've written for about ten years blush

mateysmum Sat 31-May-14 20:20:56

Ooh I'm so glad The Civil Contract has come up at last. I love this book and though I love all the fluffy GH romances, this book is somehow more satisfying and has more depth to it than many others. I feel that many marriages must have started out like Jenny and Adam's and we are brought to understand that the basis for a good marriage is not only romantic love. Indeed as Julia's father points out she and Adam would not have made a good marriage and in time Adam comes to realise this too.

Also, there is no real heroine in this book unlike many others like Venetia, Arabella and The Grand Sophy. Jenny is much too plain and submissive (echoes of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park), but like Fanny Price, in the end her dream man comes to value her true worth.

We understand Adam's struggles with his emotions more than some other heroes and GH deals with the problems of the withdrawal from a military life sensitively. Adam has been a dashing military hero, but when it comes to dealing with all the problems of family and domestic life, he struggles to retain his self esteem against the pressure of his financial distress and the efforts of Mr Chawleigh.

I have read all the GH novels over and over, but The Civil Contract is one in which I find something new to enjoy every time.

Horatiadrelincourt Sat 31-May-14 20:02:18

Am just waiting for the minor Rules to go to bed hmm so can get on laptop. Book has confused me so it's rather a stream of consciousness!

LadyIsabellaWrotham Sat 31-May-14 19:59:48

Ooh Horatia you absolute star. I've read, and then reread again last week, because it was so long ago and I was just trying to summon up the braincells for an OP, but tbh I just didn't have enough to say. Will wait for your enlightening intro to spark some more thoughts.

TeacupDrama Fri 30-May-14 22:15:21

ok will reread at weekend, have read it a few times before and love it

Lovage Fri 30-May-14 20:22:36

Ooh can I play please? I love GH and have read them all many times. Will look forward to discussion of The Nonesuch.

HoratiaDrelincourt Thu 29-May-14 20:43:16

Bumping to say I've nearly finished an OP for The Nonesuch. If you haven't reread, please do so now!

RuthlessBaggage Fri 18-Apr-14 11:21:49

Yes, Nonesuch. I've read it and made some notes but don't have time for an essay OP (I did several others under a previous NC).

Anyone else fancy kicking Tiffany in the face things off?

ImAThrillseekerBunny Fri 18-Apr-14 09:47:37

Yes I think so - we need to get back in the saddle because I really want to get to the end especially because I want to do Frederica.

Next one should be The Nonesuch.

crumpet Sun 06-Apr-14 22:19:10

Is this the most recent GH thread?

HoratiaDrelincourt Wed 08-Jan-14 19:56:45

She thinks Marie Antoinette (her mother's generation) was a role model.

LadyIsabellasHollyWreath Wed 08-Jan-14 19:11:51

I'm not sure she'd be passive aggressive. I think she'd enjoy the drama of self-sacrifice but just be really useless which would lead to Adam being driven mad with guilt, hunger, actual self-sacrifice and general discomfort.

MooncupGoddess Wed 08-Jan-14 19:07:45

Agree. Julia would have overspent massively on clothes and interior decor (and still complained about Adam's parsimony), and would soon have stopped even pretending to be interested in farming.

HoratiaDrelincourt Wed 08-Jan-14 18:37:38

After providing the proverbial heir and spare, Julia would have spent all year in London (but not in Grosvenor Sq, which would have been sold) complaining about Adam's parsimony and having affairs with rich older men, probably including Rockhill. Adam would occasionally encounter her when at the Lords voting on social reform.

ancientbuchanan Wed 08-Jan-14 18:23:38

Sighing, passive aggressive, and missing adoration as she gazed at the bleak fens.

thepiggotupandslowlywalkedaway Wed 08-Jan-14 14:06:48

I've got yer basic history knowledge, but I'm pretty clueless on the whole so I love finding out more about the deeper background of these books.

The (much less complex) thing that I wondered, was that if Adam had married Julia, would she have cheerfully managed love on a budget, or was it more likely that there would have been a mighty bust-up as poverty overcame her infatuation? Or might she have become another sighing, passive-aggressive type?

ancientbuchanan Sun 05-Jan-14 23:14:45

Despising, not devising. Bleep phone

ancientbuchanan Sun 05-Jan-14 23:13:58

And the bathroom and water closet and shaving stuff, all middle class conveniences.

Lady Isabella, completely agree about the time frame. It is quite fun to do a comparison with what is happening in Europe. I feel she is completely at home with Louis XV, with TOS and P&P, less convincing with TTR although we only see it from Eustacie's view point, and then fabulous when it comes to what's happening where with eg Princess Lieven etc in TGS, or the arrival of The Grand Duke.

But we also see the growing shifts towards Victorian morality. Up till now Arabella has been the only person with a real social conscience. And she is not tied into the increasing industrialisation. Adam wants to improve his tenants' houses, but possibly more for the value of the estate. But it is revealing that he points out to Julia, who of course has not thought about it, that Jenny has been brought up in a stricter moral code than theirs, foreshadowing the Whig devising of Queen Victoria's bourgeois hausfrau standards.

LadyIsabellasHollyWreath Sun 05-Jan-14 11:34:53

(Overshadows for the well-informed reader of course, Heyer just leaves it as a hint)

LadyIsabellasHollyWreath Sun 05-Jan-14 11:33:11

It's a novel that moves from candlelight to gaslight. We'll be seeing hints of the future in a couple of the novels we've got left, Frederica and The Nonesuch which both dabble in the Industrial Revolution, and of course Ajax, despite being full of swashbuckling nonsense about smuggling, is driven behind the scenes by the shift in power from Land to Industry.

And because Charlotte's death in 1817 overshadows Jenny's pregnancy, we're pointed towards the future - the collapse of the Prince Regent's line and the triumph of his boring brother and mousy daughter.

HoratiaDrelincourt Sun 05-Jan-14 11:16:35

Blimey, Isabella, that's fascinating. Aristos with a job (farming) rather than just spending money and going to parties is definitely more Victorian than Regency.

There's other nods to modernism - a funny bit about using gas to light homes, and Adam saying Not In My House - like Vidal in Infamous Army being old and cantankerous, the future overtakes us all in the end.

LadyIsabellasHollyWreath Sun 05-Jan-14 10:39:33

Oops, just checked, she was born the year after Victoria died. Point about her parents still stands though.

LadyIsabellaWrotham Sun 05-Jan-14 10:23:02

I think Princess Charlotte died of PPH and the baby was stillborn after an obstructed labour. I don't know whether the reducing regime could have compromised her strength and ability to labour and hence influenced the outcome.

Rereading again I do think this is her masterpiece. We hear about so many different styles of marriage in the earlier novels - disastrous, romantic, open, political, pragmatic, there are endless scenes of older married women advising our heroine not to worry about romance because they never did. But the protagonists always end up ignoring them - maybe after 26 books Heyer got fed up.

Apparently she worried about keeping a book with no adventure or farce interesting. Looking back, you notice what's missing, the murders, thefts, abductions, elopements, duels, mistaken identities, fortune hunters (apart from Adam of course). In any other book, Lydia would elope with someone unsuitable in the penultimate chapter; that's what lively younger sisters are for in GH.

Instead of these well-trodden dramas, which she's done a dozen times each (and most of which would be hugely anachronistic in 1815), she finds new dramas from realistic subjects; a risky childbirth, an outburst at a ball, and the flirtation with financial ruin that would normally be brought on by gambling by candlelight in a St James' club is now to do with financial speculation. From her letters she'd been wanting to do Waterloo from the London perspective for years, and I wonder how much the entire novel was built around the climax, I'd love to see the notes.

One of the themes that's been there since the beginning, but we've never really talked about in these threads is change from one period to the next. These novels cover 50 years of huge change, and Heyer always makes a point of dating them, and having older characters talk about the way things have changed since their young day. I think this novel engages with the cutting edge of the Regency (more than some of the books set later) and is an attempt to dabble in the waters of the Victorian novel - moving from Austen's territory to Eliot's. And perhaps it's that move outside Heyer's historical comfort zone which has led her to write her characters in a more "modern" and realistic way. She was born in Victoria's reign wasn't she? And her parents were definitely Victorian. So a "Victorian" novel would be a novel about people she knew, and you could hardly write people like your parents getting into scrapes like they do in classic high farce Heyers.

Having thought that I had nothing to say because you'd said it all, I seem to have written an essay. I still have more, but will post before iPhone eats it.

HoratiaDrelincourt Tue 31-Dec-13 17:26:32

Oh yes, when he's trying to work out if he's as bad a gambler as his father, and going nearly insane in the process.

It's quite a dense book, isn't it?

LadySaltash Tue 31-Dec-13 16:53:08

Hello all. A long-time Heyer thread lurker here, daring to join in at last. One of the things I like in A Civil Contract now (but did nothing for me as a teenager, which is why I didn‘t re-read the book till recently) are that it describes pregnancy and nursing a baby. The tender nursing scene, where we hear a conversation between Adam and Jenny that moves the plot along while Giles is feeding, is one of my favourite bits of Heyer now. I don’t think I’ve read any other book that has a scene where the rhythm of feeding and burping a baby etc is included like that. I would also pick out the climactic scene - Adam, in his club, with nothing to do but wait to hear news from Waterloo and wonder if he’s just made a very bad mistake.

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