A Civil Contract - Georgette Heyer book club 27(55 Posts)
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."
Fab intro, Horry.
Every time I read A Civil Contract I appreciate it more. It's as if, after writing a couple of dozen charming witty Regency romances, GH suddenly decided to burst the rosy bubble and really interrogate the world she portrays. Does passionate love last? What is good breeding, and does it require blue blood? What do landowning peers do all day? What happens when the heart is willing but the bank account is weak?
Much more so than any of the other books, A Civil Contract is full of concrete detail - furniture, stoves, curtains, drainage, livestock - that is not only impeccably researched but actually tells the story. Mr Chawleigh's vulgarity and his overblown hopes for Jenny are perfectly demonstrated by the ghastly bath he has installed for her. Adam and his siblings' fear that Jenny will Change Things at Fontley is played out in the tense scene when Charlotte notices that she has moved a table from one room to another.
Similarly, the book is utterly frank about money and the emotions around it; Adam learns to bear being Mr Chudleigh's pensioner, but only really regains his self-respect when he makes his fortune by ignoring Mr Chudleigh's advice. (And how interesting to see Waterloo from the confusion and terror of London instead of the familiar scenes in Belgium.)
And oh, the characters! Unlike most GH protagonists they are genuinely human. Adam and Jenny are both agonisingly vulnerable, picking their way through really difficult situations courageously but sometimes getting ambushed by overwhelming, inadmissible emotions. Mr Chawleigh, so easy to play for laughs, loves Jenny to bits and is controlling over her medical care because he is so terrified of her dying as his wife did. Julia means well, but is vain and insecure and manipulative... Rockhill knows that, but loves her anyway, and decides to marry her with his eyes open.
I don't feel sorry for Jenny, not in the long term; she may not get her passionate clinch and meeting of minds, but she has a happy, settled marriage with the man she loves, who may sulk occasionally and be cross at breakfast but who respects her, is faithful to her and (crucially) enjoys her company. Unlike any of GH's other heroes and heroines, they work hard to establish their life together, and deserve every second of their low-key but utterly genuine contentment.
Great post, Mooncup. I think Adam and Jenny's relationship by the end of the book is far more solid than that of many of the more obviously romantic Heyer couples. It's grown up. And we can recognise it - even happily partnered/married MNers all moan occasionally about our dh/dp's irritating habits. I think Adam and Jenny have quite a modern relationship in that sense.
Thanks for the brilliant introduction, Horry. This is my absolute favourite of all the Heyers, for the reasons you and Mooncup have given. I do also love the way that although he never falls out of love with Julia - she's always going to be there, as a reminder of his hopeful younger self - he gradually comes to see that "I am much better off with my Jenny". As Brough says, one of his many lucky escapes is in fact not marrying Julia: Heyer shows us how deeply unhappy they could have made each other.
I also think Jenny is a rare Heyer exercise in realism. Yes, she subjugates herself - and as a lifelong feminist I find that problematic - but I think Heyer is setting out, in part, to show what it took to have a successful marriage, and how much it demanded of the wife.
Sorry, posted without re-reading - I meant of course to say a successful 19th-century marriage!
I also find it interesting that GH touches on a woman's sexuality and sexual morals. It is Julia that suggests an affair, not Adam. I know she wrote quite a lot in Venetia about a woman as a sexual being, in control of her own body/sex life (Aurelia) but here it is a young, inexperienced woman in a respectable position, shortly to become engaged to a real matrimonial catch.
It makes a refreshing change to the bloody ingénue and the rake!
That's an interesting point, VikingLady - one gets the sense of Adam as really quite inexperienced (hence falling for Julia in the first place) and vulnerable, unlike most of her other male characters.
Ooh - what a comprehensive and insightful start. I am afraid that I have failed to reread this one in time so I am dredging from memory but here goes...
I heartily agree that this is a mature and grown-up romance - and one that I have warmed to more and more as I age.
I love seeing characters we know from a different angle, slightly skewed and changed - Julia is another Fanny or Julianna Marling, Rock is another Avon. Lydia and Brough could be a number of previous hero/heroine pairings (Brough reminds me of Lord Ulverston from A Quiet Gentleman - and Lydia could easily be Amanda from Sprig Muslin) but for once, it is not this relationship that takes centre stage.
The premise that Adam has more in common with Gilly Ware (albeit butched up a bit by the military experience) than with the more classic heroes is interesting. For me, he is more like Gervase in The Quiet Gentleman - unassuming and disarming. What sets him apart from her previous heroes, is that he does not live for himself. As far as I can recall, all her previous heroes are essentially selfish and act in their own self-interests (bar Damerel's half-hearted attempt to banish Venetia) but Adam's needs are subsumed (like Gilly) by what is expected of him. It is this obligation and honorable sense of duty that is at the heart of the novel - Jenny is bound by the same constraints.
Everyone is doing the "right" thing - which we haven't seen before. Up til now, someone has always cast caution to the wind or stepped outside of social constraints in order to bring about the desired resolution. Here they abide by the rules - and the romance is not of the soaring love-conquers-all type but one of the bitter-sweet acceptance of duty done leavened with an unlooked-for contentment.
This is one of my all time favourites too. Brill intro, Horry, and hope little one doing well.
Julia us fundamentally self centred, as. Adam realises," she never tried to shine her friends down....had she been given the throne she would have vacated it ( or some such words).. but the problem was that none of Brough's family considered she had a right to any throne ...( ditto)" ( haven't got copy to hand)
But you can see her heartbreak and offering herself to Adam, dreadful for her and worse to be rebuffed. She is fortunate in Rock.
Adam I want to shake. He has married the perfect officer's wife, as his friends realise. And deep down he is just as much a professional in his world as Chawleigh is in his, as soldier or farmer. He has grown up when he realises this. Julia's father is completely right when he says that they wouldn't have been suited and Brough perceptive when he says how lucky Deveril is to escape Julia.
I feel sorry for Jenny at the outset, because she is so bored. She doesn't have her father's love of china, nor is she allowed to engage in anything that really interests her. But it seems to me that actually she gains massively by the end. Yes, she echoes Adam's political views, an area she has no interest in, but she has a huge and worthy job on hand, sorting out the house and the staff and the tenantry, as well as bringing up the children. She will not be a political hostess, as Julia might have been ( but I doubt it, not much sign of any intellect there), but she is what he needs not just for the money. By the end she has gained respect and tenderness from her unwilling husband and increasing respect from the staff.
Lydia, Mr Chawleigh and the Dowager are all masterly. I have just been reading one of her detective novels where the Dowager is replicated, but with much less lightness if touch. " Laughing, dear ones?". And the search for the screwdriver and the live turtle.
And yes, the reality of so much of it. Jenny's embarrassment over lending Lydia pearls. Her awkwardness in telling Adam that she may be carrying his heir. The awfulness of the Chawleigh taste.
The one thing I would have expected though of Mr Chawleigh would be more religious observance. Once again GH doesn't face it. He might have been a non conformist but he would have been expected to subscribe to some church going activity/ charitable effort. It's less of a lack on the upper social side, but given Adam recognises that Jenny has been brought up in a stricter moral code than his, it's a gap.
The book is also plotted well. After all, the usual ending happend at the beginning.
So in fact the tensions are played out via a third party rival, Julia, unusual for GH where there is usually no rival, and also whether between them by design or gaucherie Ly Linton or Chawleigh will manage to destroy the marriage. It's by no means clear that the couple will find a way through until the end. And yes, that does come with Adam having money, with his ability then to see Chawleigh as an equal and be seen by him as one. The balance between FIL and SIL is critical to Jenny's happiness. Not surprising, given the number of threads on MN about ILs, but once again a more realistic view if life.
I also love the domestic detail, just as I love it in Venetia. Getting the kitchen to rights with a new enclosed stove, matching the curtains, using the china, sorting out the still room. Or rebuilding the cottages. Really important stuff. Real life country stuff..
Is there an illustration that anyone can refer me to about Jenny's Quakerish hairstyle? I haven't been able to track it down.
Yes, I find this novel very Mumsnet.
"DB's new wife wants to redecorate the house I grew up in, but she
is a bit of a chav IMHO has very different tastes from us. WIBU to ask her not to change anything?"
"DF keeps giving DH very generous presents, but it embarrasses DH. Should I suggest secret Santa for next Christmas?"
"I have to go away for work quite a lot and it would be nice if DW could come too. We have lots of support including 24/7 nanny cover but DW doesn't want to give up bf pfb. AIBU to leave them behind at home?"
More seriously, it's one of the few marriages that we know is consummated with any frequency. Julia is shocked when it is made obvious to her that Adam and Jenny must have done it and it is curious given that at that point they aren't intimate or affectionate with each other.
I think there are other novels where the wife expects the husband to stray. Off the top of my head, Horatia is warned by her mother that Rule won't be faithful; ditto Nell Cardross; both of those being marriages of convenience where the heroine was secretly in love with her husband all along, as here, but in which the husband falls in love with her in return, unlike here.
And in a similar vein we mustn't forget Hero and Sherry - whom I find much more similar to this, despite the obvious differences. Hero makes mistakes because she is young, Jenny because she is common, but they both learn and don't make mistakes twice.
Sherry and Lynton are the same age but couldn't be much more different - do we ever see Adam drunk or uncontrolled, for example? - but they are the two husbands who discuss TTC, however painfully.
Continuing your thought, Adam is repelled by the thought of Rock and Julia in bed, and GH is v clear that Jenny was matter of fact, not a shrinking it embarrassed bride when it came to the deed.
Venetia too, v clear that Damerel nay stray tho'he swears not, but that it is the underlying friendship that is important. He of course points out that they will have a wonderful sex life, her own orgy which she will enjoy very much.
it's one of the few marriages that we know is consummated with any frequency
That just made me laugh out loud - but you are so RIGHT. So many of the books end as the hero/heroine get together so there aren't many when we see a portrait of an ongoing marriage. Nell/Cardross & Rule/Horry are still in the "getting together" phase although they are wed, Worth & Judith have already procreated by the time we get to Infamous Army. So this is only time we see TTC without any romance -and yet that must have been so much the norm - the lying back and thinking of heirs.
And yy to the MN clash of two families who don't understand eachother - that one still plays out down the ages!
There's an oblique passing reference to the Rules' sex life (forgive me of all people for knowing the book well) when Horry visits her family before Lizzy's wedding.
And I think to Nell, because she is asked if she is increasing and mumbles something like no, can't be, not since Paris.
I don't think the speed at which they start ttc is unusual or unexpected, in spite if them not being well acquainted. Producing an heir is an aristocratic wife's first priority, preferably with a spare to follow. And they discuss it in that excruciatingly awkward carriage journey!
Adam is astonished why Jenny announces she is increasing, though - which makes me wonder if they have sex only infrequently?
I think we're certainly meant to assume that the reason Nell hasn't got pregnant is that her sex life with Cardross has fallen off a cliff.
I don't think he is astonished, I think he is surprised she hadn't told him sooner, and vastly amused by the manner in which she does tell him.
Does she do it that way because she's frightened, or prudish, or common, or just hormonal? Either way it's one of my favourite bits, along with the bit where Mr Chawleigh gives Jenny and Lydia a bottle of brandy for the journey and Adam says they'll be "as drunk as wheelbarrows" - great simile
I did tell DH that I was increasing and he totally failed to understand the message. I had to dig the stick out of the bathroom bin before he fully got it.
Adam isn't astonished and is quite sweet about it, I think.
Adam is just expecting a little more finesse, I think, less of the " baldly",.and " it was only to be expected" .
I completely agree that Nell's sex life has fallen off a cliff and she feels a failure, and so, like most of us, she goes shopping.....
I think Jenny wasn't planning to tell him for as long as possible, assuming he'd fuss the way her father would - the only other man she really knows. She tells him then because she needs to reassure him that she's not ill, but isn't happy about the potential fuss!
Chawleigh is funny about how women get when one of them is "in the straw" but it's odd that he and Adam feel pushed out of this very female process ... and then hire expensive male accoucheurs. Start of the overmedicalisation of birth perhaps?
I do feel sorry for Jenny on Dr Croft's Reducing Regime.
Especially as it was his reducing regime that prob caused Princess Charlotte's death.
Especially as it was his reducing regime that prob caused Princess Charlotte's death.
Join the discussion
Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.Register now
Already registered with Mumsnet? Log in to leave your comment or alternatively, sign in with Facebook or Google.
Please login first.