Wednesday, 1 February 2012

A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer

This is the edition I have; I don't think the dress is quite right for 1815, but not a bad effort!
It was a small miracle to find a Georgette Heyer novel I can't remember having read, and A Civil Contract is a delightful treat. My Century of Books is already beginning to reflect the diversity of writing in the twentieth century, and I'm being resolutely low- to middle-brow, so this seems an excellent choice for 1961. It's quite a late example - Heyer's career as a writer spanned more than 50 years and her Regency books are renowned for the meticulousness of their research and her knowledge of the period. Along with many others, I discovered her books in my teens and read them avidly, after which there was a long gap until relatively recently, when I found some battered paperbacks in the local library. Now a set of new (if horribly badly copy-edited) editions of both the Regency romances and her crime novels has appeared, and the latter, in particular, are obviously enjoying some success in station bookshops. Although they are quite formulaic, Heyer created some splendid characters, and any group of Heyer addicts can be found saying things like, "Frederica's the best, she's such fun and so reliable" or "My favourite heroine is Hero, and George is so wonderfully Byronic!" My own favourite is generally the one I'm reading at the time (though I do like Hero), and Jenny Chawleigh is an appealingly unromantic heroine who finds herself marrying Viscount Lynton to rescue him from destitution, while knowing that his affections are otherwise engaged. He's a nice man, a soldier who wouldn't have contemplated such an arrangement had he not a mother and two sisters to provide for, and a not-quite-rotting family pile in Lincolnshire.

Jenny's father, Jonathan Chawleigh, a Cit, provides broad comedy, but much of the story is about the sometimes painful process that the couple must undergo in adapting to each other, and Heyer does it beautifully. Here they are in the carriage together after their wedding breakfast:

"I'm not the wife you wished for, but I'll do my possible to behave as I should. You'll be wanting an heir, and I hope I shall give you one. I should like to have children, and the sooner the better. But that's for you to decide." She stopped, tightly folding her lips, and turned away her face, to look out of the window; but after a few moments, during which he tried to think of something, anything, to say to her, she spoke again, saying in a conversational tone: "This is a new thing for me, you know: to be going to stay in the country...."
A little later we see Jenny's determination to make it work. Adam becomes aware that:  
Jenny was sometimes shy, but never shrinking. 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.
Her concern for his comfort is paramount, but they come from very different backgrounds and she doesn't always immediately understand him, despite her best efforts. She does see that her father's generosity can be overbearing and that he has a tendency to trample on Adam's sensibilities without meaning to. She has, too, to deal with her long-suffering mother-in-law: Lady Lynton plays the role of martyr with much resignation and lots of protestations, never a care for her own comfort - even my own mother-in-law never managed to be self-effacing to quite so much effect - while Adam's aunt, Lady Nassington provides a lovely bracing contrast, being one of those indomitable females who always speaks her mind. But there's even more to contend with: Adam's first love, Julia, all fine feelings and vapours, is set to "make a cake of herself", swooning in public and making it absolutely clear to the ton that she's still in love with him, if she's not prevented. It falls, of course, to the practical Jenny to find a solution.

The Napoleonic War provides a background throughout the novel. I've mentioned Heyer's research already, and you can pick up quite a bit of history from her books. It's said that An Infamous Army is so insightful about Wellington's campaign that it was used as a text at Sandhurst, the British military college. I don't know whether that's really true, but I do know that Heyer had a vast collection of over 1000 books relating to her research. The books are all firmly located in the period: it's easy in A Civil Contract because the Battle of Waterloo takes place towards the end of the book, but you can have fun working out in which year a particular book is set (near the beginning of this one I was trying to date it from the building of Russell Square in London). I bookmarked this quote, both for its insight into the period and for its resonances with modern-day life:
...he thought no time could have been more ill-chosen for festivity than the present. He did not say so: his brief sojourn in London had made him realize that between the soldier and the civilian there was a gulf too wide to be bridged. It had been no hardship to cut his visit short. The season was in full swing: the looming struggle across the Channel seemed to be of no more importance to the ton than a threatened scandal, and was less discussed. To a man who had spent nearly all his adult life in hard campaigning it was incomprehensible that people should care so little that they could go on dancing, flirting, and planning entertainments to eclipse those given by their social rivals when the fate of Europe was in the balance.
I suppose, if I were to make a criticism, it would be that the main strand of the story is fairly familiar territory and that Heyer had covered it all 10 years before, but I think myself that many of the later books are as good as the earlier ones: Frederica and Cousin Kate were still to come when A Civil Contract appeared and, on the whole, if you like her, you'll suspend your critical faculties for the duration.

Finally, I thought we could have a brief look at covers over the years. Blogger won't let me arrange them very aesthetically, but here we are:

I like this, but it looks Victorian, not Regency: the hair is worn too low
This one works rather well,  I think, although it's the edition I complained is badly edited


This looks more like I imagine Jenny
Could anything be more unsuitable?


This is probably my favourite: like Lizzie Bennet, let's focus on the acres the heroine will acquire

5 comments:

  1. Just like you, I read my first Georgette Heyer novel as a teenager - actually, I had turned 13 less than half a year before -, and I loved it! I know what it was called in German but don't know the original title. The heroine's name was Leonie, and I've liked that name ever since.
    Trying to do the maths, I am quite sure it is about 20 years or more since I've last read one of her delightful books. Thank you for reminding me of her!

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  2. A Civil Contract is the only Heyer I've read so far, but I did love it and have meant to read more.

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  3. I've read nearly all of Heyer's Regency novels and adore them, but I fancy this is one I haven't read. Must grab it off my daughter sometime as she has all of them, whereas I own about half.

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  4. Librarian, it would be These Old Shades, I think...

    Cornflower, I always find them ideal when I'm suffering from any kind of fatigue, reading or otherwise. They do lift the spirits.

    Cath, how nice to have a daughter to share them with.

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  5. This is one of my favourite Heyer titles, so pleased you enjoyed it. The edition I own is the one you've shown in the middle on the bottom row.

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