Heyer, Georgette. A Civil Contract.

NY: Putnam, 1961.

In addition to The Grand Sophy, I think this one is one of the best “Regency romances” by the author who invented that genre. Actually, it’s sort of an anti-romance, coming down in favor of deep friendship and levelheaded practicality rather than dramatic passion. It’s 1814 and young Capt. Adam Deveril, recently recovered from a painful leg wound, has been yanked away from his regiment in Spain on the death of his father, Viscount Lynton, a close friend of the Regent and a hopeless speculator.

The new Lord Lynton, whose only interest has ever been in military matters, but who is now responsible for his widowed mother and his two sisters, is appalled to discover the decrepit state of the family’s finances. He believes he’s going to be forced to sell not only the house in town but even Fontley, the ancient family seat in the Lincolnshire fens. On top of that, he’s in love with Julia, the daughter of one of his father’s friends whom he saw a lot of the previous year while in London recovering from his wound. And then he’s approached by the widowed Jonathan Chawleigh, a self-made millionaire and an important figure in City finance, who has a daughter on whom he dotes. Jenny Chawleigh is short, plain of face and speech, and a bit chubby; she’s also an old friend of Julia’s. Mr. Chawleigh is aggressive but a fair dealer. He’s also a thorough vulgarian, quite lacking in taste, refinement, education, or any of the other accomplishments Society takes for granted, but he has a proposition for Adam: His money for the Lynton title. If Adam marries his daughter, thereby making her Lady Lynton (he was hoping to land an earl but he’ll settle for a viscount), he’ll retire the mortgages on the family estates and finance the recovery of the Lynton fortunes. Adam, in desperation, finally agrees. Such marriages of convenience between the aristocracy and the well-heeled merchant class (the despised “cits”) were not uncommon, of course. And that’s the set-up.

As we follow Adam and his new bride through their first year of marriage, it becomes apparent that he’s a decent person and sufficiently a gentleman to do his best to live up to his bargain, and that Jenny, while quite aware that she’s never going to arouse passion in her husband, is also willing to settle for a comfortable life together. Having managed her widowed father’s large household for years, she’s a skilled housewife (in the executive sense), and she also possesses a keen psychological insight into how other people’s minds work. And so they settle carefully into a quiet relationship, punctuated by her introduction into Society. Mr. Chawleigh, on the other hand, as aggressive in his openhanded generosity as he is in business, and never inclined to allow other people to say him nay, may drive Adam crazy. But, of course, it’s all going to come right in the end — though the passion never does appear. Heyer’s character portraits are, as always, first-rate and entirely convincing. Adam’s older sister and her love-match and his much young sister and her schemes to rescue the family fortune are delightful. And Heyer has a firm grip on the idiom and style of the late Napoleonic era. This is also an interesting balance to another very good Heyer novel, A Convenient Marriage. In fact, this story would make a terrific Masterpiece Theater production.


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