Monday, June 2, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer

Time for another novel by Georgette Heyer. When I want to spend some time with good people while they sort out their love lives, I’ve come to depend on Heyer’s novels. They are sweetly old-fashioned. I know what to expect, more or less, when I pick one up. (Which can be a good thing—I don’t need edge of my seat excitement as long as I’m not bored.) They are always witty and engaging, and simply pleasant to read.

In A Civil Contract, the hero is Adam Deveril, now Viscount Lynton since his father has unfortunately died. The father was much loved by society, but he was a terrible gambler who left his family deeply in debt. His son was quite contentedly ignorant of the family finances, doing his duty as Captain Deveril, fighting Napoleon in the waning days of the war (part one.) But Lynton sells his commission and returns home to settle his affairs. He soon realizes he must sell the family estate, Fontley. This is their country home, which he and his sisters love, and the thought of losing it is almost too terrible to contemplate. He also must break off the "understanding" with the woman he loves, Julia Oversley. Julia’s parents are much relieved but Julia takes it hard, insisting she wouldn’t mind being poor, although it’s obvious from her response that she doesn’t quite fathom what it would actual mean to be as poor as Lynton is about to become. His only hope, suggested by his man of business and by Julia’s father, is to marry an heiress. Although other men have done so and there’s no dishonor in such a course, Lynton is appalled by the suggestion.

The heroine is, naturally, the heiress: Jenny Chawleigh. Motherless from a young age, Jenny was brought up by her large hearted but overbearingly middle class father, a man who puts a price tag on everything. He was devoted to his wife, who died in childbirth along with the son she was unable to provide him. Jenny is going to inherit a huge fortune. He and his wife always thought it would be nice if she were to one day have a title. Mr. Chawleigh is determined to buy her one. Despite Lynton’s initial reluctance, it does seem the practical solution since he can’t marry Julia. Jenny is short, plump, and plain, but she’s not a bad sort and she doesn’t expect him to love her. So they are married.

The plot of the story follows the first year or so of their marriage as they get to know one another. It’s a gentle story. Woven into the background is Napoleon’s defeat, exile, escape, and re-defeat. Lynton, an ex-army man, is more interested in this than his society friends who find the goings-on in France more of a nuisance than anything else, but his concern adds depth to his character and nuance to the plot.

Heyer’s gift for character development is what make her stories compelling.

Lynton has to fall out of love with Julia before he can begin to appreciate Jenny. Julia is a great beauty but she is self-centered and histrionic. Other men (and women) recognize this about her long before Lynton does. Even when he begins to realize Julia might not have been the right woman for him, there is still a sense that a part of him will always love her. It’s annoying, but realistic.

Jenny is sensible, pragmatic, and generous. (To a fault, almost. Only once does she break down and scold Lynton, who deserves it more often, and then she apologizes to him. To his credit, he recognizes his own shortcomings, but I’m not sure he quite understands how deeply he hurts her. Everyone always says Jenny is sensible but lacks sensibility. She doesn’t lack it, she just represses it well.) She loves Lynton from the start. Her patience and her ability to bend to accommodate him do, in the end, win his love. It may be an "old married friendship" kind of love rather than the passionate romantic type of love that she saw he felt for Julia, but she is content enough with that. As well she should be, yet it almost seems like she still feels she took second place.

So, it’s a bit unusual for a Romance. The two people who should end up together do. They have their happily-ever-after ending. And yet, they don’t discover at the end that they actually are passionately in love. And that’s one of the reasons I love Georgette Heyer’s novels. Although well within the mold for Regency Romance, something a little poignant pops out that makes them memorable.

I'm almost halfway through my historical fiction challenge (hosted by Historical Tapestry.)

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