Dec 29 2009 12:48pm

Sensible grown-ups and the battle of Waterloo: Georgette Heyer’s A Civil Contract

In Ken MacLeod’s Cosmonaut Keep  you can buy porn openly, but romance novels are sold under the counter in brown paper bags. Similarly in this world I’ve heard people talking about romance as porn for women, as if romance was filling some sort of erotic need. I think there are certainly some people who are wired that way, like one of the characters in Barbara Vine’s The Brimstone Wedding. I am not one of those people. The romances in fiction do not do much for me, and after reading a slew of romances when I was reading absolutely anything there was because it was there, I pretty much decided I only liked gothics.

I started reading Georgette Heyer years after that because people kept saying that Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor was like a romance novel, and I finally asked them where were the romance novels that it was like? Everybody mentioned Heyer, who wrote between the 1920s and the 1960s, with most of her best books being written during WWII. I started reading Heyer’s regency romances at random and didn’t find them much like Bujold, except in that they have great witty dialogue. If I liked them I generally liked them despite the romance, rather than because of it. Sylvester, for instance—can anyone really imagine those two will be together two weeks after the end of the book? I noticed that the less plot they had the better they tended to be. Nobody can write books in which nothing significant happens better than Heyer, she’s much better at rapier wit than actual swordplay, and at making tiny events cascade than at making drama plausible. I then read some of her books that are set outside the Regency, and I found she had far less skill at evoking other periods—her medieval dialogue was just embarrassing. Then I found A Civil Contract, which is far and away her best book, a romance I think many people can enjoy, even those who don’t much like romance.

Most of Heyer’s books take place in a vague world of 1800-1815, and most of the ones that have specific years and feature actual historical events are much less good. A Civil Contract takes place quite specifically between 1813 and 1815, and could take place at no other time. It’s the story of Captain Adam Deveril, recently become Viscount Lynton on the death of his profligate father, and how he gives up what he imagines to be true love with the flighty Julia to marry an heiress from a vulgar family and save his family fortunes. The majority of the book is set after the marriage, and is about the way two strangers come to live together and learn what love means.

Unlike all the other romance heroines in the world, Jenny is short, fat, and plain, and she doesn’t miraculously stop being these things. She’s also shy, and shyness makes her sometimes brusque. Her father is a wealthy merchant, and her sensibilities sometimes appal Adam’s more refined expectations. Now Adam is good-looking, and sensitive, and he has been a soldier for years and never wanted to be a land-owner. He’s also very particular and easily hurt, and he relies on good manners to get him through all kinds of situations where having a frank conversation might be a better idea. Adam winces away at the wrong times, especially from Jenny’s appalling father.

There’s none of Heyer’s weirdly vile racism here, because we don’t see anyone to provoke it. There’s not much of her odd classism either—she does claim that the fact that Jenny’s mother was a farmer’s daughter gives Jenny an instinctive liking for the country, but generally the whole class issue is centre stage here and dealt with very well. Jenny is admirable, despite all her disadvantages, her father is vulgar but a good person, Adam’s mother is a much less likeable person. Because she has to write about class directly and dead on, she can’t be obliquely odd about it, and it works.

Although the entire story is set in England, and the scene is mostly either London or the fen country, the whole plot rests on the Battle of Waterloo. Some people like Heyer’s book directly about Waterloo, An Infamous Army. That bored me, but I really like the way the history weaves in to the small scale character plot here, in just the way history does affect people’s lives.

There are no heaving bosoms here, no sudden romantic kisses, nobody is swept off their feet and those who want to be are not treated kindly by the text. It’s a relatively psychologically realistic study of people forced into intimacy and becoming comfortable together, in a stately home in the fens in 1815, while Napoleon escapes from Elba. It’s not a long book, I tore through it in an afternoon. Heyer’s generally comfort reading for me, and this is a thoroughly enjoyable and comforting story, and it quite cheered me up.

Most of Heyer is back in print in the UK now, and much of it is also being published in US editions, so with luck you should be able to get hold of it if you want it.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

mm Season
1. mmSeason
I've only lately got into historical fiction at all, and their being 'historical' on top of being 'romance' always put me completely off Georgette Heyer's books. Seems i ought to give her a try. Ah me, the Must Read list grows... (But thank you for growing it.)
Rob Munnelly
2. RobMRobM
I haven't read this but note that Bujold's A Civil Campaign expressly is dedicated to Heyer and a few other novelists.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
RobM: Bujold's A Civil Campaign is much closer to some other Heyer than it is to A Civil Contract.
4. OtterB
A Civil Campaign is one of my favorite Heyers now. I liked it less when I first read it as I was reading through all of Heyer, the summer after high school mumblety-mumblety years ago. That ties, to me, into your post on The Dazzle of Day about that being the kind of book you would have hated at 11. I can, at 50-something, still enjoy many books about going off and having adventures and discovering yourself and finding your place in the world and maybe finding true love or saving the world along the way. I can also enjoy books about making a life and connecting with people where you are, and those for the most part would have bored my teenage self to tears.

I once read an essay by a well-known children's author (and I can't remember who and wish I could) who said that she thought the difference between writing for children and writing for adults was a little like different kinds of books on chess. Books for adults are about the complexities of the middle game, while children are still learning what it means to win and lose, and what counts as an ending.

Civil Contract, despite its climax tied to the outcome of Waterloo, is a middle game book. So is Dazzle of Day. So is Lifelode, which I greatly enjoyed.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
OtterB: It's comments like that that make it all worthwhile. That chess insight is brilliant, thank you for remembering it.
6. Mrs. Micah
My mother loves both Bujold and Heyer, though I confess I've read more of the latter. I can't abide most romance authors and the rehashed plots and heaving bosoms they unleash. But Heyer, who really started the Regency Romance, was more interested in writing novels that are closer to adventure stories or society dramas than they are pure romances. Therefore I enjoy them. :)
Abigail Sutherland
7. evilrooster
My pseudo-grandfather gave me a copy of A Civil Contract when I was 14. He caught me reading science fiction and wanted to steer me to "more appropriate literature." (His other gift was an Agatha Christie novel.)

I doubt he had any idea what the book was about, who Georgette Heyer was, or why it was such a transformative gift. It gave me an entirely different picture of love and marriage than I had ever considered.

OtterB's comment about the "middle game" is right on the mark; it's a romance novel about being married rather than getting married.

(His intervention didn't stop me reading SF; it just widened my taste. And it was only years later that I discovered how many readers, writers and editors whom I admire share this particular secret vice.)

ETA: I gave my mother several books for Christmas this year, all ones she hadn't tried out that I thought she might enjoy. In addition to Cordelia's Honor and The Yiddish Policeman's Union, she got a copy of A Civil Contract. I do wonder what she'll think of it.
8. OtterB
Jo, you're very welcome. I was poking around the random assortment of books in the basement looking for one of two books that I think the quote might be in, and can't find either of them. I can picture the size, shape, and color of the cover on the most likely source, but can't remember title or author, and neither of them are turning up. Oh well. The analogy holds.

evilrooster, that's an interesting combination of books. My mom read some of my Heyers and enjoyed them, but never cared for SFF at all; mysteries were her genre. My dad, on the other hand, was mostly a nonfiction-and-history person, but picked up a Heinlein I left lying around and read similar things intermittently from then on.
Abigail Sutherland
9. evilrooster

My mother would never describe herself as a fan, and has none of the fannish cultural markers, but she has always read (and watched) a lot of science fiction and fantasy. I grew up hearing the classics of the genre read aloud.

But her taste hasn't grown. She doesn't try out new authors, at least not in SF&F. She'll pick up a new thriller author or a new mystery writer in a bookstore, but she doesn't go into the dragons and spaceships department and browse.

So I was trying to recommend a couple of newer works that she'd like. I think she'd really take to both Miles and Cordeila, if she can get into the books. And she's already enjoying the Chabon. I sense some internal resistance to reading a romance novel, but she has an 11-hour plane flight home and only so much battery life on her laptop.
10. Farah Mendlesohn
It helps to know, I think, that the books were not originally marketted as romance. The covers and the blurbs of the first editions placed them simply as novels of manners.
11. Maria Bear Mountain Books
Have you read Barbara Michaels? More gothic than romance, perhaps a bit of horror or at least darkness--AWESOME mysteries. AWESOME. I haven't tried G. Heyer's but for some reason they've been popping up a lot on a few of my reading group forums. Maybe they were just re-released or maybe the ebook revolution has helped them be rediscovered?
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
I read Michaels Ammie Come Home after it was recommended in the Gothics thread, and I'm afraid I didn't think much of it -- the horror/ghost element was ludicrous, and I didn't find the characters very convincing.
13. Sartorias
I wish I could see it through your eyes. The last time I reread it ten or fifteen years ago, the class division seemed to leak through in how Jenny was ugly. Heyer's novels tend to suggest that blood will always tell, and this one is no different.

I also found it melodramatic that Jenny is secretly in love with the hero and so has to suffer all along in silence. I would find it much more interesting if it really was a marriage of commerce, and they were strangers who, with no more than good will, have to find accomodation. Though I do like the very last page.
14. kwnewton
I'm not sure if it's pure classicism GH exhibuts or some pre-Skinner Lamarkian ideas about behavior being embedded in genes. In THESE OLD SHADES, a character who was born a farmer but raised as an aristocrat longs to live in the country. I suppose people did used to believe that happened.

My favorite GH book is THE FOUNDLING, partly because the hero is short and slight and ends up falling into rather comfortable love with a pleasant-looking but not gorgeous woman of his own order when she shows that she's a) willing to take risks and b) not mercenary or proud. Another favorite is ARABELLA where the heroine is far from perfect but does at least demonstrate an active social conscience in her regard for poor people and mistreated animals.

I think the "comedy of manners" label is what ties Bujold to Heyer. They both do create another world with its own set of rules, and then put characters on stage who break them.
15. houseboatonstyx
Good point about chess. So what does it say about me that at age 11 or so I loved Angela Thirkell?

I see some books as framed designs and some as yardarge. Yardage is a slice of manners I suppose, in which beginning and ending states are less important. Thirkell's Barsetshire, later Oz and middle Xanth (well, okay, those are milieu not manners), Nero Wolfe's NY....
Pamela Adams
16. PamAdams
It's not snowing, but I do have a cold- hooray for A Civil Contract! My personal favorite bit is the part where Adam goes to his father-in-law's office to discuss Jenny's pregnancy- Mr. Chawleigh rages and roars, but Adam waits him out, and even manages to be amused. The office staff is amazed that he survived.
Peter D. Tillman
17. PeteTillman
I added your typically excellent review to

--as I have many of your others. Though
your Plato review was rejected as not by a serious-enough person! Let's see if I can find it:

Sorry, Jo. Can't have "undue weight to the blogger in question" in an encyclopedia, you know...

"It is dangerous to be sincere unless you are also stupid."
--George Bernard Shaw
Jo Walton
18. bluejo
Pete: I'm sorry, I think they're quite right -- I don't think my burbling about Plato ought to be in that article!
19. Miss Blake
This was never one of my favorite of the GH books. I couldn't remember it at all and I know a lot of her books by heart: These old Shades, Devil's Cub, The Masqueraders, Frederica. I've read most of the others over 30 times each, except for this one.
So I'm giving it a re-read. I think it's odd for you to say "There’s not much of her odd classism either" because it's all about class. Admittedly the fact that Jenny isn't completely genteel despite her background makes it much more refreshing. Unlike Leonie in These Old Shades who becomes an instant Duchess after being raised as a French peasant and a boy for ten years or Mary in Devil's Cub who somehow rises above her maternal family's vulgarity by the in born grace of her father's respectable blood!
I'm on page 145 now and I'm enjoying it, though this is definitely a Heyer where the secondary characters are grabbing more attention then Adam and Jenny who so far are rather dull.
I guess I'll see how the whole book stands up!
20. missblake
It's a Heyer so it's better then average but it's not what I would recommend to the first time Georgette Heyer reader. It has some laughs and tender moments but the Hero and Heroine are so dull it's painful. The secondary characters take over completely otherwise this would just be a sad story about a marriage of convenience where the Hero gives up his youthful passionate love and dutifully learns to appreciate his heiress wife even in spite of the fact that she is a 'Cit' and comes from a less rarified social background and has a loud vulgar father whose money saved his financial ass. BTW- the vulgar Papa Chawleigh and the irreverent younger sister of the Hero are what gives this book any kind of spark or heart at all.
This is not the romance I want to read about if I'm reading about PASSION -and nothing happens in a Heyer beyond closed doors but the love stories are still really romantic-not like this where love is all about duty and learning to accept the worst in a shape of a nice housewife who "doesn't know" the proper way to behave in Regency society, shaming the hero with her desire to give him things that he considers vulgar...
Who wants to be loved dutifully? Not me.
Anyone who wants to read a Georgette Heyer should read These Old Shades because it's way more awesome and funny and scary and tragic and perfect. It's everything a romance story should be.
PS- Any one can get away reading Georgette Heyer because she is "Classic" and invented a whole literary genre!
21. jekni
The racism and classism are by-products of Heyer's Edwardian upbringing and prefectly in step with her background. At the time most of her books were written these opinions raised no eyebrows at all. And Heyer was certainly not alone in expressing them. It's only when we apply our 21st century sensibilities to her works that the attitudes jar.
Jo Walton
22. bluejo
Jekni: Do you think that if you were a Jewish reader of The Grand Sophy at the time it was written you wouldn't have been jarred by it because you didn't have C.21 sensibilities? Because I really don't think so. We live in a time in which casual anti-Semitism is apparent even to people who are not themselves Jewish. I cannot but see this as an improvement. (And people were going head on against it long before that. George Eliot in Daniel Deronda, for instance.)

I am always ready to consider the period in which something was written, and I think that Heyer was slightly worse than average for the period in which she was brought up, and much worse than average for time later in her life in which she was still writing. And while I absolutely acknowledge that it isn't at all the same as if she expressed these sentiments now, we live and read now, and if we're going to find something in older fiction to wince at, I don't think it should all be swept under the carpet. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy the books anyway, but the existence of the thing and the likely discomfort ought to be acknowledged.
23. etv13
"Because she has to write about class directly" -- this strikes me as an odd way of thinking about it. It's not as if writing A Civil Contract was an assignment in a creative writing class. She chose to write about class directly, and this is what she wrote. I think it's an amazing achievement to make Adam as sympathetic as he is, while still showing how painful his attidues are to Jenny, and all the energy and charm of Lydia's relationship with Mr. Chawleigh.
Jo Walton
24. bluejo
ETV13: Yes, she certainly chose to write about it directly. It's just that when she was actually focusing on class, here, all the nasty subconscious classism you see in, for instance, Arabella, doesn't come out like that, and this is a great improvement.
25. jekni
Indeed. It's times like these I wish my (Jewish) mother was still alive so I could ask her what her thoughts were. She was a great fan of Heyer but never talked about the inherent racism with me - of course I was only 22 when she died so perhaps we just never got around to that particular conversation.

I'm not suggesting (or at least I thought I wasn't) that these things should be 'swept under the carpet' and and discomfort ignored, merely that I didn't find her attitudes particularly surprising for the reasons I stated. Your mileage obviously varies.
26. S.M. Stirling
I've never felt the slightest "discomfort" in reading stuff set in the past, and/or written then, because it incorporates different attitudes; to be frank, I find the whole concept rather odd.
27. S.M. Stirling
In talking about "class" in the Regency (which Heyer caught rather well), you have to bear in mind that the way society was organized and conceptualized was quite different from ours. Or even from the High Victorian period.

Having a lot of money didn't put you in the upper classes, as this novel points out. To be genuinely upper-class you had to be first, a substantial land-owner, and second, accepted as such by the rest of that rather exclusive group of about four thousand heavily intermarried families.

A wealthy banker or merchant (or still worse, industrialist) might have more money than many squires, or even peers, but he was still distinctly middle-class. He wouldn't have political power outside his locality and he wouldn't be accepted socially as an equal. It wasn't until after the 1880's that Britain had a Cabinet in which aristocrats weren't predominant, for example, and that was an exception at the time.

England's social system being rather more flexible than most parts of Europe, you could "translate" money into aristocratic status, but it took a considerable amount of time and effort. You had to put your money into land, for example, or some other form of property that didn't require constant business management. Often only your children or grandchildren would be fully accepted.

And there were distinct cultural differences between the landed classes and other wealthy groups, much less the commonality. By the aristocracy's standards, most urban arrivistes actually -were- vulgar, uncouth, grasping and mercenary.

If they hadn't been, they wouldn't have been able to claw their way to the top of a sharply hierarchical society that was as merciless as a machine to the weak.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment