Last week I read and enjoyed Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, a fluffy romantic comedy set in Regency England. My brain was begging for another fun romp, so I downloaded another Heyer, A Civil Contract, from the library. But A Civil Contract was not at all what I expected and I think this may have been a big part of why it left me a bit cold.
Warning: This review contains medium-sized spoilers
The hero of A Civil Contract is Adam Deveril, Viscount Lynton, whose father has just died when the book opens. The late Viscount mismanaged the family’s estate into the ground and Adam is faced with the prospect of selling off almost everything they own in order to provide for his mother and younger sisters. He breaks his engagement to the beautiful Julia, knowing he cannot possibly provide for a wife. His only option for saving his family’s ancestral estate and lands seems to be to marry an heiress, and soon his friends put him in the path of plump, shy Jenny Chawleigh and her domineering but extremely wealthy father.
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Adam and Jenny get married. Heyer deals realistically with what a marriage between two near-strangers must be like — in a word, awkward. Make that SUPER-awkward. Look up “awkward” in the dictionary and scenes from this book will probably be listed as examples. The two of them have to scramble for things to talk about and new sources of tension crop up in practically every chapter. Adam’s pride is wounded by Chawleigh’s lavish presents to the couple; Jenny wants desperately to please her new husband but knows she is not the wife he wanted. A Civil Contract is no comedy of manners–it is a study of the difficult first year of a marriage between two people who barely know each other and have little in common.
This was a bold experiment on Heyer’s part (A Civil Contract is one of her later books) but I think it doesn’t quite work. The biggest problem is that Adam and Jenny are both likable enough but … well, dull. Jenny spends the novel fretting over whether Adam is content and whether he has exactly the food he wants. Adam spends the novel being crabby about Chawleigh’s money and mooning over Julia. Adam has more character growth than Jenny does in the book, but overall I just wasn’t drawn in to their story. I also didn’t believe that Jenny would agree to the marriage in the first place — it’s established that she’s had a longstanding crush on Adam, but she’s repeatedly described as a very practical, down-to-earth character. She knows Adam is still pining for Julia. How practical is it to marry a man who is clearly going to spend a good chunk of their marriage making her feel inferior to his lost love?
Finally, I really disliked the condescending way Adam treats Jenny. He calls her “silly” or “goose” in every other sentence and seems to view her entire existence as something of a joke. If he were my husband I would probably put cyanide in his stupid macaroons. It’s hard to root for a romance when one partner treats the other with a mixture of indifference and contempt.
As I said, it’s possible that I didn’t love A Civil Contract because I was expecting it to be more like The Grand Sophy. But on final analysis I don’t think this one quite comes together, and despite the things I admired about it I can’t recommend it.