Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Georgette Heyer, A Civil Contract


Opening Passage:

The library at Fontley Priory, like most of the principal apartments in the sprawling building, looked to the southeast, commanding a prospect of informal gardens and a plantation of poplars, which acted as a wind-break and screened from view the monotony of the fen beyond. On an after noon in March the sunlight did not penetrate the Gothic windows, and the room seemed dim, the carpet, the hangings, and the tooled leather backs of the books in the carved shelves as faded as the uniform of the man who sat motionless at the desk, his hands lying clasped on a sheaf of papers, his gaze fixed on a clump of daffodils, nodding in the wind that soughed round the angles of the house, and passed like a shadow over the unscythed lawn.

Summary: It is a curious feature of falling in love that we tend to fall in love not with people but with Ideas of them; and all too often these Ideas are really more about how they might add extra interest to our own lives. We often fall in love more with the adventure, or pleasure, or stability a person suggests to us than with the person; and not uncommonly we reach a point at which the Idea and the person are really in jarring conflict.

Adam Deveril, Viscount Lynton, is in love with Julia Oversley -- beautiful, gracious, charming. But his father has left debts so great that any marriage with her is quite out of the questions. To shore up his accounts, and, more importantly, to provide for his sisters and mother, he makes an arrangement with Jonathan Chawleigh, a fantastically wealthy financier and businessman, and marries his daughter, Jenny. Jenny, plain and unaccomplished, has in fact been in love with Adam already, a love she regarded as hopeless -- and continues to regard as hopeless, because while Adam is kind and courteous, she knows he is still in love with Julia. But all of this is really a matter of Idea; it has nothing to do with reality, but with airy romantic dreams of a particular kind of life.

One of the nice things about this work is the richness of the characters. Mr Chawleigh is vulgar and overbearing -- but has the shrewd generosity of a self-made man, the paradoxical kind that can be simultaneously proud of having spared no expense for you and of having driven a hard bargain in doing so. Adam is courteous and thoughtful, but is regularly tripped up by his pride. Even Adam's mother, the ever-complaining Dowager, eventually shows that she can rise nobly to the occasion -- however short the occasion might be. The real people go beyond the Ideas we have about them; and that is an important thing in a book of this sort.

There are a number of Austenish themes that run in the background, but stay in the background. Both Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park are mentioned in passing, in what simultanously gives us something of the chronology of the work and flags these themes. Jenny's good sense is contrasted with Julia's sensibility. Likewise, improvement (in the landscape sense) serves to suggest points about improvements (in the moral sense), as Fontley moves from a romantic ruin to something that actually works. But these are, again, generally in the background, giving an extra color to the work; they are not carry-overs from Austen, but put to somewhat different uses. I think they are (besides the importance of marriage) major contributors to the Austen-like character readers often talk about when talking about this work.

Favorite Passage:

Toward the end of the month, Mr Chawleigh arrived at Fontley to attend the birth of his grandchild. He found Jenny in good health, calmly awaiting the event, all her preparations made, and her house in order, but this in no way assuaged his too-evident anxiety. Adam though that it would have been better for Jenny had a he remained in London, but he had not had the heart to close his doors to him, and could only hope tht he would not make Jenny nervous. But two days before Jenny began to be ill the household was cast into astonishment by the wholly unexpected arrival of the Dowager, who had come (she said) because she felt it ot be her duty to support dear little Jenny through her ordeal, and lost no time at all in bringing both Mr Chawleigh and Adam to a sense of their folly, uselessness, and total irrelevance.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

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