I am going to gush.
I've read a lot of Georgette Heyer - as the originator of the regency romance, she is a hugely influential author. She is a talented, careful writer with a flair for comedy, and some of her best books are also some of her funniest.
A Civil Contract is a departure from her usual formula, and it knocked my socks off. It begins with Adam Deveril being forced to return home from his position in the Army, as his spendthrift father has unexpectedly died in a riding accident, and he has inherited Fontley, the rapidly deteriorating family seat, and a whole pile of debt incurred by his improvident parent. I'm sure he intended to remake the family fortunes, if he could step away from the gaming table/horse races long enough to stop losing money, but whatevs, dad. Way to go.
Adam is most definitely not cut from same cloth as his father, though they may share a tailor. He is a clear-eyed realist with some actual scruples, and it becomes apparent that Fontley is going to have to be sold to pay for the debts left behind when dad kicked off the mortal coil. His business manager is relieved to note that Adam doesn't seem to have many illusions about winning back the family fortunes on the turn of a card, but isn't thrilled to see the family seat go out of the family, and suggests that Adam look about for an heiress to marry.
Adam, on the other hand, is deeply infatuated with the sylph-like Julia Oversley, this year's most popular and sought after debutante. And Julia reciprocates these affections. He realizes that he can't marry Julia, given that once Fontley is sold he will quite literally not even have a pot to pee in, but in the interests of love, he is going to sacrifice himself on the altar of bachelorhood.
And then he meets Jonathan Chawleigh, a wealthy Cit whose made his fortune in trade. Here there be cashflow. Chawleigh has no illusions about Adam being likely to fall in love with his daughter, the ordinary Jenny, but that's all right with him. He wants Jenny to marry into a social class to which he himself will never gain entry. While he was hoping for an Earl, Adam, a mere Viscount, will do.
He meets Jenny. Small, a bit plump, with a short neck, she is no Julia. But they get on, a bit, and agree to marry.
"He was obliged to master an impulse to retreat, and to tell himself that her acceptance of the proposed match was no more coldblooded than his own.
He was quite as pale as she, and he replied, in a strained voice: ‘Miss Chawleigh, if you feel that you could bear it I shall count myself fortunate. I won’t offer you false coin. To make the sort of protestations natural to this occasion would be to insult you, but you may believe me sincere when I say that if you do me the honour to marry me I shall try to make you happy.’
She got up. ‘I shall be. Don’t think of that! I don’t wish you to try to – Only to be comfortable! I hope I can make you so: I’ll do my best. And you’ll tell me what you wish me to do – or if I do something you don’t like – won’t you?’"
And so it begins. They marry, and try to make a life together.
There are several times in this book where my heart just broke for Jenny. She is obviously in love with Adam - she had been friendly with Julia and had met him while he danced attendance on her much prettier friend. But she is wise beyond her years, and realizes that while she cannot compete with Julia in looks or fairylike appeal, she is married to him, and Julia is not. She sets out to make a place for herself the only way she knows how: by becoming the mistress of Fontley, by not complaining if he is late, by making sure he has his tea how he likes it. If this sounds like Jenny is masquerading as a Golden Retriever, well, I can understand that. But that's not how it felt. It felt wise. And generous.
And, in the end, Jenny shows herself to be a better person, and a better wife, than the immature and self-centered Julia would have been. Speaking to Julia as she makes the claim that it is Jenny who has gained the most as a result of the marriage, Adam says:
"He did not answer for a moment, and then he said gently: ‘I owe Jenny a great deal, you know. She studies all the time to please me, never herself. Our marriage – isn’t always easy, for either of us, but she tries to make it so, and behaves more generously than I do. Given her so much! You know better than to say that, my dear! I had nothing to give her but a title – and I wonder sometimes if she sets any more store by that than you would."
Finally, charmingly, convincingly, Adam falls in love with "his Jenny," not in the infatuated way that a callow youth loves a lovely girl, but with gentle and real commitment:
"Yet, after all, Jenny thought that she had been granted more than she had hoped for when she had married him. He did love her: differently, but perhaps more enduringly; and he had grown to depend on her. She thought that they would have many years of quiet content: never reaching the heights, but living together in comfort and deepening friendship. Well, you can’t have it both ways, she thought, and I couldn’t live in alt all the time, so I daresay I’m better off as things are."
And so, Heyer convinces me that, in the end, they will be a truly happy couple. Adam will fondly remember his brief but passionate love for Julia. But he will always come home to Jenny, because she, as it turns out, is the love of his life.
"After all, life was not made up of moments of exaltation, but of quite ordinary, everyday things."