We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Georgette Heyer's _Civil Contract_ · 4 March 07

Dear Marianne,

Some members of EighteenthCenturyWorlds reread well-known historical fiction. Here is a critique by Nick Hay of Georgette Heyer’s Civil Contract. Nick’s is the first accurate evaluative critique of Heyer I’ve seen anywhere and I’ve tried to find one now and again.

Thus Nick:

"Plot Summary

Adam Deveril, the hero, is soldiering in Spain when his father dies; he thereby becomes Viscount Lynton and on returning home finds that his inheritance is a mountain of debt which will force him to sell the ancestral home, Fontley Priory in the Fens. He is advised that the only way out of his dilemma is to marry an heiress from the merchant class. Although he initially dismisses the idea an old friend of his father’s (also the father of the beautiful Julia whom Adam loves) introduces him to Jonathan Chawleigh a very rich merchant and widower who’s ambition is to marry his plain daughter Jenny into the nobility. Adam allows himself to be carried along with the idea and the two are married; Adam in complete ignorance of the fact that Jenny has loved him since she met him (she was a great friend of Julia’s).

These events occur within the first seven chapters and the vast bulk of the book is concerned with the first years of their marriage: Adam’s desire to resist Jonathan’s well-meaning attempts to take over their life, Julia’s hysteria then marriage to a middle-aged ‘rake’, Jenny’s pregnancy and the birth of an heir, Adam’s youngest sister Lydia’s love-life.

The culmination of the book occurs at the time of Waterloo. Adam is advised by Jonathan to sell all his Government stock; instead believing in his hero Wellington he buys at a very low price and so is able to make enough money (when the stocks rise after news of the victory comes through) to be able to invest in his farms and live independently.

I should start by saying that I have read most of Heyer’s so-called ‘Regency Romances’ and, as a few of them are comfort reads, some of them several times. It is also as well to get one thing out of the way at the beginning, which is the extent to which her books are reflections on or pastiches of Austen. I do not believe they are pastiches, but they are influenced by and do reflect on Austen. In this case we clearly have a reference to Sense and Sensibility in the characters of Julia and Jenny (Julia describes Jenny as "full of common-sense … without much sensibility"). However I am not the right person to discuss these matters; I also think that the plot summary given above shows that Heyer’s book is sufficiently removed from any Austen book. At its heart is the analysis of a marriage (it is true this is unusual in Heyer). So I shall ignore this aspect.

The next thing is to make two general statements about Heyer. First, she was a dedicated reactionary, deeply Conservative. Secondly, she was obsessive about period detail.

Both of these traits emerge over time. Her earliest books are adventure romps, incidentally set much earlier, the mid 18thC; it was only from the 1940’s that she developed what may be seen as the classic Heyer style and set the books very firmly in the period 1800-20, most often in the years immediately before and after Waterloo. A Civil Contract is very much in the classic Heyer style.

It will be seen from the plot summary that these are not books which rely on spectacular events or narrative fireworks. Much of the action is mundane and domestic. This is not to say that Heyer was not an excellent story-teller; she certainly was. But the classic books are marked by a general absence of violence either literal or psychological. She was constantly playing with, possibly stretching, the confines of the romance genre without ever really challenging them. She was a self-deprecating figure who poked fun at her own work.

These are all lines of enquiry which could be profitably pursued. But I intend to concentrate on the issue of how Heyer used the ‘Regency Romance’ to pursue her political agenda and the highly selective way in which she portrayed Regency society to do so.

Her novels are always set amongst the aristocracy. The aristocracy is a ruling class – and this order is portrayed as almost wholly positive. Of course there are ‘bad’ aristocrats, but the order as a whole is never questioned. This is a socially immobile world and such social immobility is excellent. In A Civil Contract the rich merchant, Jonathan Chawleigh, is essentially good-hearted but he is also crude, dim, tasteless.

Heyer performs a neat sleight of hand here. While she has to admit that Chawleigh is immensely rich, he is never presented as having any political or social power; that resides with the aristocracy however impoverished they may be. Heyer must have known that this was rubbish, that political and economic power could not be divorced; but her Conservatism was such that she preferred to ignore this and the Regency world allows her the scope to perform this trick.

Equally, of course, we are permitted no sight of any of the poverty, hunger, oppression, vast inequality of the time. Servants are minor characters, usually totally loyal to their Masters or Mistresses. They have at most a comedy value. But they are always satisfied. This wholly imaginary world is very much better than the 20thC. That is Heyer’s fundamental trick: aristocratic rule is seen as better than democracy. This sleight is disguised by the romantic and narrative elements of the books.

How then does gender play out in this parade of reaction? This is
much more complicated, not least because Heyer was mainly writing for women (and she was a very commercially aware writer).

Heyer’s heroines are often of a slightly inferior social class to her heroes. (In fact A Civil Contract contains probably the widest social gap that exists.) I certainly cannot think of any example where they are of a superior social class. Like her heroes, her heroines fall into two main categories. The first, what one might term the dashers: adventurous, dashing; the second, one might term the good: patient and kind. There is no hard and fast line between the two, but the categories exist. Jenny in A Civil Contract is clearly of the second type. Her heroes fall into two similar categories and again Adam is of the second type.

It is with the gender politics that Heyer is most willing to play with the boundaries of genre convention. Here is her initial description of Jenny …

‘Uncharitable persons had been known to describe her as
a little squab figure … There was a suggestion of squareness about her; she was already plump, and would probably become stout in later life. She was certainly not a beauty, but there was nothing in the least objectionable in her countenance.’

She also has small eyes, ‘mouse-coloured’ (?) hair, a ‘small determined mouth’ and ‘a button of a nose’.

This is certainly not the traditional picture of a heroine of a popular romance. Julia on the other hand is a thin, ‘ethereal’ blonde.

But while her heroines can push the bounds of genre convention in terms of appearance, gender roles are far more rigid and reactionary. Wives are home-makers and mothers. In A Civil Contractz Jenny knows that she will never be able to be sexually desirable to Adam in the way that Julia was but she will ‘make him comfortable’ and be an unending support. At the end of the book she explicitly settles for this …

‘After all life was not made up of moments of exaltation, but of ordinary, everyday things’.

How clever all this is! Heyer enshrines her Conservatism in an appeal to her readers’ own experience – any dissatisfaction they might have, any desire for more is unreal; they should get on with things and accept their lot in life. To do otherwise is to be selfish – as Julia is portrayed to be – to be unrealistic, to court disappointment. The lesson is sugar-coated because Julia is given a happy marriage to her middle-aged rake who marries from lust (as will be obvious this is stripping away the portrayal in the book!).

There is a natural order in all things, the political, the social, questions of gender. To challenge that order is both wrong and disastrous. The world was a far happier place when this order was in place.

It goes without saying that Heyer’s Regency World (which is portrayed in staggering detail – if you want to know what the aristocracy of the time wore, ate, sat on, drove about in etc. there is no better place to go) is a wholly fictional construction. Her great gift (and this is where all that detail plays such an important part) is to make it believable. When she has done this, she can use it as a vehicle for her political preoccupations.

I have been harsh on the book in an attempt to deconstruct what I see as its political message; in fact it is, like most of the books from her classic period, a highly enjoyable light-read. Heyer is a very fine story-teller and the book is enlivened by flashes of wit. But I wanted to concentrate on how a 20thC writer can use the period for their own ends.


This is the first time in all the many times I’ve read a summary and critique of a novel by Georgette Heyer where

1) the writer has actually given me some sense of the content. I am willing to credit Heyer is only superficially reminiscent of Austen. Over the years how many times I’ve read assertions X is "just like" Y (especially when X’s book is a sequel), and if I read the book, I find it’s inaccurate to the point of distorting the very center of the book and its literal events;

2) someone has shown what others might like about the book. For example,

"It is with the gender politics that Heyer is most willing to
play with the boundaries of genre convention.Here is her
initial description of Jenny…

‘Uncharitable persons had been known to describe her as
a little squab figure…There was a suggestion of squareness about her; she was already plump, and would probably become stout in later life. She was certainly not a beauty, but there was nothing in the least objectionable in her countenance.’ She has small eyes,
‘mouse-coloured’ (?) hair, a ‘small determined mouth’ and
‘a button of a nose’.

This is certainly not the traditional picture of a heroine of
a popular romance. Julia on the other hand is a thin, ‘ethereal’

In Nick’s critique for the first time I’ve seen a passage from Heyer where she seems to me to have some genuine thought or feeling in it even if it’s in terms of reversing a cliche (which is not reality).

For myself I have never been able to get past the third page of a Heyer novel, and I’ve through it’s the unreality of the language which makes me choke as a stream of cliches in sentences, but you point out what is probably another source of my distaste each time I try;

3) A genuine explanation of in what ways and areas Heyer’s extreme conservativism surfaces throughout the book.

Now I can read conservatives, but there are some types I can endure better than others. I can’t abide because I find pernicious and personally radically annoying to read: the type which makes women into cogs in family systems and unreal romance. That’s what I remember being irritated by: the false presentation of how men treat women and what sexual life before outside marriage for many women is like. Such falsifications play into the notion that if you obey social rules as a woman you will necessarily be rewarded and safe. If you end up safely with enough money and no beatings or humilation, it’s not because you played according to the rules: perhaps you were born with enough money and prestige from your parents, and they protected you; or you had a thick-skin, dense outlook, strong ego and acted as ruthlessly as the men who would have smelt a victim if they could.

Another type I can’t abide is that which ignores all poverty and anguish; and the type which denies power to the powerful. It seems Heyer’s formula unerringly hits just on these most painful of realities and erases them.

In addition, it’s fascinating and revealing to see that in many film adaptations it’s precisely this formula of "you must not be selfish" and if you obey, you will get the kind gentleman-father as a husband and beautiful sweet obedient children who will love you and be worldly successes too. What else is the portrait of Lady Glencora Palliser (played by Susan Hampshire) in the 1974 film adaptation of Trollope’s famed Palliser novels. Lady Glen was infantilized when the presentation of pre-marital relationships with men was presented. Here she is in the still chosen to sell the series on the covers of video cassettes: Susan Hampshire is all child-like abstracted innocence against the intense (in the series a heart-wrenching role) Barry Commons as rake-Burgo:

After marriage, despite the occasional very bitter moment, Lady Glen is presented as basically safe and happy (if without erotic love, presented as violent by Raven in any case, and utterly egoistic on the part of ruthless "animal" man) because with a noble good man. And again here is the "mascot" picture of the series: after marriage, Hampshire adoring wife of kind-father-husband who is giving her all that is good for her to have, Plantagenet Palliser (played by Philip Latham):

Latham often played clever disillusioned detective males in better dramas on the BBC in the 1970s—just the role Bryan Marshall who played Wentworth in the 1971 Persuasion used to play on BBC then. The heroines in the 1970s series were given careful father-husbands.

How many women I’ve met who have insinuated these values when they "complain" (trivialized and bad-mouthed as "whining") and also hold up to themselves their bank accounts, owned home, and kindly forbearing husband (as long of course as she spends her life doing with him what he wants to do). It’s been reinforced by these glamorous folk types. The above photos fit a Heyer outlook to a T.

As for obsession with "period detail," time and time again good film studies (there are some) report how the average and literal-minded reader will seek out just these inane period details to prove to him (or herself), he is learning solid information and will object and call the film or book unreal if some out-of-the-way detail can be "proved" to be anachronistic.

I sometimes think the reason most criticism in the public media is so false and bad is a kind of conspiracy to sell the book (so you coo over it), not offend your friends (the critic wants his or her work to be published, praised, to be invited to the right parties, put on "crucial committees); it’s easy and most are lazy and will not work when the kind of work is not valued by the many (and you are not paid for it). But I am partly wrong. Many critics don’t write lucid and useful criticism because they are unable to.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Gracia from Austen-l

    "It’s not entirely true that the underworld of poverty and misery is invisible in Heyer. There is a significant sequence in ARABELLA about the nightmarish life of a chimney sweep. Arabella, the daughter of her clergyman father, refuses to be the secure, ladylike, and trivialized female, and makes things uncomfortable for all by standing up for this abused child. The hero of THE NONPAREIL quietly devotes himself to save-the-world projects. Of course this is individual charity and no real social change is envisioned (any more than it is in A CHRISTMAS CAROL).

    Gracia Fay"
    Elinor    Mar 6, 7:37am    #
  2. This defense of Heyer proceeded along lines we can find some poverty in this or that particular book, and then turned to suggest Dickens is no serious social critic -- a slur. One reason his Christmas Carol has been popular is it’s a fable of retrieval for one person, for redemption. It’s not Dickens’s only book, and he was himself active in all sorts of ways to change his world, and in every one of his novels (including CA), he means to show the cruelty and injustice of the world’s powerful hierarchies of privilege and power, their hypocrisies, and in some attacks institutions. No where are the power cliques of the world glamorized.

    The way to defend Heyer would be to analyze her books and in general and what do we find …

    Elinor    Mar 6, 7:41am    #
  3. Nick wrote in response to Garcia’s objections:

    "I didn’t have time or space to consider things in detail in my post and I wanted to convey a general theory, all of which necessarily involved considerable simplification.

    I know of both the examples cited – in the case of Arabella (and I had specifically mentioned in the post that some of Heyer’s heroines are adventurous, dashing’)the sweep is a small boy and our heroines’ adoption of him is hardly radical.

    Likewise in The Nonesuch (Gracia has the book title wrong – although I don’t like picking up on details this one needs pointing out :)) – the hero runs orphanages … when asked why he replies … Tradition, and upbringing I suppose. My father, and grandfather before him, were considerable philanthropists; ... so you may say that I grew up amongst charities! This was one that seemed to me more worth doing than any other: collecting as many of the homeless waifs you may find in any city as I could and rearing them to become respectable citizens." (no question as to whether the waifs wished to be collected!) – this is a classic exposition of aristocratic charity.

    Heyer’s later heroes are not macho hellraisers (her early ones are – one book starts with the hero shooting two highwaymen dead, then arriving at a ball and making
    a joke of the matter); and this of course makes her work more dangerous and subtle – the aristocratic heroes can be left to solve whatever social problems (which as you see from these examples centre on the abuse of children – no mention of adult workers) exist on an individual basis – their charity (this notion is actually a favourite of Blair’s Government though now the aristocrats are dodgy businessmen).

    I never mentioned some of Heyer’s other disagreeable characteristics – the valorising of male violence, the virulent anti-Semitism (sample ‘a thin, swarthy individual, with long, greasy curls, a semitic nose and an ingratiating leer’ The Grand Sophy)."

    Dear Nick,

    On Austen-l it soon became apparent that any evaluative criticism of Heyer was unacceptable. Garcia did not read your details, only got a sense of criticism and that itself offended her. She probably also dislikes any liberal-left thought. Others jumped on to say how they are indignant at the idea books have to have a social agenda. No one said they did at all. None of them noticed you said you also enjoy reading Heyer, have read many of her novels and what you suggested made readers like her.

    Elinor    Mar 10, 12:24am    #
  4. Nick wrote:

    "I was amused when you reported from the discussion of Heyer on Austen-l that..

    ‘Others jumped on to say how they are indignant at the idea books have to have a social agenda.’

    When my whole point had been to try and demonstrate Heyer’s ‘social agenda’. Isn’t it extraordinary how people accept, no – don’t even perceive, right-wing and establishment ‘social agendas’ but instantly decry works with a left-wing,anti-establishment social agenda? That appalling right-wing, misogynist pig Kingsley Amis can be called the ‘greatest novelist of his generation’ with no hint of a qualification; if you said, well actually Stead and Lessing for two are infinitely greater, you would be dismissed as a socialist/feminist/loony lefty (this example occurs to me for obvious reasons! :))."
    Elinor    Mar 12, 11:44pm    #
  5. Nick wrote: "Isn’t it extraordinary how people accept, no -- don't even perceive, right-wing and establishment social agendas; but instantly decry works with a left-wing, anti-establishment social agenda?"

    Yes. These instinctively right-wing people (very common) don’t perceive their view point as a political one. They are standing for what is eternally so. Society is not arranged according to the choices of people in charge. They have not yet reached Thomas More's Utopia in thinking.

    I don’t like Martin Amis either; if he wrote the NA adaptation of Austen, it’ll be bad because he has no sympathy for women and less for the kind of novel Austen represents.

    Elinor    Mar 12, 11:46pm    #

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