The library at Fontley Priory, like most of the principal apartments in the sprawling building, looked to the south-east, 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.
–Georgette Heyer - A Civil Contract - c.1961 - pg.7
Adam Deveril has just left the army and the Peninsular War. Not through choice, but because his father recently died and he must assume his family responsibilities as the new Viscount Lynton. Added to his problems is the fact that his father was not the most reliable with money, and Adam finds himself hugely in debt. He may even be forced into selling the family home, as not only does he have mortgages and debts, but he will also have to support his mother and provide for his two sisters. But he is also a man of principle and honour; he does not even consider his advisor’s opinion that he find himself a wealthy bride. But he forced to reconsider when the wealthy business man Jonathan Chawleigh suggests he marries his daughter.
Jenny Chawleigh is well aware that Adam has no interest romantically in her, but she is determined to make his life as comfortable as she can. Plain and practical she is as different from Adam’s previous love interest, Julia Oversley, as it is possible to get. Julia in turn cannot understand why Adam can’t still ask for her.
I read this book in two or three sittings. And I have to say that while it isn’t exactly a typical Heyer romance I really enjoyed it. It is more serious than her more light-hearted work, but there it is still plenty of recognisable Heyer moments and characters.
Of course there is no wedding or even a proposal at the end of this book, because that happens at the start. Instead the book is a look at how these two perfect strangers, forced to spend their lives together work things out. And Heyer doesn’t hide the fact that Adam often wishes he could have been free to marry the beautiful Julia, next to her Jenny inspires only revulsion. This is something that Jenny is well aware of, she is well aware that she is plain, fat, and unappealing. Talk about your low self-esteem. It makes for painful reading on occasion, especially when the reader is well aware that Jenny is by far the better person than the selfish Julia could ever be.
As for out “romantic hero”, well, Adam certainly doesn’t win the reader over with his behaviour towards his wife. He is often well meaning in thought, but in action he is more often cruel and heartless towards her. She does everything possible to make his life as easy as possible, and while he acknowledges this, he still doesn’t seem to go out of his way to do anything similar for her. Indeed he often makes her feel unwanted and out of place.
It makes for a wonderful, if painful read.