Some of my fascination with Georgette Heyer’s novel, A Civil Contract, springs from imagining the problem she set for herself as she began to write. She seems to have set out to take everything romantic out of the romance novel. In fact this romance novel is so resolutely unromantic that, rather than love at first sight, the meeting of the hero and the heroine might be better characterized as “faint recollection after repeated unwelcome encounters.” As Heyer puts it:
No blinding flash of recognition struck Adam, but he was able to identify her with the commonplace girl whom he had too often found in Mount Street [the home of his first love] a year earlier.
We aren’t in Disney princess territory here. We aren’t even in 1940s romantic comedy “hate each other at first sight and then realize it’s passion” territory. The world of A Civil Contract is relentlessly, painfully practical.
Financial concerns are the driving force of A Civil Contract’s practical world. Our hero, Adam, is a viscount who needs a wealthy wife because he has just inherited the family estate, which has been impoverished by his father’s debts, gambling, and poor investment. Without an enormous influx of capital, he stands to lose the houses and land, and to be entirely unable to support his mother and sisters. He must, out of a sense of honor, release his first love to find a better match, and he must agree to be “sold” for his title. Otherwise the family will go to ruin. Jenny, on the other hand, has no need for financial assistance. Her adoring and resolutely middle-class father is unimaginably wealthy and happy to provide for her, but he is desperate to secure her the social position that will come with a titled husband. As she has secretly loved Adam for as long as she has known him, Jenny is not entirely opposed to the marriage, though she is understandably squeamish about the circumstances. The marriage is coldly contracted, and Jenny and Adam are left to cope as well as they can.
With Jenny’s father—the pushy, wealthy merchant—always dropping in, saying the wrong thing, and reminding Adam of his financial dependency, and with Julia, the stunning former fiancée fainting whenever she runs into Adam unexpectedly and engineering opportunities to be alone with him as often as possible, the marriage is off to a rocky start. Though they attempt to bypass the awkwardness of their situation by trying to run the intimate world of their marriage by the rules of the worlds of trade and aristocracy where they are more at home, Adam and Jenny find themselves consistently at odds over money. They cannot agree what to spend money on, how to spend it, who should spend it, and what gifts Adam will accept from Jenny or allow her to give to his sisters. The discomforts of Adam’s financial dependency are only complicated by the sexual politics of being a Regency-era man who lives off his wife’s fortune.
For example, in order to support his mother and sisters out of his own money, rather than out of the money that Jenny brings into the marriage, Adam resolves to sell his London townhouse. Jenny’s father, in what he thinks is a generous gesture, secretly buys the house and redecorates it as a wedding present to Adam and Jenny. Jenny doesn’t understand what she and her father have done wrong. “Oh, was I wrong to permit it? Papa was so pleased to think he might furnish you with—with what you needed, without hurting your pride.” Adam is equally unable to understand how anyone could have thought it was a kind thing to do. “You must excuse me: it is intolerable to me! . . . Recommend him to place it on the market at once! I shall be happy to learn that he has disposed of it at a profit!” Failures of understanding like this abound as Jenny and Adam’s business-like marriage turns out to be filled with hurt feelings and resentment. Jenny and her father have made a generous gesture between business partners. Adam has responded with a thousand years of offended aristocratic dignity.
What gets Adam and Jenny out of the fix in which they find themselves, and what brings them to the happiest ending possible for a couple brought together in such unpromising fashion, is F. A. Hayek. Or more accurately, it’s a subtle distinction that Hayek noted in The Fatal Conceit:
Moreover, the structures of the extended order are made up not only of individuals but also of many, often overlapping, sub-orders within which old instinctual responses, such as solidarity and altruism, continue to retain some importance by assisting voluntary collaboration, even though they are incapable, by themselves, of creating a basis for the more extended order. Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules.
What Order Is This?
Jenny and Adam have to figure out what kind of order they are living in. They no longer can rely on their respective familiar orders of trade and of the aristocracy. Trying to force their marriage to behave like either one of those orders—expecting Adam to view Jenny’s money as a neutral instrument, or expecting Jenny to comprehend the subtle arcana of aristocratic manners—is a recipe for disappointment. The quiet story of A Civil Contract is the story of how they learn to do just that. It is the story of how they eventually arrive at a place where Jenny and Adam understand they “would have many years of quiet content; never reaching the heights, but living together in comfort and deepening friendship.”
Jenny and Adam’s happy ending—and insofar as they have one, it is one that leaves a lot of Heyer fans completely cold—is about finding an order of their own, a sub-order that relies on reciprocity and kindness, rather than on trade or correctness. It may not, in the end, be much of a romance, but it’s a good, solid, and valuable Hayekian sub-order.