Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Pub Date: July 29, 2014
How acquired: New York Public Library
What it's about: Empress Elizabeth of Austria, known as Sisi, is the Princess Diana of nineteenth-century Europe. Famously beautiful, as captured in a portrait with diamond stars in her hair, she is unfulfilled in her marriage to the older Emperor Franz Joseph. Sisi has spent years evading the stifling formality of royal life on her private train or yacht or, whenever she can, on the back of a horse.
Captain Bay Middleton is dashing, young, and the finest horseman in England. He is also impoverished, with no hope of buying the horse needed to win the Grand National—until he meets Charlotte Baird. A clever, plainspoken heiress whose money gives her a choice among suitors, Charlotte falls in love with Bay, the first man to really notice her, for his vulnerability as well as his glamour. When Sisi joins the legendary hunt organized by Earl Spencer in England, Bay is asked to guide her on the treacherous course. Their shared passion for riding leads to an infatuation that jeopardizes the growing bond between Bay and Charlotte, and threatens all of their futures.
The Fortune Hunter, a brilliant new novel by Daisy Goodwin, is a lush, irresistible story of the public lives and private longings of grand historical figures.
My thoughts: I had read Daisy Goodwin's previous novel, The American Heiress, about the 19th Century American 'dollar princesses' who took England by storm, many of them marrying titles. So I was intrigued when I heard the author say, at the Historical Novel Society conference, that her next book would be about the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. I have long had a fascination for Sisi ever since I first saw the Winterhalter portrait, and I previously wrote about her several years ago. What would Goodwin make of the Empress who was famous for not wanting to be photographed, who shared the 21st century mania for preserving her looks as long as possible?
For the most part I enjoyed this novel immensely. Goodwin has a keen eye for the manners and mores of the 19th century. Charlotte is an intriguing heroine, who is incredibly self-aware, yet still has romantic dreams of marrying for love. She knows that she is not a beauty, she doesn't excel at small talk, but she is an heiress. I liked the fact that the author gives her a keen interest in photography which was just starting to take hold amongst the middle and upper classes. In many ways, Charlotte's camera reveals things to the reader and to Charlotte that cannot be articulated.
Goodwin also does an excellent job portraying the Empress, her loneliness, her obsession with her looks, with her need to escape the boredom and frustration with her life and the imperial court in Vienna. Elisabeth (or Elizabeth as she's called in the novel) is also selfish, and self-absorbed, incapable for the most part of seeing outside herself, and her own needs. She's willful and capricious, but also captivating, able to charm when she needs to. Both Sisi and Charlotte fall in love with Bay Middleton, the Fortune Hunter of the title. Bay is a Calvary officer of limited means, who also happens to be an expert horseman. His abilities with horses are what bring him into the orbit of the Empress.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about the book was the way that Goodwin conveyed the difficult choices faced by both Charlotte and Bay. While Charlotte is an heiress, and has more choices than other woman of her class who smaller or no dowries, she is still bound by the rules of Victorian England, no matter how much they may chafe. Until she reaches her majority, she can't marry without her brother's permission, nor can she pursue a career as a professional photographer. She must use her own intuition to discover whether or not her suitors are interested in her or her fortune. She believes that in Bay Middleton, she has found someone who genuinely cares for her. I loved that Charlotte took action, instead just observing or having things happen to her. Bay, on the other hand, has to survive by his wits and his ability with horses. As a Calvary officer in regiment that has the Prince of Wales as colonel-in-chief, he would have to keep up appearances. Being an officer cost money.
Now to what I didn't like. (SPOILER ALERT) I'm not sure why it was necessary to anglicize the Empress's name from Elisabeth. And Bay's given name for some reason is given as John instead of William George. Also the book condenses the five year relationship between Bay and the Empress to one hunting season. In reality, Bay and Charlotte became engaged in 1875 and didn't marry until 1882. The book opens with Bay reeling from the end of his love affair with Blanche Hozier, and the knowledge that she's pregnant with his child, the future Clementine Churchill. However, in real life not fiction, Clementine wasn't born until 1884, during his marriage to Charlotte.
I didn't have a problem with the condensing of the timeline of Bay's relationship with Sisi. I get that the author probably had a word count, and that it was much easier to give the essence of their relationship in a short time span. What bothered me the most was the ending of the novel. It felt like the ending of a romantic film, you could almost hear the music swelling, and novel rushed towards its climax. It just felt wrong, and unearned, at least by Bay. It also felt a little cliched. I felt let down after, what had been up until the last two or three chapters, a excellent example of the best kind of historical fiction. One that sweeps you up wholeheartedly into the world that the characters live in.