It’s no secret that I find Daisy Goodwin‘s novels irresistible. Her first book, The American Heiress, perfectly captured the essence of the Victorian era guilty pleasure aesthetic, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Her ability to blend history and fiction is simultaneously delicious and delicate—everything a Victorian romance should be.
Published in 2014, The Fortune Hunter published in 2014, managed to slip past my radar until a few months ago when I was browsing my library’s available e-books. At first, I wasn’t sure how much it would interest me because I knew nothing about the novel’s protagonist, Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Nevertheless, after reading her other novels, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed.
I did a little research before starting the book, just to get a little background information. The Empress, or “Sisi,” as she was known to her family and friends, was apparently the Princess Diana of the 19th century. Famed for her beauty, the novel consistently references a famous Winterhalter portrait in which the statuesque empress is wearing a luxurious white, glittery gown with her floor length hair done up in intricate plaits, peppered with stars. She’s paranoid about losing her good looks and the public’s scrutiny. It becomes an important detail in the story that she hates to be photographed because she believes it will show her as less than perfect, even though she’s a mere 38.
Goodwin does an excellent job of highlighting the strained relationship Sisi had with her family and the rigid Austrian court. As someone who was raised in a relatively lax environment, marrying into the Austrian royal family at the age of 16 almost guaranteed the Empress would have a difficult time adjusting to her new life; the novel suggests she was never comfortable in it. She gets her kicks by riding out with the hunt and learning circus tricks…and, when the melancholy kicks in, by shooting cocaine? Who would have thought…
Enters Bay Middleton, a cavalry officer, and notorious ladies’ man. He is perhaps best known now as the father of Clementine Hozier, Winston Churchill’s wife when he had an affair with her mother, Lady Blanche Hozier. Goodwin basically begins the novel with the end of their affair, so the reader learns about his habit of falling into the traps set by beautiful, influential women.
Personally, I love the way Goodwin intertwines these little nuggets of history into her stories. While not everything is true to life, it seems as though it all could be.
Of course, he falls into the Empress’s clutches when he is asked to be her pilot during the hunting season, making sure she doesn’t lose her way in the English countryside. As an avid horse rider, he’s happy to find that the Sisi is one of the best horsewomen in Europe, and he’s absolutely enchanted with her. Thus, he’s prey to another woman who will always get what she wants.
This is tricky, though, because Bay has already met and proposed to Charlotte Baird, a young heiress who happens to be an outcast in the society set—a woman who much prefers to spend her time taking photographs than going to balls and meeting an endless stream of suitors looking to get a hold of her money. Unfortunately, it’s never a simple case of boy meets girl, where they live happily ever after. But that is why we love these kinds of stories.
This story did confuse me, however. It seemed to me that this book was much more about Charlotte Baird and her aspirations than it was about Sisi, which is what every synopsis made it out to be. A story about the Empress of Austria. The most compelling parts of the novel, in my opinion, are the conversations between Charlotte and Caspar Hewes. Their relationship delves into all sorts of interesting parallels between America and England, the futility of the monarchy, and the power of a woman to assert her own independence in an era that wouldn’t allow it.
That being said, this was still a delicious morsel of a book, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a great beach read in the middle of winter. It’s a tidy little story with great characters and beautiful scenes in the English countryside and London. What more could you ask for?