From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
A spirited English heiress, a dashing cavalry officer and a beguiling Austrian Empress form a love triangle that on first glance may look like characters from a romance novel, but in reality are based on actual people: Charlotte Baird, Bay Middleton and Elizabeth, Empress of Austria. Set in 1875 Victorian England, The Fortune Hunter, by the bestselling author Daisy Goodwin (The American Heiress) is the fictionalization of the life of an ambitious horsemen John “Bay” Middleton and the two women he romances, taking us at full gallop through London’s high society ballrooms, country manor houses and fox hunting while exploring the emotional highs and lows of three very unique people faced with the challenges of personal truth, honor and love.
Miss Charlotte Baird is an intelligent and creative twenty-year old more interested in photography than fashion, beaux, and social decorum. She is also one of the richest women in England. Because she is an orphan, her half-brother Fred manages her Lennox fortune until her majority—and his fiancé Augusta Crewe, the high-minded daughter of an Earl, manages him. While attending a London opera, Fred introduces his sister to a fellow officer, the dashing Captain Bay Middleton. They meet again at the Spencer ball and Charlotte is promptly swept off her feet by his flattery and attentions. (red coat alert) Even though her Aunt Adelaide warns her against the captain’s dubious reputation as a womanizer, and her brother and his fiancé think he is totally unsuitable match for her, she has her own ideas about who she wants as a husband. In her mind, she does not see his reputation, lack of fortune or title as an impediment.
The action soon moves to Melton Hall, the Crewe country seat in Leicestershire, where Charlotte is staying with her brother and his future in-laws during the holidays. The fox hunting season is in full swing and even though Augusta thought Captain Middleton was an unsuitable husband material for Charlotte, she overlooks his faults and invites him too. He is, after all, the keenest rider in England and a retired officer in the 11th Hussars, their neighbor John Spencer, 5th Earl of Spencer’s regiment. Also in the neighborhood for the season is a surprising new resident, Elizabeth, Empress of Austria, the famous European beauty and horsewoman who has escaped the confines of the Hapsburg court and arrived with her royal entourage, including a pet monkey. Obsessed with her looks, the eccentric Empress is a grandmother but has the face and figure of an ingénue in her first bloom. With a strict diet and exercise regimen she has fought back time, but is still continually anxious about her looks. “Beauty was her gift, her weapon and her power, and she dreaded its passing.” (111)
Bay is pressed into service by Spencer to pilot the Empress during the hunting season. Reluctantly he agrees and soon meets the enigmatic “Sisi” whose skill in the hunting field impresses everyone, even Bay. A mutual attraction quickly builds into an infatuation by him, which begs little prompting by her to grow into a full-blown affair between the Empress and her pilot. Regardless, he has true feelings for Charlotte and is confident that she will soon be his. His desire for both of these women has him questioning himself.
“Bay had never thought of himself as a bad person before, but now he wondered what sort of person he really was: the devil in the mirror or the noble-looking young man in Charlotte’s photograph?” (167)
The Empress is not like any other woman he has ever met, “her rank and status made him uncertain.” Here is a beautiful woman in total control of any situation and that intrigues him. Charlotte on the other hand was no challenge; she is easily won and accepts his proposal, entering into a secret engagement until she reaches her majority and receives control of her fortune.
Charlotte returns to London to assist her mentor with an upcoming photographic exhibition. After developing her own pictures taken of Bay and the Empress at Melton, Charlotte’s new friend Caspar notices how ardently Bay is gazing at the Empress and the truth is suddenly so clear to her. Bay loves the Empress and only wants Charlotte for her fortune.
Wrought with aristocratic opulence, social ambition and emotional desire, The Fortune Hunter was a delicious indulgence for me. I adore historical fiction based on real people and Goodwin has eloquently introduced me to an era in British and Austrian history that I had never delved into before. The atmosphere of the residences and the descriptions of clothing were refreshing, but it was the exciting action scenes of fox hunting and the white-knuckle final steeplechase at The Grand National that were the most thrilling scenes.
If this beautifully written novel lacked anything, it was romantic tension and a bit more framing of a woman’s place in society at the beginning. We learn from Charlotte’s family that Bay is a rake placing us on guard for our heroine. Is this the truth or rumors? Charlotte is young and naïve when it comes to love and Bay wins her affection and trust so easily. In turn Bay is won over by the Empress equally as fast. I would like to have experienced more inner-turmoil and tension before each romance. Later in the novel Charlotte’s friend Caspar sums it up perfectly.
“Carlotta mia, every romance needs a little tension. If the gallant captain turns his head and sees you gazing at him as you are now, he will know precisely what is in your heart, but if he turns to see you confiding in me, well, he will be confused, and that would not be such a bad thing. Everybody desires a thing more when it is not straightforward.” (325)
Another minor quibble involved some of the horse facts. I realize I have an unfair advantage being a former equestrian and most readers will not care that horses cannot jump twelve foot hedges, nor, (spoiler alert) that a fifteen hand mare is the most unlikely horse to win the Grand National. Not that it could not happen, mind you, it is just REALLY a long shot. Maybe that was the author’s point, paralleling the love story’s happy conclusion?
What makes this novel more than your run-of-the-mill historical romance? Goodwin’s keen eye for focusing the action like a film director—and an hysterical cameo appearance by Her Majesty, Queen Victoria herself of course. Witty humor always wins me over. Oh, and a beautiful cover. Like Sisi I am very shallow.
4 out of 5 Stars
The Fortune Hunter: A Novel, by Daisy Goodwin
St. Martin’s Press (2014)
Hardcover (480) pages
Cover image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press © 2014; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2014, Austenprose.com
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