I have just finished the best book that I have read in probably the last five years. The main characters in “The Fortune Hunter” are involved in a steamy love triangle, and even more exciting, they are based on persons who actually lived, making this novel a work of historical fiction.
The setting is England in 1875, at the height of the Victorian age. The author, Daisy Goodwin, is also English. Charlotte Baird, barely out of her teens, is the sole heiress to the Lennox fortune, bequeathed to her by her mother who was Charlotte’s second wife. Charlotte’s older brother Fred was assigned as Charlotte’s guardian and controlled her use of her fortune until she reaches the age of 25. Fred and his fiancé Augusta, the daughter of an Earl, reveled in his role which allowed him access to her money also. Charlotte’s main interest was in photography, an unusual hobby for women in the late 1870’s. This interest plays a huge part in the story of the love triangle which is the focus of this piece of historical fiction.
Old Style Camera
Charlotte had many suitors, but they were mostly suspected as being interested in her fortune rather than in Charlotte herself. She had not singled out any young man who intrigued her greatly; that is, until Fred introduced her to his fellow Guardsman, Cavalry Captain Bay Middleton. Bay was one of the finest horsemen in England, and had his eye on winning the Grand National Horse Race that year with his equally talented horse Tipsy.
Charlotte and Bay were very much attracted to each other. Bay was funny and charming and very good-looking. Charlotte’s youth made her somewhat naïve and she ignored the fact that he had the reputation of being a ladies’ man, and possibly a fortune hunter, having only his Cavalry pay to keep him. Their romance moved swiftly to the point where Bay proposed marriage to Charlotte and wanted her to elope with him. Charlotte, accustomed to proper social behavior, asked him to wait until the time she would be free of her brother Fred’s oversight, and they could marry without scandal.
The annual hunt to the hounds in England was being organized again by Earl Spencer. One of the guests to the hunt was Empress Elizabeth of Austria, known to her friends and family as Sisi. She was now in her late thirties, her youthful beauty gradually fading, but she was still the envy of women throughout Europe. She was an excellent horsewoman who traveled about while her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph, preferred working in his study in the operation of his duties to Austria. Their marriage was not an especially happy one, and Sisi tried to find solace in other pursuits, mainly her horsemanship. She has been compared to Princess Diana in her unhappy marriage and her beauty. As an aside, it was the nephew of Emperor Franz Joseph, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose assassination was the catalyst which started World War I.
The Empress was told that a “pilot” had been chosen for her to guide her through the trails and jumps of the hunt. She was hesitant at first when she was introduced to Captain Bay Middleton, who would serve her in that capacity. She gradually admired both his equine ability, which overshadowed her own, and his startling good looks. Although Bay was not officially betrothed to Charlotte Baird, they did have an understanding, which was not openly known to their friends and acquaintances.
White Race Horse
Sisi, who was used to getting whatever she wished, flirted with Bay, who was much younger than she, causing tongues to wag, which did not deter her from inviting him to the royal quarters, known as the Hapsburg Court, in Vienna. He fell into her trap, and her bed, in spite of knowing that their affair had no future.
Charlotte, of course, has heard the rumors about the Empress and Bay, and tries to ignore them. She had occasion to come upon them after they were riding, and secretly took a photograph of the Empress, who did not, out of vanity, like to be photographed. Charlotte was shocked, upon developing the picture to note the adoring eyes of Bay resting upon the Empress, an incident that the camera could capture and that the naked eye would not.
How does Daisy Goodwin solve this love triangle? Or better still, what happened in the lives of these three people who actually lived? The reader is invited to the exciting Grand National Horse Race, where Bay is a contestant, and both of the ladies in his life, each find themselves unexpectedly a short distance from the Grand National on the day of the race. The suspense on those pages is excruciating.
I loved Daisy Goodwin’s second novel, “The Fortune Hunter,” and plan to recommend it to my Book Club. I also look forward to reading her first book, “The American Heiress,” which was published in Britain as “My Last Duchess.”