Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press, I had a chance to read an advance copy of Daisy Goodwin’s July release The Fortune Hunter. Ms. Goodwin has another book, The American Heiress, that I haven’t read yet, but it’s on my list!
In 1875, Charlotte Baird is a young woman with a passion for photography and a penchant for saying the wrong thing in social situations. As the heiress of the Lennox fortune, she attracts her fair share of suitors, but Charlotte is self-aware enough to realize that the men who try to win her favor are mostly interested in her money. Her overbearing brother Fred and his bitter fiancé Augusta have been managing her money and her personal life, and she has never had a reason to challenge them. But things change for Charlotte when she meets Bay Middleton, a handsome cavalry officer who finds her unladylike hobby and strange habits charming. Charlotte is starting to think she may actually have found a suitor who would prefer her heart to her inheritance, but everything changes with the arrival of Empress Elizabeth of Austria.
Empress Elizabeth, known to her friends as Sisi, lives a life of luxurious monotony. She is heralded as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and the Emperor is indulgent of her need for travel and excitement, but she is still unsatisfied. Sisi visits England for the opportunity to participate in an English foxhunt, and she brings a household of servants, courtiers and strange pets with her. When the Earl of Spencer informs her that he has selected a pilot to guide her in the hunt, she is less than thrilled. When she finds that Bay Middleton can keep up with her though, both in speed and fearlessness, Sisi decides it is not such a nuisance to have a pilot after all. Soon, she finds that Bay’s presence is necessary to her wherever she might be, and society begins to whisper that Bay may be doing more for the Empress than guiding her through her hunts. When these rumors reach Charlotte, Charlotte questions whether Bay’s attentions toward her were honest, or if he is really the fortune-hunter that she’s been warned about.
The Fortune Hunter is, on the surface, a simple story about a love triangle. But Ms. Goodwin takes her story to another level, creating a character study of Charlotte, Bay, and Sisi. Charlotte is the quintessential romantic heroine – biddable, naive, and uncertain of her own worth. But she develops into a woman who will not be told what to do and who is not content with being anyone’s second choice.
Sisi was a great character, and you can tell Ms. Goodwin had fun exploring her motivations. In the author’s note at the beginning of the novel, Ms. Goodwin admits to having a fascination with Empress Elizabeth as a child and she says she sees “ghostly parallels” between Sisi and Diana Spencer – “Both women, who married men they hardly knew and who didn’t understand them, were famously glamorous and unhappy.” Sisi doesn’t mind the gossip about her learning circus tricks on her horse, keeping a monkey as a pet, or riding out on the hunt far in front of a pack of men, but she does very much mind the idea that people will judge her by their ideal of royalty and find her wanting. She has a fear of losing her beauty, and for someone who takes great pride in her features, she has a horror of being photographed. Sisi is accustomed to getting whatever she wants without being questioned, but she still finds that her life is missing a freedom she can’t seem to grasp.
The character I had the most trouble understanding was Bay. I wondered if he might be a little too tempestuous for Charlotte in the long run. Not only does he develop a strong fascination with Sisi when he’s supposed to have an understanding with Charlotte, but he was involved with a married woman at the beginning of the novel. The book spans less than a year of time, so I found it a little hard to believe that, in the course of that time, he could be so infatuated with three different women. I definitely thought that he cared about Charlotte, but I found myself wondering if he was really a good fit for her. Maybe that’s just me putting myself in Charlotte’s shoes and wishing she could have fallen for someone a bit more reliable!
I really enjoyed the use of photography in this novel. It was a relatively new medium for people to experiment with, and none of the characters are quite sure how to feel about it. Everyone has a set idea in their head of how they appear to other people, and if a photograph contradicts that idea, it can be an unpleasant surprise. Augusta is a great example of this attitude. She is quick to snub the idea of Charlotte’s photos as art, complains about the time involved in taking a photograph and, when she doesn’t like how she looks in a picture, she takes it out on Charlotte. She becomes much more open to the process when a photographer pets her ego by posing her like a goddess in front of a painted backdrop. Characters seem to have a fear of photographs and what a photo of themselves might reveal. As Charlotte points out to Sisi when they are formally introduced, “A royal portrait is bound by its very nature to flatter its subject, but a photograph cannot lie.” With one of her photographs, Charlotte learns a particularly hard lesson about what a camera can capture that the eye might have missed.
I thought this was a great story, and I was interested to learn that Bay Middleton and Charlotte Baird are not just Ms. Goodwin’s characters, but real people. Somehow that makes the story even better to me. I’ll have to hurry up and get started on The American Heiress soon.