Having recently read Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great and not having read My Last Duchess (Daisy Goodwin’s first novel), I was not sure what to expect with The Fortune Hunter. The blurb promised the unhappy glamour of the life of Sisi, Empress of Austria, coupled with the excitement of English fox hunting – would that be a good mix? Would this be just another ‘romantic’ historical novel with no substance? Luckily I knew nothing about Sisi going in and only found out that the characters of Bay Middleton and Charlotte Baird were based on real people once I was over halfway through the novel. My only expectations were that I would recognise the society and manners from other historical books I had read set in that period (around 1875), and it would probably be a bit of a ‘romp’ thanks to the love triangle at the centre of the plot.
Though I knew she had written My Last Duchess I was mildly surprised to see Daisy Goodwin come out with another novel, and one so well publicised as this, given that most of my knowledge of her was as a compiler of popular poetry anthologies. I worried her writing would be too commercial and rom-com-y. There is an element of this in The Fortune Hunter, but I wouldn’t class it as a rom-com. As the title suggests there is a desire for power throughout, and of course ‘Hunter’ puns on the role that fox hunting plays in the novel. Sisi is bored of her life at court and her distant husband, so she comes to England incognito (though of course everyone knows she is there) to ride with the hunt. She is documented as an excellent rider, and is depicted as such – a fearless rider, unlike other ladies at the time. She is feared and revered, and none of her entourage can keep up with her. So, Sisi decides to acquire a pilot – someone to ride with her and guide her in the hunt. Bay Middleton is known as the best rider in England, and Sisi decides she wants him.
The novel begins, however, with Charlotte. Little is known about the real Charlotte, and she is presented here as a rather Austen-type heroine, refusing to be like all the other girls and sighing at her brother’s fiancee Augusta (also an Austen type), who is determined to mould Charlotte into the perfect society lady and land her a man. Goodwin gives Charlotte photography as an interest, and her passion is described beautifully. The significance of the invention of photography is explored throughout the story as Charlotte’s lens picks up details that a flattering painter would not. It also, crucially, gives her a sense of freedom and purpose. Charlotte and Bay meet through Charlotte’s brother Fred, and the attraction between them slowly grows.
As readers I think we are supposed to quite fancy Bay, though we learn that he is known as a ladies’ man and has just had an affair with a married woman, whose child might be his (this is also based on the real Bay), though after the first third of the book we don’t hear any more on that topic. Charlotte catches his eye and though he ‘has a way with the ladies’ he isn’t quite sure how to handle her. She is confident and does not instantly give in to his compliments and good looks, and Bay has to win her over – something new to him. Someone he doesn’t have to win over however is the Empress, Sisi. It is obvious from the start that she has the hots for him, and he in turn is attracted to her skill as a rider and their shared passion for horses. She is of course beautiful, said to be the most beautiful woman in Europe, and it isn’t long before things escalate. Here we have a conventional love triangle, with Bay torn between two very different women. While Charlotte hopes for romance and perhaps marriage, Sisi is after a covert affair; but Bay follows both their leads, charming Charlotte and sleeping with Sisi. I found this a bit un-gentlemanly to say the least, especially as Bay is constantly thinking about how wonderful Charlotte is, then the next minute being desperate to get Sisi out of that dress. There is also the depiction of Queen Victoria, who appears in several scenes. She is the antithesis of the glamorous and controlled Sisi, and Goodwin does not hold back when describing the flaws of one of our greatest monarchs, even if she is using free indirect speech. Still, it was a little hard to stomach.
I have to say I rather enjoyed The Fortune Hunter. While it is a bit of a romp and not entirely serious, it is a great story about the independence of women and the determination (of all people) to be free and live as they choose. I admired the characters who displayed that determination, Charlotte in particular. In a lot of ways the book is about her more than anyone else. While Sisi in an unapproachable Empress, and Bay while charming and likeable is still a bit free with his morals – but Charlotte is relatable and down to earth, almost (almost) on a level with Anne Elliot.
Published in April 2014 by Headline (UK). My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.