Every time I go to Austria, I’m overwhelmed by the amount of Sisi memorabilia that’s on sale. The Empress Elizabeth isn’t as iconic a figure here in England and I really know very little about her, except that her life wasn’t a very happy one, so I hoped that this novel might give me a bit more insight into a compelling historical figure. Set in 1875, it focuses on the avid horsewoman’s visit to England for the hunting season, and her alleged romantic liaison with the dashing cavalry officer ‘Bay’ Middleton. Honestly, I can’t say I know massively more now than I did before, as this turned out to be a romantic novel with its credentials worn proudly on its sleeve – mainly interested in burning glances across ballrooms – but it made for a pleasant enough distraction.
Charlotte Baird is the most unlikely kind of heiress. Despite the Lennox fortune waiting for her on her majority, she would happily give up balls and dance cards and eager suitors for a few hours in her darkroom with her photographic negatives and chemicals. Indeed, there is absolutely nothing worldly or fashionable about Charlotte and she’s the despair of her brother’s snobbish, snide fiancee Augusta, who resents the fact that the Lennox diamonds are destined for a girl so manifestly unsuitable to wear them. But Charlotte isn’t remotely bothered by Augusta’s condescension. She knows what she wants in life – or at least she does, until a chance encounter with the handsome Captain Bay Middleton at a ball. Bay is very much not the right kind of man for a young heiress – he’s notorious for his affairs with married women, and has absolutely no breeding or fortune. But he’s charming and shrewd and, like Charlotte, impatient with the affectations of Society, and a mutual appreciation sparks between them. This, it seems, could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship…
But then an imperial spanner is thrown into the works. Bay Middleton is one of the best horsemen in England and, despite his modest rank, this makes him the perfect choice to be pilot to the Empress Elizabeth on her ‘incognito’ hunting trip to England. Initially resistant to the idea of being an imperial nursemaid, Bay’s feelings are transformed on actually meeting the fabled Sisi. Famously the most beautiful woman in Europe, she maintains her charm even though she’s now a grandmother (this fact is often stressed, though it’s later clarified that she’s only 38: royalty marries young). And even a man like Bay is hard-pressed to withstand the combined charms of royalty, beauty and open, unabashed desire – for Sisi is open to other distractions than mere hunting. As if Bay’s reputation wasn’t tarnished enough, he now finds his ‘friendship’ with the Empress becoming the talk of the scandalised town – and posing a desperate threat to his prospects of future happiness with the injured Charlotte.
This is the kind of book whose back-cover blurb introduces its hero as ‘dashing’ and its heroine as ‘spirited’ (both words that usually act as massive red flags when choosing books), so I should have guessed that it would settle at the lighter end of historical fiction. It isn’t badly written, not at all, and if you’re looking for a piece of romantic froth to see you through a journey or a day at the beach, this is probably exactly the right kind of book. But it is vastly predictable and, unfortunately, curiously unsatisfying – a sorbet, after all, doesn’t quench a profound hunger. Many of the characters felt like ‘types’ as opposed to real people, even though most of them are real historical figures: the central love triangle, for example, between the Empress, Bay and Charlotte, does appear to be based on fact. It’s enthusiastically recommended on Amazon for fans of Georgette Heyer, but I find that Heyer has a wit and a merriness that’s absent here.
And I don’t feel that I’ve really gained a sense of why ‘Sisi’ is so irresistible to her admirers. Goodwin obviously worships her, but all I learned is that she’s beautiful, a bit unhappy with her doting but dutiful husband, and eagerly prone to being distracted by dashing Hussars (to be fair, most women would be). But surely there’s more to the Sisi story than a few extramarital affairs? Can anyone point me towards a novel – or, indeed, a good biography – that’ll give me a better idea of why she’s regarded with such ardent affection? Or is it simply that she had a sad life and was then assassinated – is it that the public will adore a royal woman who was unhappy in her marriage, had affairs and died while still relatively young and beautiful? It must be telling that Sisi is often mentioned in the same breath as our own Princess Diana…
Has anyone read Goodwin’s other novel My Last Duchess? How does that compare? Is it more of the same, or does that evade some of the romantic historical fiction traps? And do feel free to come and defend The Fortune Hunter. I’m fully aware that it just isn’t my preferred kind of book, so my opinion should be taken with a slight pinch of salt.