Book review: The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin

An empress feted as the most beautiful woman in Europe, a handsome young cavalry officer and an illicit, passionate love affair…

By Pam Norfolk
Friday, 9th May 2014, 10:00 am
The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin
The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin

TV producer and presenter Daisy Goodwin’s sizzling new novel harnesses romance and history in a story based upon a real-life visit to England in 1876 by the glamorous Empress Elizabeth, wife of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph.

Described by Goodwin as ‘the Princess Diana of her day,’ Elizabeth, known better as Sisi, was famously beautiful with a magnificent head of hair that fell below her knees, but she was unfulfilled by her illustrious marriage and spent most of her life searching for happiness.

Married at just 16, she hated the stuffy, stifling formality of the Austrian court and spent much of her time travelling through Europe in her private train and indulging in her favourite sport… horse riding.

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When the adrenalin junkie empress came to Northamptonshire, courtesy of Earl Spencer, to enjoy a season of hunting, she was ‘piloted’ by Captain Bay Middleton, a dashing Guards officer noted as ‘the hardest rider in England’ and who, in a strange quirk of fate, was a distant relative of future queen Kate Middleton.

Their relationship has been a source of speculation ever since and, her imagination set alight by Sisi’s bittersweet life, Goodwin has woven together a small section of facts and a large helping of fiction to create an enthralling and seductive story of love, duty and devotion.

When the glamorous but eccentric empress arrives in the heart of the English countryside, she brings with her a pet monkey and a torturous beauty regime involving raw veal fillets, plus a staff warning from the crusty housekeeper entrusted with her care that ‘foreign royalty can be tricky.’

It’s certainly true that 38-year-old Sisi does not like having her wishes denied but, freed from her husband’s inflexible routine in Vienna, she relishes the relative informality of an English country house.

But what she has really come for is excitement… and the hunt, and to guide the experienced horsewoman through the courses is dashing officer Bay Middleton, so handsome that he can even put a twinkle in the eye of his dour monarch, Queen Victoria.

Bay, ten years younger, is soon dazzled by both the exoticism and sexual vitality of the fearless empress and more than willing to be seduced by her charms… but there is another woman in Bay’s life.

Twenty-year-old Charlotte Baird is the ‘Lennox heiress’ who will come into a fortune in jewels and money when she reaches the age of 25.

Her half-brother Fred and his wife-to-be are eager to match her with a ‘suitable’ young man but keen amateur photographer Charlotte finds the unsuitable ‘fortune hunter’ Bay Middleton far more to her liking.

They met at a London reception and Bay was drawn immediately to Charlotte, a girl bordering on plain but with a lively personality, an attractive intelligence and an endearing sense of mischief.

Bay and his devoted Charlotte are about to become engaged and he knows that he has everything to lose by falling for Sisi, a woman who can never be his.

But Bay and the empress are as reckless as each other and their mutual attraction is a force that cannot be denied. The struggle between love, lust and duty will be epic…

The Fortune Hunter is a cleverly crafted and exhilarating story full of intrigue, humour and romance, and all set against the lavish backdrop of 19th century England’s country houses, vast estates and royal palaces.

Goodwin gilds her exciting and extravagant tale with nuggets of authentic social history, opening a revealing window onto a bygone world of bizarre manners and mores, and sultry secrets and scandals.

As always, Goodwin wears her learning lightly, allowing the drama of a compelling love triangle to flow seamlessly around a central core of fascinating facts and real historical figures.

A gorgeous, sumptuous story for all true romantics…

(Headline Review, hardback, £14.99)