The Fortune Hunter engaged me from the very start. It’s a well-written novel about a real and very interesting empress, brought to life by Daisy Goodwin’s writing. Although the novel is partly based on historical fact, Goodwin takes her liberties in creating compelling characters and a unique story all her own.
The Fortune Hunter focuses on the characters of Charlotte Baird, Bay Middleton and “Sisi”, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Charlotte Baird is a simple girl with a passion for photography and a considerable inheritance. Charlotte is used to suitors being more interested in her Lennox money than they are in getting to know Charlotte herself, so when Bay Middleton notices her, Charlotte takes note.
Bay Middleton is a skilled horseman and a charming ladies’ man. He’s notorious for his womanizing but becomes more serious about love when he meets Charlotte. He pursues her and they begin a secret courtship because Charlotte’s brother and sister-in-law don’t approve. Bay wants to elope and get married as soon as possible but Charlotte is worried about starting a scandal, so he waits.
Meanwhile, Earl Spencer a man who organizes the Quorn Hunt (England’s most famous fox hunt), asks Bay to pilot the visiting Empress of Austria and guide her on the hunt while she’s visiting England. The Empress is renowned for her love of hunting, her beauty and her constant travelling. Bay is worried that he’ll be entranced by the Empress while he’s away piloting her.
Charlotte stays at Melton with her brother, sister-in-law and her sister-in-law’s family. But she is soon called away by her godmother, Lady Dunwoody, who is also interested in photography and who encouraged Charlotte’s interest, to help her with the exhibition put on by The Royal Photographic Society. As Bay gets to know the Empress and Charlotte pursues her own passion away from Bay, the possibility of any relationship between them dwindles.
I absolutely adored Charlotte’s character. I was rooting for her and her American friend, Caspar, who is also a photographer. I thought these two were ideally suited for each other because Caspar’s big personality balanced out Charlotte’s more quiet, introspective one and they both shared a love of photography. Charlotte was smart, passionate about her interest in photography and really self-assured. Charlotte Baird was indeed a real person but not much is known about her. Goodwin really made her a character to admire though. She mentioned in her author notes that she gave Charlotte an interest in photography because photography was a hobby many young intelligent women were engaged in at the time, which I found really interesting and surprising, given the time period and its constraints on women.
Caspar was another character I loved. He was worldly, vibrant and chatty. At first I found his talkativeness in the book irritating but then I grew to appreciate him. He was constantly looking out for Charlotte and just being an all-around great friend to her. It was funny to read the English characters’ reactions to what they thought was a loud, brash American man.
There was a lot of cultural contrast in that way, not only between America and England but between Austria and England as well. I had always thought that English high society in the 19th century was very repressed and strict but next to Austrian high society, it seems laid-back in comparison. I got the notion from Goodwin that Austrian royals at that time were very controlled, very much about tradition and very particular about their social etiquette, even more so than the English royals.
I learned a lot about Sisi and Austria through this book. It definitely prompted me to do some research of my own on these people, and to take a closer look at Austria to appreciate it for its historical and cultural legacy. I thought that the novel would be more about Sisi and her relationship with Bay but I found that it was just as much about Charlotte. It was difficult to like Goodwin’s Sisi but at the same time I had sympathy for the Empress. Although she came across as a cold, selfish and spoiled character, she was a lonely woman who just wanted love and freedom. She married young to a man with little interest in her, was judged and gossiped about, and was a restless spirit, trapped within the confines of royalty.
The only part I didn’t like was the ending. Goodwin had me guessing throughout the book because the character relationships and stakes kept shifting but I had my own ideas about how it should have concluded. I felt that Charlotte was too forgiving and too trusting of Bay throughout the novel for such a smart, level-headed woman. Although, I guess in love people aren’t always level-headed and I suppose that’s the point of the novel.
I gave it four stars out of five on Goodreads because although I really enjoyed the book, I didn’t like Charlotte’s leniency and was disappointed in the ending. I was hoping it would end differently, that it didn’t feel so rushed and that Charlotte reacted in a way that was true to her character.
Despite this, this book had me hooked and I couldn’t help but admire the beautiful cover every time I picked it up. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys period dramas and classics.