For fans of “Downton Abbey,” Daisy Goodwin’s new novel “The Fortune Hunter” is a find rich in period details and delights. Here are the country houses, lavish balls and weddings, a white-knuckle steeplechase, brushes with royalty and a scandalous love story that was the talk of the European aristocracy.
Goodwin, the best-selling author of “The American Heiress,” has spun the real lives of Victorian-era characters into a richly entertaining tale. Empress Elizabeth of Austria, known as Sisi to friends and family, is a grandmother who is nearing forty when she comes to England to escape the confines of her life in Vienna to foxhunt. The Empress was known as one of the most beautiful women of her time, and Goodwin brings her to life. Tall, whippet-thin, with a mass of dark hair that hung to the floor, Sisi resorts to bizarre beauty rituals – like putting raw veal into a leather face mask and washing her hair with brandy and eggs – to keep signs of aging at bay.
She is also an exceptionally gifted rider. Captain Bay Middleton – a distant forebear of the current Duchess of Cambridge and the father of Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine – is perhaps England’s best horseman – and a consummate ladies’ man. Freshly dumped by his married lover – who is pregnant with Clementine – he feels that luck has deserted him. Good fortune seems within reach, when he meets Charlotte Baird, a smart, feisty and wealthy heiress with a talent for the new art form of photography. She falls for him, despite warnings from her fawning and financially dependent future sister-in-law:
‘A fortune hunter? I fail to see, Augusta, how that distinguishes Captain Middleton in any way. Are you telling me that Captain Hartopp isn’t interested in my money, or that you and Fred would be quite so eager to have me share your newly wedded bliss if I were a poor relation? Perhaps Captain Middleton is only interested in my fortune, but if that is the case he does a much better job of concealing it than anyone else.’
Charlotte and Bay become all but officially engaged. This would seem to be the end of the story, until Bay is tapped to serve as Sisi’s pilot and guide on the dangerous hunts, their shared passion for the sport inevitably leads to an indiscreet affair. It is a scandalous relationship that threatens Bay’s future with Charlotte, whom he truly cares for and that threatens the very fabric of the public lives of Europe’s rulers.
Goodwin, who writes with wit and grace, has artfully women fact and imagination into a tale that is is great good fun. 'The Fortune Hunter' is a page-turner that gallops to a satisfying conclusion.