I was lucky enough to be sent a pre-publication copy of The Fortune Hunter via Twitter. I had never read Daisy Goodwin’s novels just her collections of poetry so this was a first for me and I was pleasantly surprised.
I like historical fiction and love the Victorian period particularly so what caught my imagination first were the historical details. I love clothes so the intricate descriptions of the layers in women’s Victorian clothing were very enjoyable. The details of fashion etiquette were interesting too; when and where certain clothing was worn and how those rules were affected by class were all fascinating too. In a world where the only detailed protocol we still use is probably at our weddings it is amazing to think that this is how the upper and middle classes lived their everyday lives. Having studied Victorian art as well as literature I was drawn in by the details of the heroine Charlotte Baird’s hobby of photography but then gradually I fell in love with Charlotte herself.
Charlotte is an heiress to the Lennox fortune and is a target for fortune hunters everywhere. Far from being the usual simpering Victorian heroine Charlotte is more of a bluestocking girl; educated and very intelligent. Instead of being caught up in a social whirlwind, as favoured by her brother and sister-in-law, Charlotte does not care for clothes, parties or the famous Lennox diamonds she owns, but does care passionately for her hobby of photography. Meanwhile her brother and his wife engage wholeheartedly in the social life she dislikes, because as the guardians of her fortune they live from the interest until Charlotte marries and takes the reins for herself (or more likely her husband does). At a party Charlotte meets the handsome and infamous Bay Middleton who is a horseman, hunter and famous playboy in his social set. They seem an unlikely match but Bay is drawn to Charlotte’s quiet manner and intelligence. She is not a great beauty, so those around her assume the worst and are very keen to protect her from fortune hunting. Yet Bay seems sincere about his fondness for Charlotte, that is until a rival appears on the scene and it’s not easy when your rival is the Empress of Austria.
Elizabeth (known as Sisi to close friends) was married when she was 16 to the Emperor of Austria. They had nothing in common but Eizabeth soon became known as one of the most beautiful and fashionable woman in 19th Century Europe. Her passion in life is riding and she arrives in England for the hunting season with a string of ponies and huge household. She cannot be rivalled in the hunting field but in England she does not know the terrain. Worried that she will lose her way or at worst, take a bad fall, it is suggested she should have a ‘pilot’. A pilot is a guardian who hunts alongside her, making sure she knows the way and getting her home safely. Bay Middleton is in a rest period before attempting his life’s ambition to win the Grand National and he is suggested for the role with the Empress. On the day of the hunt and for their first glimpse of the royal visitor Charlotte has set up her camera. She aims to capture the hunt in all their glory and is also tempted to take a photo of the Empress who is renowned for her hatred of photographs. Sisi knows she is not the unmarked beauty she was ten years ago and is at great pains to salvage her complexion by swathing her face in veal during the night. Charlotte takes a shot which the Empress deflects by holding up her fan, but the photo shows something else; Bay’s face shows his immediate and total enchantment with Sisi. The photograph has the potential to break Charlotte’s heart.
This book has the ability to grab you and then keep you reading. I started one day and read right through to finish the following night. I missed sleep to find out what would happen to Charlotte. The book has just enough detail to anchor you totally in upper class Victorian circles without bogging the reader down in swathes of description. It moved quickly and had me rooting for Charlotte all the way through because I felt a kinship with her; not quite beautiful, but patient, kind and modestly talented it is hard not to like her. By contrast Sisi is exposed as a frightened and spoiled woman who is used to getting what she wants without having to fight for it. She is worried about losing her looks and this is her main frailty. Sisi needs Bay in a way Charlotte does not; Sisi is fragile, melancholic and needs something to break the suffocating formality of her role. Whereas Charlotte, though heartbroken, has a plan to survive and live life her own way. I would say that the character of Bay really loses out to the women in the novel. He is not as vividly drawn as the Empress and I didn’t feel anything for him. I started to feel sorry for the Empress as the book went on, even as I disliked her. Charlotte infuriated me because of the passive way she was dealing with Bay’s very obvious affair with the royal visitor. Despite being shamed publicly by Bay’s behaviour she keeps her cool right up to the point of the exhibition at the academy and the displaying of that photograph. I won’t reveal the end, only to say that I half wished to read about Charlotte’s adventures as a photographer and pioneer, wherever in the world her talent and determination would take her.
Meet the Author
When Daisy Goodwin went to Cambridge University to study history her first assignment was on Queen Victoria and the media. She went to the library to consult her diaries. Queen Victoria wrote sixty two million words in her life time and when she pulled out the first leather bound volume she was overwhelmed by its size and weight. It fell open at the entry for 3rd Nov 1839, ” I saw my dearest Albert who was all wet in his white cashmere breeches with nothing on underneath.” She laughed out loud and the other readers looked at her with disapproval. This gave her a different perspective on Queen Victoria, as more than the boot faced old bag with a bonnet she had imagined, but as a woman after her own heart.
All Daisy Goodwin’s novels have been set in the Victorian era: the first is about a ‘dollar princess’ called Cora Cash who marries an English duke. The Fortune Hunter is the story of Sisi, the beautiful Austrian Empress who came to England to hunt – in the novel Sisi meets Queen Victoria. Daisy enjoyed writing this encounter so much – ‘Victoria’s voice came so easily to me, that I decided that my next next novel would be about the young Victoria. But as I started writing it, I thought it would make a great tv drama, which is how I ended up writing the PBS Masterpiece series Victoria, as well as my novel Victoria, a novel of a young Queen.’
When Daisy is not immersed in the nineteenth century, she lives in London with three dogs, two daughters and a husband.
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My Last Duchess
Cora Cash has grown up in a world in which money unlocks every door. Her coming-out ball promises to be the most opulent of the gilded 1890s, a fitting debut for New York’s ‘princess’. Yet her fortune cannot buy her the one thing she craves — the freedom to choose her own destiny. For Cora’s mother has her heart on a title for her daughter, and in England — where they are bound, to find Cora a husband.
When Cora loses her heart to a man she barely knows, she soon realises that she is playing a game she does not fully understand — and that her future happiness is the prize.