An Empress, a Horseman, and an Heiress/Photographer: A Victorian-era romantic triangle (England, 1875): The first word that comes to mind to describe Daisy Goodwin’s second historical novel is: delicious. (The same can be said of her debut, The American Heiress.) Since a New York Times testimonial on The Fortune Hunter’s star-studded cover said it first (“Ms. Goodwin writes deliciously”), let’s expound.
When was a novel’s dialogue your favorite part? Goodwin’s award-winning British TV company, Silver River, prides itself on “taking a concept to the screen in the most entertaining way possible.” So it stands to reason the author knows how to write dialogue in the most entertaining way possible.
Dialogue that is so clever. It’s flirtatious, teasing, witty, flamboyant, sycophantic, compassionate, catty, loving, perceptive, and brimming with tidbits of British history under Queen Victoria’s reign – depending on which of the numerous characters is being depicted; many inspired by real figures. Peopled with upstairs and downstairs characters from England, Scotland, Hungary, and an exuberant American photographer from California who contrasts his “country that is still being imagined” against “every patch of earth [in Britain] has a story,” the settings are central England’s prime fox hunting countryside, where such English country houses in Leicestershire (Melton Hall) and in Northhamptonshire (Althorp and Easton Neston) still loom marvelously and so “monstrously out of scale” we see them as characters too.
The incisive prose takes us inside the passions that drive the three main characters: fox hunting, steeplechase riding, and photography (for “viewers to see their characters, not their situation in life”). All together, the result is an enormously entertaining novel, one you’ll regret when it closes on page 468. Mind you, none are wasted pages, for the dialogue is precise, getting us quickly inside the heads of these three characters:
THE EMPRESS: Given “the mystique of royalty is a precious thing” and the Empress graces the stunning cover, let’s start with “the most beautiful woman in Europe,” Empress Elisabeth of Austria (also Queen of Hungary), nicknamed Sisi. At 38, she’s been unhappily married to Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph since sixteen, a stifling life of “layers of custom and faux servility” under a spotlight she finds painfully dull except for her portrait painted by Winterhalter, with her extraordinarily long hair studded with diamond stars. Sisi was, as she appears here, obsessed with her beauty, figure, and athleticism, had a pet monkey, and detests being photographed, fears her laugh lines will show. Then again, “perhaps it was more important to find something to laugh about.” The only time she feels free is hunting, so she’s escaped to England for the challenging Pytchley hunt, where the “idea of a galloping queen was peculiar and splendid.” Surrounded by her devoted countess, baron, and cavalieri servanti, they cater to her whims (like raw veal skin treatment) and watch her every mood. It changes in England when Captain Bay Middleton, a great English horseman, becomes her “pilot” guiding her riding, already accomplished and fearless. Around Bay, she’s determined to seize “a chance at happiness.” How could he (or anyone) refuse her? And so the romantic triangle begins to take shape.
THE HORSEMAN: Bay isn’t in a position to refuse the piloting assignment because his commanding officer and equerry patron, Earl Spencer, Sisi’s friend, has summoned him to do so. (The “Red Earl” is Viscount Althrop. Yes, the same Althrop as Princess Diana’s childhood home – another slender beauty also unhappily married, whom the author draws parallels to.) Bay is a “ladies man,” a gift and a curse. History says he did have an affair with that married woman, Lady Blanche Hozier; perhaps her child, Clementine, was his? Just one of the juicy pieces of British history since Clementine later married Winston Churchill. While it’s true Bay was Sisi’s “pilot” and there were rumors about their relationship, the romance here is Goodwin’s invention. Bay’s womanizing is the subject of constant ridicule, which he endures gracefully; he’s even self-deprecating about it (“I am not the sort of man that makes mamas happy.”) While he enjoys “being in the center of things,” he’s not full of himself. Confused about his emotions, he’s most endearing when he expresses his compassion for his horse, Tipsy.
“You know what you are getting with a horse, whereas with a woman all you can see is what’s on the outside. You can see a horses’ soul the moment you ride together but with a woman – well, I don‘t think I have ever met a woman who says what she means.”
THE HEIRESS/PHOTOGRAPHER: Charlotte Baird is the diamond in the rough in the novel. Also drawn from history, she’s the least well known of the triad. A wealthy orphan due to inherit the Lennox fortune when she turns 25, she’s come to London from the Scottish Borders to be under the guardianship of her Aunt Adelaide (Lady Lisle) until she reaches the age of majority, 21, months away. What a welcome contrast to Sisi! She knows she’s “not the most striking looking girl in the room” (although Bay falls for her grey-blue eyes, the “color of a blue roan” he rode in Ireland), but her whimsical disdain for the pretentiousness and trappings of royalty, refreshing spirit, strong sense of self (“The one advantage of being motherless is that you learn how to make up your own mind about people”), and way of seeing the world through the lens of her camera wins our hearts. When Bay starts paying attention to her – he’s her first suitor – she ignores jealous warnings that he’s a fortune hunter. Charlotte’s not afraid to stand up for herself against her so-called protectors: Fred, her pompous, annoying brother, who cares more about himself and the family fortune; Augusta Crewe, her petty, “affected and calculating” soon-to-be sister-in-law; and Captain Chicken Hartopp, a friend of Fred’s from his cavalry, the real fortune hunter.
The repartee between Charlotte and Augusta is so good. When Augusta warns Charlotte that “Captain Middleton, who comes from a modest background, is a fortune hunter,” Charlotte replies: “If that is the case, he does a much better job of concealing it than anyone else.” Or, the time Charlotte is called upon by her mentor photographer/godmother Lady Dunwoody (inspired by the British photographer Lady Clementina Hawarden) to come to Holland Park, London to help her assemble a photographic exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society. Augusta swoops in to remind Charlotte that nothing is as important as helping with her wedding, to which Charlotte replies: “But Augusta, as you have often pointed out, I know very little of the fashionable way of doing things … Forgive me, if I would rather go somewhere I can actually be of use.” Touche!
Bay may find Charlotte “full of contrasts” but it’s Bay’s feelings for Charlotte and Sisi that are confused. He finds himself spending more and more time with the Empress, yet he very much “likes the idea of making Charlotte happy.” The stakes get higher when Charlotte inadvertently takes a photograph of Bay and Sisi exquisitely mounted on horseback readying for the hunt, capturing the intensity of Bay’s expression looking on at Sisi. Since the “camera doesn’t lie,” Charlotte must confront the admonishments about Bay. Are they true?
Just as the fox does not “run in a straight line” … “the endless circling and doubling was the element that made hunting so fascinating,” so too is the circling back and forth between Bay and Sisi and Charlotte. We know which star we’re wishing for, but Goodwin keeps us guessing until the very end.