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The Fortune Hunterby Daisy Goodwin


Review by Nancy Brannon

Foxhunting season starts in October for many hunts in the mid-south, so this is a good time to debut Daisy Goodwin’s latest novel that you may have seen on the shelves in the book store. If you’re into reading about the kind of European upper class formal society represented by Downton Abbey, then you may be attracted to this book. Stemming from the author’s interest since childhood in the world of “princesses,” and completing a jigsaw puzzle of a portrait of Empress Elizabeth of Austria, this book fulfills the author’s lifelong “royal thing” by taking a real historical character and imbuing her with imagined details about a brief period of the royal’s life.

The central character, Empress Elizabeth (1837-1898), affectionately known as “Sisi,” was wed to Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I at age 16. Entering the royal court of the House of Hapsburg, she became both Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary through this marriage. But she found court life boring and stifling and was at odds with her mother-in-law, Princess Sophie, who dominated the rearing of Elizabeth’s daughters, one of whom died in infancy. When she gave birth to a male heir Rudolf, her court standing improved, but her health deteriorated and she often visited Hungary for a more relaxed environment. Goodwin likens her to the “Princess Diana of 19th century Europe,” renowned for her beauty, but she was also obsessed with maintaining her health and beauty. After the 1889 death of her only son Rudolf, and his mistress Mary Vetsera, in a murder–suicide tragedy at his hunting lodge at Mayerling, Elisabeth never quite recovered from the shock. She withdrew from court duties and travelled widely, unaccompanied by her family.

This book is a romantic, triangle love story of Sisi’s visit to England in the 1870s to foxhunt with Earl Spencer at Althorp. Ironically, Althorp was the childhood home of Diana Spencer, and Diana’s wedding dress was a modern version of the dress that “Sisi” wears in the famous Winterhalter portrait of her.

Part I of the book begins in 1875 when we are introduced Charlotte Baird, an heiress in upper class British society, with a passion for photography.

We also meet Capt. William George “Bay” Middleton (1846-1892) a noted English horseman who is equerry to John Spencer, the 5th Earl Spencer. An equerry is a senior attendant with responsibilities for the horses of a person of rank. Though not a member of English royalty, he is far more than a groom and was a member of the 12th Lancers Division, a cavalry regiment of the British Army. By the way, Bay Middleton (1833-1857) is also the name of an undefeated Thoroughbred racehorse who was a leading sire in Great Britain and Ireland

The plot begins as the Empress of Austria visits Althorp for a season of foxhunting. Throughout the book, she is renowned for her riding ability, her horsemanship, and the top quality of her horses. Spencer commissions Bay Middleton to “pilot,” or guide, the Empress through the sometimes treacherous landscape on every hunt, starting with the legendary Pytchley Fox Hunt and finishing with the Quorn Hunt. Thinking he will simply be babysitting the Empress, Bay is greatly pleased to see what an accomplished rider she is; in fact, he is the only rider in the hunts who can keep up with her.

Earlier at the Spencer Ball, Bay met Charlotte and both became infatuated with each other, keeping their feelings discreet. Charlotte convinces Bay to allow her to take his photograph with his beloved horse Tipsy, his well-trained, highly athletic foxhunting/steeplechase Thoroughbred mare. Bay proposes to Charlotte, but she asks him to wait until she comes of age and her inheritance will be assured.

The plot thickens as Middleton and the Empress become involved with one another on an intimate level, when she comes to his room late at night for liaisons after the day’s hunting. Charlotte is off-put as Middleton becomes enamored with the Empress, and she suddenly leaves for London to pursue her photographic interests.

Part II of the book focuses on the London photographic exhibition, where the best photographers are on display for Queen Victoria. Charlotte stays in London with her aunt Lady Dunwoody, who originally developed Charlotte’s interest in photography, also where she meets the very talkative American Caspar Hewes. Charlotte’s photographs are included in the exhibition, particularly a rare one that she made of the Empress at a hunt, with Bay gazing lovingly towards her. As might be expected, the photograph causes great disruption and embarrassment for all involved and the Empress drives a rift between Charlotte and Bay. Having seen Hewes’ breathtaking photographs of the Grand Canyon and a poignant portrait of a Native American boy, beloved by Hewes but now deceased, Charlotte decides to travel to America to try her hand at photographing the vast, beautiful landscape of America, where Hewes will be her guide.

After the incident at the photo exhibition, Bay realizes that his relationship with the Empress is getting to be more than he wishes for and how much greater is his love for Charlotte. He is angry with jealousy at Hewes.

The famous Grand National Steeplechase is coming up and Bay has sights on winning it with Tipsy. After days of rain, the course remains very wet and Bay knows that after the first lap the ground would be so churned and muddy as to make going very difficult.

Find out how things work out with Bay and Charlotte, and who wins the Grand National Steeplechase. Meet other colorful characters such as Chicken Hartopp, who also would like to marry Charlotte. But be prepared to wade through a lot of pomp, proper protocol, frivolity, and gossip among the privileged characters whose main goals in life are to carry on the family position and wealth, and pursue their favorite pastimes, like foxhunting. 

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