In the latest Still You Book Club review, Rachel tells us what she thought about this story of a 19th Century love triangle that just so happens to be based on true life events…
I don’t think, had it not been on the current WHSmith / Richard and Judy book club reading list (which we’re following for the Still You Book club), that I would have picked up The Fortune Hunter. It’s quite a thick book (always off-putting for time pressured mums), with an image of a well dressed 19th Century woman and the phrase “historical romp” written on the cover – not something I would normally choose. I love books about the Victorian period, however I normally choose a novel written in that period, rather than about it. I love Edith Wharton for example, and this novel, to my great surprise and pleasure, distinctly reminded me of The Age of Innocence, probably Wharton’s most famous novel.
At the heart of The Fortune Hunter is a love triangle between an intelligent yet romantically naive heiress, called Charlotte Baird; a famous horseman and lothario lieutenant, Bay Middleton, who is reeling from an affair with a married woman and looking to change his ways; and Sisi, Empress of Vienna – an older, famously beautiful yet troubled women who is unhappily married.
On finishing the novel you discover that the story is actually based on fact. The characters of Charlotte, Bay and Sisi were all real people. This has great dramatic effect, even in retrospect. Don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler – Sisi is (unbeknownst to me) a very famous historical figure in much of Europe. Though some elements were fictionalised to make the characters more appealing and to flesh out the story, there was a real relationship between Sisi and Bay. And also between Bay and Charlotte. In The Real Life Sisi, an afterword in the book, Daisy Goodwin compares her to a modern British icon I am familiar with:
“She is, in the German-speaking world, the equivalent of Princess Diana… Vienna is stuffed with Sisi memorabilia… like Diana, Sisi found [on marrying Franz Joseph] that she was not marrying a man, but an institution… It is pretty clear that she suffered from anorexia and bulimia…The eerie parallels between the lives of Sisi and Diana are striking: both young women from emotionally unstable backgrounds who are catapulted into global fame by their marriages. Both women found fame through their beauty, without a voice their influence was in the glittering image they represented to the world… Sisi found many of the same pressures to be slim, to be beautiful… both women found real fulfilment in visiting the sick.”
What is even more fascinating is the fact that Diana’s Great-Great-Grandfather Earl Spencer, both in real life and in the novel, invites Sisi to England and also introduces her to Bay Middleton. Interestingly, during his affair with the married woman mentioned at the start of the novel, Blanche Hozier, Bay is also thought to have fathered a child, Winston Churchill’s future wife, Clementine Hozier. This blurring of real and fictional is mesmerising, even in hindsight. I think knowing these facts in advance of reading the novel will only add to the dramatic tension. Charlotte Baird was a real person too. She was an heiress who had a relationship with Middleton. I won’t tell you any more, as I don’t want to ruin the story for you. These little factual nuggets really bring the story to life. Though I couldn’t help but think ‘why didn’t she tell me that at lot of this stuff was real at the start of the book?’ but then I suppose the full stories couldn’t have been revealed without certain spoilers occurring. Still, maybe it should say ‘based on true events’ at the start rather than reveal it at the end, to give it that added frisson which knowing that these things happened certainly does.
Something else I liked about this book is that the gender roles for the 19th century romantic novel are reversed – in one respect anyway. In many novels of that period, like Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for example, it’s a middle class woman looking for a ‘good’ marriage – one that is based on love but also that will be good for her financially too. In this story though, it’s Bay who is looking for a ‘good’ marriage. We discover that he isn’t ‘the fortune hunter’ that he is accused of being (this factor is taken out of the equation by him coming into some money at the end of the novel), but he still looks to the prospect of marriage to save himself, his reputation and his moral being. It’s the two women who have all the money and all the power.
The proto feminist character of Charlotte is appealing to the modern female reader as she shuns many of the expectations put upon her by upper class society. She is a talented photographer who is frustrated by the way women are expected to sit around looking pretty until a man whisks them away from the horrors of potential spinsterhood to the safety of marriage. When she meets Bay – who encourages her creativity, her independence of thought and with whom she shares a quick witted banter – she realises that here is an opportunity for her to marry happily. Bay sees the innocent Charlotte as a chance for redemption. His previous relationship was with a married woman – and it ended badly. Charlotte is his equal in intelligence and despite her plain appearance he is attracted to her. This shows Bay to be less shallow that we previously thought; despite his romantic misdemeanours he appears to be a decent person as he recognises that beauty on the inside will bring him happiness longer term. However, when Sisi enters the story we see that Bay cannot control himself.
The question at the core of the novel is, who will Bay choose: does his future lie with the older, emotionally damaged, vulnerable yet beautiful Sisi? Or will he find happiness with wholesome, intelligent and wealthy Charlotte?
What’s interesting is, whichever future he chooses (I won’t spoil that for you), it will be in the shadow of these women. They are both inherently more powerful than he is. Charlotte is going to be extremely wealthy when she turns 21. She is also very talented and becoming well-known as a photographer. She wants to travel the world and he even suggests he will be her willing assistant in this venture. Sisi is the most beautiful and one of the most powerful women in Europe. If Bay chooses her, he will be her lover, but he will also be at her beck and call. He rejects the notion that he will act as her plaything, her ‘creature’, as he is a proud and independent man. Despite this, he is dangerously drawn to Sisi. Bay too has power, but his power is his sexuality, his personality, and his looks. These factors are also role reversals; it’s normally the men who are painted as the powerful ones and the women as the ones possessing all the sexual power. In all three characters, good looks are presented as something that isn’t necessarily a blessing. Beauty can give you power, but ultimately it won’t bring you happiness.
It’s a fairly lengthy read at just over 500 pages, but very short and eventful chapters mean it bobs along easily – and is perfect if you like to lose yourself in books which depict another time and world entirely. I loved the fact, too, that the women in this book are the ones that hold all the cards. In that respect it is a thoroughly modern historical romp – and one that I highly recommend.
Have you read The Fortune Hunter? What did you make of it? Let us know!
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