A while back, I read and enjoyed Daisy Goodwin's second historical novel, The Fortune Hunter. In many ways it reminded me of her first one, My Last Duchess. It's deftly plotted, taking the reader from one attractive set piece to the next. It has most of the ingredients I look for in an historical novel with a dash of romance - balls, hunts, country-house parties, misbehaving royals and, as a bonus, Austrian-Hungarian officers making out. On the down-side, as in My Last Duchess, I didn't care a great deal for the characters, with the exception of the charming American photographer Caspar Hewes who's always good fun when he appears ("Lady D said you wanted to be alone, so of course I came at once").
The novel centres around a love triangle between Charlotte Baird, an heiress passionately interested in photography, Bay Middleton, a rake passionately interested in hunting and the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, a royal beauty passionately interested in herself. Bay's romance with Charlotte is budding nicely, despite her family's objections: but then he is appointed the hunting pilot of Empress Elisabeth, and unwisely starts an affair with her. Will Charlotte forgive him? Will they get together again? Do we want them to?
It says a lot about Daisy Goodwin's talents as a yarn-spinner that I kept turning the pages while not being particularly fond of either the sneering Charlotte or Bay. With time, as her love deepens, I did begin to feel for Charlotte, but Bay remains a bone-headed fellow with his obsession with horses, hunting and races. You feel that no woman, empress or not, can really compete with his filly. He shows a polite interest in photography for Charlotte's sake, but knows little about it, and she for her part never hunts as her mother was killed in a hunting accident. Even if Bay supposedly isn't after Charlotte's money - the book's title is partly ironic - you wonder if they make such a good couple as all that. As for Empress Elisabeth, nicknamed Sisi, she is vain, attention-seeking and hard to like.
In Georgette Heyer's whodunnit Envious Casca (great title - shame it sort of gives away the plot twist), one character gets on all the other characters' nerves by relating anecdotes from a book on the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. I didn't really understand that storyline - say what you like about Sisi, she's good copy. There are worse topics of conversation than her life. Having said that, the Empress seems to have been the kind of woman who invariably brings out the cat in me. I'm not sure why. She might have been a bit of a moaner, but she had things to moan about: the Austrian court was strict, her mother-in-law Archduchess Sophie was formidable, and the poor girl was only fifteen when she married Emperor Franz Josef, who was smitten with her but also a bit of a dry stick. Nevertheless, my pity keeps itself well within bounds. I have some trouble believing that she'd actually take a lover, because I've somehow come by the opinion that a woman can sometimes be a tiresome, neurotic narcissist (like the Empress), and sometimes a wanton slut, but she is rarely both. I may be completely wrong, though, and my failure to see women of the self-regarding Sisi type as sensual beings may be part and parcel of my general cattiness.
Perhaps it's the "golden cage" aspect of Empress Elisabeth's complaints that makes me unsympathetic. We all have cages to contend with in our lives of one sort or another, and they're rarely golden. Being an Empress is a job like any other, containing elements that are not enjoyable - but I bet there are worse ones. As Elisabeth's sister, the deposed Queen of Naples, says in The Fortune Hunter: "There are worse things in life, Sisi, than being stared at."