St. Martin’s Press, July 2014
About the Book
Empress Elizabeth of Austria, known as Sisi, is the Princess Diana of nineteenth-century Europe. Famously beautiful, as captured in a portrait with diamond stars in her hair, she is unfulfilled in her marriage to the older Emperor Franz Joseph. Sisi has spent years evading the stifling formality of royal life on her private train or yacht or, whenever she can, on the back of a horse.
Captain Bay Middleton is dashing, young, and the finest horseman in England. He is also impoverished, with no hope of buying the horse needed to win the Grand National—until he meets Charlotte Baird. A clever, plainspoken heiress whose money gives her a choice among suitors, Charlotte falls in love with Bay, the first man to really notice her, for his vulnerability as well as his glamour. When Sisi joins the legendary hunt organized by Earl Spencer in England, Bay is asked to guide her on the treacherous course. Their shared passion for riding leads to an infatuation that jeopardizes the growing bond between Bay and Charlotte, and threatens all of their futures.
Charlotte Baird, orphaned heiress and amateur photographer, meets the famous ladies’ man Bay Middleton through mutual acquaintances. He is dashing, a cavalry officer, widely known as the country’s best horse rider, and he has just hastily exited a many-month affair with Blanche Hozier, who goes on to bear his daughter, a girl, Clementine. Charlotte is serious, independently-minded, and eager to escape the claws of her soon to be sister-in-law Augusta Lisle. They eventually promise to marry that is until the “Red Earl” Spencer asks Bay to pilot the Austrian Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) when she comes to England to hunt.
Bay reluctantly accepts but he, like so many other men of that era, become dazzled by the renowned beauty. Only 38 years old, with an avid passion for hunting, a 19″ waist, and hair that cascades past her ankles, the international celebrity makes men melt. Despite his promises to Charlotte, Bay falls for the monarch. Tension ensues when Charlotte takes a photograph of the famously secretive ruler without her permission and accidentally exhibits it at a Royal Society of Photography exhibition. Bay is caught between the two—Sisi, the demanding monarch who requires all of his time and attention, and the small, quiet photographer who adores him above all others. When Bay decides to ride in the Grand National horse race and both women attend, Bay is forced to choose.
Although the plot is rather long and predictable and the author jumps from head to head when it comes to POV, this one shines for its historical detail and authenticity. Ms. Goodwin goes out of her way to weave in the subtle aspects of royalty, hunting, and photography, to name just a few. I have to agree with many of the Goodreads reviewers and say the ending is disappointing, but a few smaller characters, namely the “diamond in the rough”, American Casper Hughes, still make this a story worth following to the end. This is a fictionalized account of real people, and it’s fun to imagine something like this playing out just before the turn of the 20th century. Clementine Hozier eventually married Winston Churchill, and the “Red Earl” Spencer was Princess Diana’s ancestor, which gives the story added dimension.
The parallels between Princess Diana and Sisi have often been mentioned elsewhere, but the reader will feel them keenly here. Both women were very young, beautiful consorts when they were first thrust onto the world stage. Both ladies were famous for their looks, had unhappy marriages, struggled with eating disorders, experienced extreme public scrutiny, and felt trapped in their roles. It is interesting to note that the women shared tragic endings too. Ms. Goodwin emphasizes this with many references to “Diana the huntress” which speaks to Sisi’s love of the hunt and Diana’s objectification by the press.
This cover is simply stunning—one of the best “view of a woman from behind” that historical fiction covers have adopted so often lately. The stars, one of Sisi’s best-known fashion accessories, her riding habit, and Sisi staring across at an English house as the outsider she was all work incredibly well here.