Charlotte Baird is a quiet and unassuming young woman possessed of an enormous fortune. She has a quick wit and a settled sensibility to her. Her older half brother has the administration of her fortune until she attains her majority or marries and he has short-listed several suitable men for her consideration. She's more interested in pursuing the art of photography than she is marrying until she meets one of her brother's fellow officers, the dashing but rather unsuitable Captain Bay Middleton. When they meet, Bay has just been thrown over by his married lover after she discovers that she is pregnant with his child and must go to her husband to prevent the child from appearing illegitimate. He is still smarting from his dismissal but finds himself captivated by this intelligent and no nonsense young woman. And although they come to a sort of secret understanding, the arrival of Elisabeth, the Empress of Austria, threatens to change everything.
As the preeminent rider in England, Middleton, who is in fact a cavalry officer, is assigned to pilot Sisi for the current hunting season. She herself is a marvelous equestrienne and the two of them spend hours out in the field riding together and testing each other's prowess in the saddle. And soon they are lovers as well. Despite this liaison, Bay doesn't want to give up Charlotte, and torn between them, he must juggle the two women carefully, one too astute to miss the situation and one too entitled to give her rival much of a thought. When Charlotte takes a furtive picture of the Empress, who is accounted the most beautiful woman in the world, and of Bay gazing on her with patent adoration, and the picture comes to public view, not only the personal is revealed but political underpinnings come suddenly into play.
This is not a typical romance, even if it has many of the hallmarks of one. Goodwin draws a fascinating picture of Victorian England, the horsey set, and the nascent art of photography. She's captured several different, sometimes unconventional, love stories and the longing and desire in each beautifully. But she's also captured the uncertainty of women through Charlotte's fear that she is only being pursued for her money rather than herself and through Sisi's poignant fear of aging and losing her much vaunted looks. A thick feeling of unhappiness pervaded much of the novel with each of the characters trying so hard to find something to hold onto in life that would bring them joy. For Charlotte, that thing is clearly photography. For Bay, it's riding and horses. For Sisi, it's hard to say as she continually pushes for more of everything in search of the elusive happiness. In both Bay and Sisi, there is a certain recklessness while Charlotte is a much steadier character. The secondary characters surrounding this trio were well drawn and helped to show the stifling social rules under which each of them was forced to live. Based on real people, the story was very readable although Sisi as a character was rather less likable than Charlotte for me, coming across as petulant and spoiled on occasion. Charlotte's continued devotion to Bay, despite the rumors of his infidelities and her own photographic proof, would be inexplicable if not for her tender age and the mysterious workings of the human heart. This is pleasant and readable historical fiction although I must admit to liking Goodwin's prior book more.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.