The love triangle created by an heiress, an empress and an “Adonis on horseback” is delightfully dissected in the second historical romance (The American Heiress, 2011) from a best-selling British novelist.
Described variously as shallow, unsuitable, a man with a past but without character, cavalry officer Capt. Bay Middleton is hardly ideal fiance material for a wealthy underage debutante in Victorian England. But he’s the one man to have captured the heart of Charlotte Baird, the shrewd, 20-year-old heir to the Lennox fortune who accepts his proposal after a handful of kisses and despite his bad reputation and inferior social position. Bay’s feelings for Charlotte are true—and unmercenary—but the captain also knows himself to be “unsteady,” which is why he asks Charlotte to elope with him instantly rather than wait a few months until she can marry without her brother’s approval. Charlotte’s refusal to behave improperly leaves Bay open to temptation, which arrives in the epic form of “the modern Helen of Troy,” Empress Elizabeth of Austria, holidaying incognito in England to escape the boredom of life at the Viennese court. Elizabeth, known as Sisi, is a spectacular (if aging) beauty with ankle-length hair whose fearless appetite for fox hunting is matched only by Bay’s. Forced to act as Sisi’s guide while hunting, Bay soon finds himself her lover too, a “secret” which sends ripples of gossip through the upper end of English society. With its witty dialogue, intriguing research and cameo appearances by Queen Victoria and other royals, Goodwin’s latest is a pleasurable excursion into Downton-land complete with high-society weddings, lavish balls and an exciting, all-or-nothing horse-racing finale.
Goodwin has hit on a winning formula—a sophisticated blend of money, class, history, misunderstandings among lovers, spirited women, and unpredictable but irresistible men—and is sticking with it.