The Fortune Hunter

The Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Winterhalter, 1865. Photo: Hofburg Palace, Vienna

The Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Winterhalter, 1865. Photo: Hofburg Palace, Vienna

Beautiful, intelligent, melancholic and unconventional; those are familiar adjectives bestowed on The Empress Elisabeth of Austria, or ‘Sisi’ as she was known. Gazing at the famous painting by Winterhalter (circa 1865) it is obvious that Sisi was every inch the regal woman, though it would take a certain type of confidence (or arrogance) and vanity to wear diamond stars in one’s hair. Daisy Goodwin’s article in the Daily Mail describes Sisi’s eye-watering beauty routine and the (often grotesque) steps she took in order to maintain her appearance. This routine began at dawn, with an icy-cold bath followed by a 90 minute work-out in her own gym (installed in her bedroom at Hofburg Palace) doing 20 pull-ups before being laced into a corset. As well as her ice baths, Sisi bathed in goats’ milk, drank five salted eggs whites (she believed it prevented bloating) and washed her ankle-length hair in eggs and cognac. Her days consisted of riding to hounds or hiking and evenings were spent socialising, endless parties, gorgeous clothes and envy-inducing jewellery. She finally crawled into bed at 2Am with cutlets of veal placed on her face. It was said that she slept with her hands tied above her head so the blood drained away, giving her hands a pale, youthful appearance. And when she died aged sixty-eight, she still had a nineteen-inch waist, despite having had four children. But it was not the smoke and mirrors of corsetry that molded her figure. At bedtime she wrapped warm, damp clothes around her waist and food was sparingly consumed, aside from a drink of beef tea and a dry biscuit or two, Sisi ate nothing throughout the day. As Goodwin predicts, Sisi’s unhappy marriage to the Emperor must have been exasperated by her effort to look beautiful… for other men.

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It was Sisi’s vanity that inspired Daisy Goodwin’s fabulous book, The Fortune Hunter, a fictionalised account of her scandalous affair with Captain Bay Middleton. Unlike her husband, the wealthy and powerful Emperor of Austria, Middleton is penniless and ten years her junior. But luckily for Middleton, Charlotte Baird is twenty-year-old heiress who, like Sisi, possesses beauty, wit, intellect and a hefty fortune. Middleton has struck gold, and the two women fight for his affection. Though he promises to marry Charlotte, it is his infatuation with Sisi that threatens to ruin this gilded love triangle. Goodwin marshals in a mixture grand palaces, royal cameos (Queen Victoria makes a brief appearance), unapologetic vanity and the thrill of the hunt. But who is being hunted, one might ask?

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