RATING: VERY GOOD
I really enjoyed the book despite my conflicting feelings about the characters. I loathed the way Captain Middleton behaved towards Daisy. One day he is proposing to her, and the following day he is kissing the Empress. When he takes a fall, the Empress orders for him to stay in the house she is staying in while in England. That very night the Empress comes to his room, and they make love, and Bay has little or no thought for Charlotte.
In London Charlotte is helping her godmother with the exhibition. She meets Caspar, an eccentric American photograph, who she becomes good friends with. It is Caspar who develops some of her photographs, and one in particular causes her feel unsettled. In the photograph she has captured the Empress with Bay, and it is clear that Bay is smitten with the Empress, and Charlotte can see that.
Despite the photograph, she decides to send him a letter, inviting him to the exhibition as some of her photographs will be on display. By this time the Empress is already infatuated, and she barely let him out of her sight. She even takes her for a visit to Queen Victoria. When he gets Charlotte’s letter, he is happy and decides he wants to see the exhibition. Yet, he knows he has to hide Charlotte’s existence a secret, so he makes up a story about him wanting to see a doctor in London, and the Empress agrees to let him go reluctantly.
It is the exhibition that is a turning point for Charlotte. She is happy to see Bay turn up, and she agrees to talk to him later in private. Yet, things get in the way. Queen Victoria opens the exhibition and one of her guests is Rudolph, Sisi’s son. As they look at the different pictures, they find one of the Empress, who is known for not wanting to have her photograph taken. Unbeknown to Charlotte, the picture of the Empress and Middleton has been hung on display, and when Rudolph sees it, he is outraged, noticing the expression of Bay. Middleton is called to give explanations as well as Charlotte, and Rudolph is scornful, calling Bay a groom, only Queen Victoria defending him as belonging to the British army.
After the turmoil and the royals are gone, Charlotte unhangs the photograph. She is very upset, realising that now everybody will know that Bay is the Empress’s lover and he is just a jilted paramour. She smashes the frame, but the print suffers no damage. Caspar convinces her to leave, so she agrees and leaves the picture with a servant, instructing him to give it to Captain Middleton, so she stands him up.
Bay knows that he has lost Charlotte and doesn’t dare to call on someone. He also realises that he can’t return to the Empress as the rumours will be circulating all around London. So he decides to stay put. In Easton Neston Sisi gets the visit of her son, who doesn’t beat about the bush and tells her about the photograph and his disappoval of her connection with Captain Middleton. Sisi manages to appease him, but missing Bay, she sends her chamberlain, who finds Bay, and he tells her that the Empress wants his return when her son leaves Easton Neston. Middleton tells the chamberlain that he won’t return there, and to justify himself he tells him that he is going to train for the Grand National and needs to focus all his attention and energies on his horse.
The next time Bay sees Charlotte is in her brother’s wedding. They get to talk, and Bay tells her that he loves her and still wants to marry her. Charlotte is cold towards him, but Bay’s easy character makes her melt somehow. Yet, when the Empress turns up announced, the wall between them emerges again. It is clear that the Empress won’t leave Bay alone, and it is very sad when Sisi thinks how insignificant Charlotte is so there is no danger for her there. When Bay walks with the Empress out of the reception and leaves in her carriage and even kisses her, I felt so angry with him. Bay silently admits that he doesn’t feel so dazzled as when he first met him. He even thinks he feels sorry for her, because she practically begs for him.
After this, Charlotte has decided to accept an offer that Caspar has put forward. She is going to America to photograph all those spaces that Caspar has shown pictures of. So when Fred and Augusta leave for their honeymoon, she leaves them a letter, explaining that she is leaving for America with Caspar and her maid. She knows that people might think that she has eloped, but if she returns without a husband, her reputation will be tarnished forever, which she doesn’t really care about.
When they are in Liverpool, Caspar tells her that they will have to wait for one more day as the weather has brought some logs to the port, and no ships will be able to leave. Since they are very close to Aintree, where the Grand National takes place, she decides to attend and see Bay. So she and Caspar go there. There she runs into Chicken, who is surprised to see her there. Chicken had thought that Charlotte had eloped with Caspar, but Charlotte clarifies his misconception. When Chicken points out that the Empress is also there, clearly supporting Bay, she feels hurt despite the fact that she and Bay are not together. Charlotte witnesses Bay win the race, but she doesn’t stay longer when she realises that the Empress is to give him his trophy.
From the parts about the Empress, she is making plans to take Bay to Hungary with him. She clearly feels she belongs to him, and even before the race, she sends her chamberlain with some ribbons showing the Empress’s colours, but Bay refuses to wear the ribbons. I think Bay found the attraction of the Empress so enticing because this was one of the most powerful women in the world, and as such it flattered him. I don’t mean that he wasn’t attracted to her as a woman, but a big part of the attraction was vanity of his part.
Winning the Grand National doesn’t give Bay the satisfaction he thought as he feels lonely and empty. When he talks to Chicken, the latter tells him that Charlotte saw him from the stands, but she is now gone. So it is when Charlotte and Caspar take their luggage to be lugged into the ship that Bay appears. In the middle of a small crowd, he proposes to him, telling her that he loves her. He doesn’t even want her fortune, and he thinks that they could live comfortably off with his money. In the end it is Bay who embarks with Charlotte as they get ready to elope and marry.
I really love the book. I didn’t like Bay Middleton, who was a total cad, but I still wanted Charlotte to feel loved and end up with him.