Friday, February 6, 2015

Empress Elizabeth of Austria and a Review of "The Accidental Empress"

Hello good readers! Today I am bringing you a little biography of the absolutely beautiful and fascinating Empress Elizabeth of Austria, as well as a review of Alison Pataki's "The Accidental Empress".

Sisi right after her marriage in 1855. The portrait
is by AmandaBergstedt.
First off a little more about Elizabeth, or "Sisi" as she was called. Born into the somewhat eccentric House of Wittelsbach (Bavaria) in December of 1837, Elizabeth was raised in a large family with relatively few restrictions. She became an expert horsewoman in her youth and was generally a free spirit. In 1853, she accompanied her eldest sister Helene to Bad Ischal, the summer retreat of their cousin, Emperor Franz Joseph. Helene was the intended bride, but Franz fell in love with Sisi instead. Oops. And so began Sisi's transformation from country bumpkin to fabulous empress. Only Sisi never quite took to the stifling Hapsburg court. Her misery was only compounded by her domineering aunt and mother-in-law, Princess Sophie. When children came along, Sisi was seldom allowed to interact with them as they were reared by Sophie. As a result, Sisi became sickly and oftentimes displayed symptoms of panic attacks. The love that she had for Franz began to waver, and by the time the couple's third child was born (a much needed heir), Sisi had become withdrawn, despondent, and was on the verge of nervous collapse. She was plagued with anemia and doctors feared that she had consumption. Whether her symptoms were just in her head or the result of a venereal disease contracted from her husband, Sisi left for Madeira, and then ventured to Corfu for her health. Upon return to the Hofburg, she was once again struck down with coughing fits, anemia and even signs of edema. She removed to Bad Kissingen for rest but then returned to Bavaria to stay with her family. She did not return to Austria for two years.

An intimate portrait of Sissi by Franz
Winterhalter in 1864.
Sisi was a complex individual. She was absolutely beautiful and hugely popular due to her "common" ways. But she was fearful of growing old and fat. She indulged in some strange beauty regimens (including layering her face in fresh veal) and had exceedingly long hair that took hours to dress. She often complained of headaches because her hair was so long. In addition to being a proficient rider, she also was an amateur gymnast. She succeeded in keeping her girlish figure, even after multiple pregnancies, though starvation or "fasting cures" were frequently used in order to achieve this.

When Sisi returned to Austria, the court was abuzz about her extended travels, but also about the rabble rousing Hungarians that were essentially conquered peoples. Sisi loved Hungarian culture and even learned the language. She became the personal advocate of Count Andassy, a Hungarian freedom fighter. Historians now believe that the two were lovers, in addition to being close friends. In 1867, a compromise was brokered (largely by Sisi) to allow the Hungarians to govern themselves with a parliament. In exchange Franz and Sisi would be crowned the Emperor and Empress of Hungary. Soon after, Sisi found herself pregnant for a fourth time. However, she now openly rebelled and refused to give the child up to her mother-in-law. But yet Sisi was still unhappy; she began to travel extensively and was constantly dogged by the press. She was very protective of herself, and did not like to photographed. She often carried a parasol and a leather fan to shield herself from prying eyes. She visited England and may have been the lover of George "Bay" Middleton (the subject of Daisy Goodwin's The Fortune Hunter).

Erzsebet kiralyne photo 1867.jpg
Sisi at her Hungarian Coronation, 1867
After years of being on the run, Sisi sustained a huge loss when her son Rudolf, the Crown Prince, murdered his mistress and then committed suicide. Soon after, Count Andassy died. From then on, Sisi suffered from continual melancholy. She traveled the Mediterranean on her steamer and rarely spent time in Austria. On September 10, 1898, 60 year old Sisi was in Geneva, Switzerland preparing to embark on a ship bound for Montreux. An Italian anarchist approached her and stabbed her with a sharpened needle file. At first no one knew what had happened as she lost consciousness. It was only after she was disrobed that a doctor discovered a wound above her left breast. She died forty minutes later. An autopsy revealed she had been stabbed in the heart and that her tight corset had prevented the internal bleeding. When her attendants cut her corset laces, her pericardium sack was filled with blood, which caused her heart to stop. It was ignominious end for a woman who had captivated Europe for forty years.

And now for my review of Alison Pataki's The Accidental Empress. It opens just before Sisi leaves on the journey that will change her life. Her reluctant attraction to Franz is detailed as is her utter happiness at being united to him in marriage. But the fairy tale soon ends as Sisi is frustrated at every turn by her husband's aloofness and her mother-in-law's domineering ways. The novel follows Sisi to her coronation in Hungary, and covers her attraction and relationship with Count Andassy. As with Pataki's first novel, there were several mistakes in the clothing descriptions. At times, modern attitudes prevail as well. However, Sisi proves to be much more sympathetic than Peggy Shippen. Readers will find The Accidental Empress a good entry point on the life of Elizabeth, Empress of Austria.

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