Sisi – the last Empress of the Habsburg Empire

Allison Pataki‘s Sisi (The Accidental Empress and Empress on Her Own) is one of the most interesting and accurate historical novels I’ve read recently. The story engages you in Sisi’s life in a very big way. All her troubles and misfortunes, all her insecurities, eccentricities, the happiest moments of her life become part of you while you are reading Pataki’s novel. For me, this is a sign of a great literary achievement.

Empress Elisabeth's Hungarian coronation
Empress Elisabeth’s Hungarian coronation gown by Charles Frederick Worth;
Credit – Pinterest

The Accidental Empress shows a young girl who’s failing at finding her place in the strict and cold imperial court of the Habsburg Empire. The second book indeed shows Sisi as an empress on her own, troubled by so many things in her life, finding solace in riding and travelling the world. Sisi was an extraordinary woman, who started her life as a happy and free-spirited girl, whose spirit was slowly broken by the strict rules and protocol she was forced to obey in the court in Vienna. She was ill-prepared for her role as an Empress and too young to take on all the burden upon her shoulders. A 16-year old girl who was dreaming of her perfect prince, perfect love and life in a fairytale. However, the reality struck her hard, resulting in the melancholia that became her constant companion for the rest of her life.

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Portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1865;
Credit – Wikipedia

In the beginning, Sisi did try to fit in the role she was thrown in- she tried to be a good wife and a good empress, but the restricting rules came too much for her free spirit to bare. The interference of her mother-in-law in Sisi and Franz Joseph’s marriage was also something she was struggling to fight. The real tragedy, though, came when Sisi lost her first daughter. The grief mixed with blame hit her so hard that she started believing what the others were telling her- that she was incapable to raise children. This resulted in her alienating herself from her other daughter Gisela– a gap that was never overcome for the rest of Sisi’s life.

The birth of her first son, crown prince Rudolf, lifted Sisi’s spirits but her happiness didn’t last long; Rudolf, just like his sisters before him was taken away from Sisi to be raised by her much more capable mother-in-law archduchess Sophie. To add to the pain, Sisi found out her husband was accepting other women in his chambers while she was mourning the loss of their daughter. This, in my opinion, was the first pivotal moment in shaping Sisi’s personality in the years to come. This was the first time she abandoned her duties as a mother, wife, and empress and went on one of her many travels abroad.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria

Empress Elisabeth of Austria by Georg Raab, 1867; Credit – mimimatthews.com

I think Sisi is an example of why monarchies were abolished in so many countries at that time. Her luxurious life, her expensive travels, gorgeous gowns and hours-long beauty procedures were in a huge contrast with the way common people of the empire were living; poverty, suicide, and illness were the reality for many of them.

Sisi wasn’t an active politician, she was avoiding all her official duties as much as she could and was wasting a lot of money on her travels and hobbies. In my opinion, though, the biggest failure in her life was the one of a mother. The trauma of losing her first daughter and then being stripped of her other children made her selfish and estranged. The only child she was favouring was her last daughter Valerie, the only child she was allowed to raise herself. This is why Sisi became somewhat obsessed with her and completely abandoned her other two children.

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Archduchesses Gisela and Marie Valerie of Austria;
Credit – Pinterest

Gisela found the mother she needed in the face of Sophie, but Rudolf resembling Sisi not only by looks but by personality as well, needed his mother more than anyone else. He was the only child that was just like her- sensitive, fragile, visionary. This is why he was the most inappropriate heir to the great Habsburg throne. He lacked the stoicism and discipline of his father and just like his mother, remained misunderstood by the people around him.

Rudolf’s relationship with his father has been tense since an early age and with a mother who was always away, he found a confidant in his older sister Gisela. When she married and left Vienna, though, Rudolf’s downfall began. For me, this is when Sisi made her biggest mistake. She knew what her son was going through, she knew deep inside that she was the only person who could help him and yet, she did nothing to save him. She continued favouring Valerie over the others, which broke Rudolf even more; he was longing for his mother’s love and attention. No wonder the crown prince grew up to be unstable and broken, cruel at times, addicted to opiates, alcohol, and women. When Rudolf committed suicide the blame struck Sisi very hard and this is the stroke she never fully recovered from.

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Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria;
Credit – Wikipedia

I believe Sisi loved Rudolf very much, but she never felt he was hers. He was taken away from her as a baby and being a crown prince, he was never allowed to accompany her on her travels or be part of her lifestyle. The two of them were deeply connected but never had the opportunity to develop this connection into a proper mother-son relationship. As a result, both their lives were ruined because Sisi was longing for Rudolf when he was a small boy and Rudolf was longing for his mother when he was a grown man. The two of them could have healed each other’s wounds but they never found the path to one another.

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Sisi and Franz Joseph; Credit – Pinterest

I feel I should dedicate a paragraph to Franz Joseph as well. He was a good person, with good intentions, who was always doing his duty. He was deeply in love with Sisi, but his duty and the empire would always come first. Franz was an epitome of an emperor- someone who gives himself in service to his empire and his people, someone who sacrifices his personal life, his wants and needs. Those qualities cost him his marriage and the love of his life, but this is how he was raised to be.

I deeply sympathize with Franz cause his life was very difficult, bound by duty, but he stood strong and bore all tragedies in his life with dignity. The moment I felt most difficult to read in both books was when Franz received the news of Sisi’s assassination. The way this strong man broke into tears was described so graphically that you can’t help but feel for him. His love for Sisi was very deep and very tender and never fade away.

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Emperor Franz Joseph in 1853; Credit – Wikipedia

I personally like Sisi, she was a very charismatic woman who’s persona continues to fascinate people 119 years after her death. I believe she was a good person, with many imperfections indeed but with good intentions and a good heart. She was very sensitive and very fragile and her drama is that she remained misunderstood her whole life. Sisi is an inspirational woman and if you don’t learn from her actions, learn from her mistakes.

L.V.K.
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