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Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s 180th Birthday (24 December 2017)

Elisabeth: The Unhappy Empress of the Habsburgs

Our childhood fantasies of fame and glory -- growing up to be President of the United States, becoming a Princess -- evaporate for most of us when we discover that the cost of fame and glory is the loss of privacy and simplicity. Can the President sneak out to a restaurant for a quiet lunch with a friend? Can Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom (1926- ) (reigned 1952- ) slip down to the palace kitchen at 2am to make herself a sandwich? It is not impossible, but it cannot be easy.

The life story of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837-1898) is a fascinating, poignant tale of a beautiful woman who had no fantasies of fame and glory, who had fame and glory thrust upon her and never reconciled herself to the exigencies of her position.

Elisabeth, called Sisi, had a happy, unbridled, Bavarian childhood, partly royal, partly bourgeois; she was the second daughter of a large, close-knit, rather raffish family. Her father, though a royal duke, loved his artistic drinking friends, his circus horses, and his daily lunches with his two illegitimate daughters. But ultimately upbringing mattered less than lineage. She was from a crown family, a fact that transformed her life.

In 1853, she was engaged to the young Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (1830-1916) (reigned 1848-1916). The two mothers, who were sisters, engineered the match, though the young Emperor was deeply in love. For Sisi, it was also a love match of a sort: How, at 15, could one not be swept away at being chosen by the handsome, charming Emperor? But, dazzled as she was, she had doubts: “I love the Emperor. If only he were not the Emperor.” In that sad, little remark sounds the voice of a child who half feels herself trapped, and in later years, she was to say bitterly, “Marriage is an absurd arrangement. One is sold as a fifteen-year-old and makes a vow one does not understand and then regrets for thirty years and which one can never undo.”

In the mothers’ eyes, it may have been a good match, but it was not. Franz Joseph continued to adore his wife in his way, but he was ruled by his mother, and already, at 23, an old man, completely broken to the hopeless job of ruling an empire that was not merely crumbling but in open revolt. Work was his life: He toiled throughout his honeymoon and on the day of his wife’s assassination. He was a thoroughly decent, conventional, rigid stick of an imperial servant, prepared to sacrifice all to his position. Sisi was the opposite: spontaneous, warmhearted, sensitive, brooding and fantasizing, devoted to poetry and nature. She was intelligent, high-strung, cared nothing for appearance, convention or grandee pride. As such, she was completely unprepared for life in the glummest, most proper court in Europe, where appearance and convention were everything and intimacy and privacy impossible. 1950s prom dress

Inevitably, she was miserable. The crowds that gathered to see the Empress-to-be on her engagement journey terrified and exhausted her. Abruptly, she recognized that this new life would not be, as she had fancied, a grand extension of her Bavarian idyll. In Vienna, court life afforded Sisi no privacy. When the marriage was consummated three nights after the wedding, the whole court was informed, and that morning, as every morning, the imperial couple had to breakfast with Archduchess Sophie (1805-1872), the Emperor’s mother.

Activity was important to Sisi: all her life, she had taken walking and riding for granted. Now she found herself embroiled in petty squabbles: Was it more unsuitable for the Empress to ride alone or in the presence of a groom? At first, she tried her dutiful best, but so many court procedures galled her. She hated having waiting women dress her; she would not give away her shoes after a single wearing. The court disapproved.

Nor was it a propitious moment in history. Sisi was trapped in a role she did not believe in. When Sisi became Empress in 1854, Austria was the largest European state except for Russia. Sisi became Empress not only of Austria but also of Hungary, Bohemia, Bavaria, Dalmatia, Lombardy-Venetia, Tuscany, and “Jerusalem” -- nearly 50 states in all. It was a vast ethnic mix and a huge bloc of territory, which had been acquired chiefly through Habsburg marriages. It was a nation that had no reason to exist and, in an era of nationalism, discontent was inevitable. In 1848, there had been widespread uprisings; in the next two decades of Franz Joseph’s reign, all of Austria’s Italian territories were lost through wars and revolutions.

The Emperor’s absolutism aggravated the problems. Guided by his mother, he ruled without Parliament or Constitution, a gingerbread despot. But Sisi was enlightened: the single political act she seems to have been allowed was to influence her husband to grant Hungary a Constitution. In 1867, Franz Joseph still ruled in Hungary, but as a constitutional monarch.

But if Sisi recognized better than her husband that monarchy was changing, she was not a modern consort and would have abhorred the stardom that is monarchy’s principal function today. She hated public appearances, performed them perfunctorily, if at all, and often fled the court for long, aimless journeys. At the same time, she was extraordinarily beautiful and cultivated her beauty strenuously. This beauty made her a legend, which, in its turn, drew more of the detested crowds. But she cultivated herself for herself. Her beauty gave her self-confidence, but it also had an unhealthy side to it. She certainly was a victim of anorexia nervosa and other psychosomatic disorders. She was exquisite, narcissistic, and self-destructive.

This wonderful if complex aristocratic republican tried desperately to escape the constraints of the court and the duller forms of aristocratic life. In her later years, as her beauty waned, she rode to hounds in England as furiously as the best of them. It was a grandee dash -- the act of a brave, free spirit. The shy, young girl who was miserable at court had grown up to become a selfish woman who disregarded her husband’s concerns, neglected her duties, and feigned illness. However, it is still easy to side with Sisi.

The great strain on our sympathy is the question of Sisi’s neglect of her three older children. As some have presented it, the tragedy of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria’s (1858-1889) suicide at Mayerling was largely his parents’ fault: He adored his mother, yet she remained oblivious of his problems. In point of fact, 19th-century parents, particularly of the upper class, generally were more distant from their children than parents of today. Nevertheless, the issue of the children is difficult. However, Sisi appears less villain than victim: each member of the imperial family was an isolate in that vast, over-formalized, over-servanted setting. Sisi, for all her brilliance, was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.