I had heard of him before we went there, but I knew very little about him - and still less about his wife, Princess of Elizabeth of Bavaria, always known as Sisi. I read a little about her in our excellent Dorling Kindersley guidebook; the Austrians adored her, it said, and believed that much of the Emperor's success was down to her influence. When she died in 1898 - pointlessly, almost accidentally murdered by an Italian anarchist in Geneva - the nation mourned.
But then we went to an exhibition about her in the Hofburg Palace, and it soon became clear that the truth about her was rather more complex - and far more sad.
|A portrait of Sisi by Winterhalter|
Sisi met Franz Joseph when she was only 15. His mother, Sophie, had decided that Sisi's elder sister, Helene, would be a good match for her son, so she ordered Helene's mother to bring her to meet him at a spa town, Bad Ischl. But Franz Joseph departed from the script; instead, he fell in love with Sisi, rhapsodising over her hair, her eyes, her skin, her charm. (Her hair was extraordinary. It was said to reach almost to her ankles. It took hours to dress every day - in later life, she had someone to read to her in Greek while it was being done, so the time wouldn't be wasted. Washing it, with a mixture of egg yolks and oil, took even longer.)
How could she refuse the hand of an emperor? Moreover, Franz Joseph was only 23; he was handsome and he adored her - as he continued to do throughout their marriage. At first, it seems they were happy. She tried to fulfill her duties as Empress. But she had enjoyed a free childhood, she'd been close to her brothers and sisters, she was thoughtful and sensitive and wrote poetry, she'd roamed free on her horse. She very quickly realised that her life now would be spent inside a gilded cage; she could have exquisite dresses, houses all over the place, her own personal train - she could have anything she wanted - except, perhaps, freedom.
|One of Sisi's dresses in the exhibition - see how tiny the waist is!|
She had four children, but only seems to have been close to the fourth one, Marie Valerie. Perhaps this was because they were taken away from her to be looked after by others; but it seems that it was by choice that she travelled almost constantly, always searching for something that she never found. She became obsessed with her beauty, dieting and wearing tightly laced stays to give her the shape she wanted. They have several of her dresses at the Hofburg, and the waist is tiny: you could almost encompass it with two hands. Determined to keep fit and lithe, to general astonishment she had wooden gym equipment in her rooms, and used it daily. She was a highly skilled and fearless rider; she was full of contradictions, exercising rigid control over her body through dieting and dress, yet risking it when she rode. Even when she and Franz Joseph were together at the Hofburg, she had a separate suite of rooms, though he was sometimes allowed to take breakfast with her. In her rooms she had pictures of her Bavarian family and of the poet, Heine, but very few of her husband or children. Franz Joseph's rooms on the other hand, were full of pictures of her; he had a large portrait of her in front of his desk, so that when he looked up from his work, there she was.
|Sisi with her extraordinary hair loose. This was one of the portraits Franz Joseph kept close by him.|
In 1889, their son, the Crown Prince Rudolf, committed suicide in a pact with his mistress, Marie Vetsera. Sisi was devastated, and afterwards wore only black.
In 1898, travelling as usual, she was in Geneva: unfortunately, she happened to be there at the same time as an Italian anarchist called Lucheni. He had intended to kill the pretender to the French Throne, the Duke of Savoy; but the Duke's travel plans had changed and Lucheni missed him. Then he read in the local paper that the Empress of Austria was in Geneva incognito. He just wanted to kill a sovereign; any one would do. He followed her, and stabbed her with a sharpened file. Because she was, as usual, tightly laced, the blood could not flow freely at first, and at first she walked on, not realising what had happened. But it was a fatal wound, and even her stays couldn't save her: she soon collapsed. When Franz Joseph was given the news, he said quietly that no-one would ever know how much he had loved her. He thought at first that she must have committed suicide, and Marie Valerie said that at last, her mother had got what she'd longed for.
Austria and Hungary - of which she was also Queen - mourned. The papers all over the world were full of the story. She quickly became venerated as a heroine, a woman who was said to have been close to the people, an angel. But, unlike another beautiful and tragic princess much closer to home, this does not seem to have been the case in reality. Her tragedy, it seems to me from the evidence of this exhibition (though who knows whether this version of the truth is the correct one?) was that once she had left the safe haven of her childhood, she was unable to be close to anyone. She suffered from depression and from a terrible loneliness and sense of pointlessness. She could have had anything she wanted, but none of it was enough. Her closest companion worried that she had no occupation; she had nothing to occupy her mind, apart from travel and poetry.
Was she so unhappy because she found her situation unbearably restrictive? Or was her mental state such that she would have been unhappy whatever her situation? Whichever is nearer to the truth, I find her story intriguing - and desperately sad.