Thursday 16 June 2016

Sisi - The People's Princess? By Sue Purkiss

If you spend a few days in Vienna, as we just have, you will soon realise how important a figure the Emperor Franz Joseph was. His name is linked to many of the beautiful, gracious buildings, and the current layout of the city owes a great deal to him. He ruled for a very long time - from 1848, when he was just 18, to 1916. During his reign the city became a magnet for artists, writers, composers, and other creative people.

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.


madwippitt said...

oh wow! What a fascinating post ... I only knew that one famous fact about Emperor FJ from O level history lessons and nothing at all about his missis! More ... I want to know more ...Surely a book in this?

Penny Dolan said...

Interesting post! Those grand European royals always seem so unconnected to us but, of course, the consequences of their tragedies, especially attacks by anarchists, had a way of affecting a wider stage.

What a strangely sad personal story Sisi had: granted a adoring husband, riches and all the diversions and horses she could want but none of it was enough to reach her restless spirit. The incident with the sharp blade and tight corset is chilling enough for a horror story but also sounds as if it might have been the romantic and still-beautiful way that Sisi would want to die.
That tiny-waisted blue dress is really very charming and one can easily see why Franz-Josef loved the portrait with the tumbling hair.
Thanks for the introduction to Sisi, and to Vienna, Sue.

michelle lovric said...

SO interesting! Sisi was a beloved figure even in Venice, which generally hated the Austrian occupiers. She did more for public relations than most modern royals one could mention.

Sally Zigmond said...

I agree. This is totally fascinating. Why on earth do I know nothing about her? She most definitely should be written about now, either as the subject of a non-sensational biography or as a subject for a series of historical novels. (I say series because there is surely enough information for more than one?)

Linda Strachan said...

Amazing story, fascinating post, Sue. Yes, definitely a book in there somewhere!

Mefinx said...

There is a very full biography of her; "The Reluctant Princess" by Brigitte Hamann. Originally published in German, I think it suffers a little in translation but is still a mine of information. It seems that Valerie was Sisi's favourite child because she was conceived in Hungary. Hungary was marginalised by the Austro-Hungarian Empire but, perhaps for that reason, Sisi always felt freer and happier there, and made great efforts to learn Hungarian and respect the Hungarian culture.

Another fasicnating aspect of her life, which has a chapter devoted to it in Hamann's biography, is her intense but almost certainly platonic relationship with Ludwig, the mad king of Bavaria.

Susan Abernethy said...

"The Lonely Empress: Empress Elisabeth of Austria" by Joan Haslip is another excellent biography of her.

Unknown said...

A fairly recent novel about Sisi is Daisy Goodwin's "The Fortune Hunter", which concentrates on a period in the 1870s when she spent a lot of time in England, mainly for the fox-hunting. She was rumoured to have had a relationship with a Captain Middleton who was assigned to escort her in the hunting field.

There's also a connection with the island of Madeira, where she spent some time recuperating after a possible nervous breakdown. There's a statue of her somewhere in Funchal - I think it's near the Casino.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks so much for your comments, everyone, and thanks for the book recommendations. There was a bit in the exhibition about her horse-riding, and a fairly enigmatic mention of Middleton - I did wonder if there was a hint of something going on!