Brigitte Hamann’s 1981 authorised biography of the ill-fated Empress, Elisabeth of Austria, does not subscribe to the cult and mythology of Sisi. Instead, she tries to find the real woman, and to separate her from the rumour, speculation and romantic portrayals that have haunted her memory. If anything, she treats Elisabeth too harshly and presents us with a picture of a sad figure, forever at war with the Habsburg court and with herself; of a princess estranged from her husband, devoid of any maternal feeling for three of her four children, and with an obsessive, possessive love for the fourth.
Hamann’s sources are court documents, memoirs of people who knew Sisi and, above all, diaries of four women important in the Empress’s life: her lady-in-waiting Marie Festetics, her friend and “reader” Ida Ferenczy, her niece Marie Larisch-Wallersee and her daughter Marie Valerie. She also draws from Egon Corti’s papers, the basis of Corti’s 1930s biography, the first to have the official Austrian stamp of approval. Such documents that Sisi left behind at her death were destroyed on her own instructions by Ferenczy [but watch this space***] so we must fall back on secondary sources for our understanding of her.
As a child, Sisi, daughter of the very unconventional Duke Max of Bavaria, enjoyed a carefree life in the woods and hills around Possenhofen on Lake Starnberg, the family’s country home. At fifteen, she was catapulted unexpectedly into the formality of court life in Vienna, capital city of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire. Wholly unprepared for her new exalted position as wife of Kaiser Franz Josef, Sisi began to exhibit symptoms of the illness that would plague her at intervals throughout the rest of her life. Variously diagnosed as lung disease, depression and – in more recent times – anorexia nervosa, the condition undoubtedly stemmed from her hatred of the stifling atmosphere of the court, the disapproving attitude of its dignitaries, and especially her continual battle with her mother-in-law, the influential Archduchess Sophie.
Determined to hold on to her striking looks and figure, she installed a gymnasium in her Hofburg apartments . She became one of the best horsewomen in history. What was lacking in her Bavarian education – she ran rings round her governess – she made up for later by learning and becoming fluent in French, English, Hungarian and Greek. A devotee of Shakespeare’s plays, especially A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she also knew the works of Heine and Byron, translating some of the latter’s poetry into German.
A series of tragedies culminating in the suicide of her son, the Crown Prince Rudolph, drove Sisi more and more towards isolation, solitude and eccentric habits. Thumbing her nose at security measures, she took long walks and undertook sea voyages in all weather conditions. She was never happier than when away from Vienna, travelling in her own special train, rambling in the hills of her native Bavaria, or sitting with her umbrella on the deck of her private yacht, enjoying a storm.
In The Reluctant Empress, Brigitte Hamann draws short of labelling Sisi’s peculiarities as madness, but she does dwell rather on her Wittelsbach heredity, pointing to several of her kin who, it was supposed, had descended into madness, notably King Ludwig II of Neuschwanstein Castle fame.
Tempted to tackle the original German version of Elisabeth: The Reluctant Empress [Kaiserin Wider Willen], I finally settled for the English translation by Ruth Hein, deciding that, at something over 400 pages long, the former might prove too much of a challenge in time and effort.
This is an excellent biography, one of the best I have read, the portrait of a historical personage whose life story has a special fascination for me. Nevertheless, I do not think Hamann quite found the real Sisi despite her faultless research. Eccentric Sisi undoubtedly was in later life, but I do not see her as a woman incapable of love. Unable to satisfy her doting husband’s sexual needs (and there are clues to why that should be so in the book), she was fond enough of him to find him a long-term mistress who could do so. As to children, especially in the upper classes, it was a tragedy of the age that they were so often palmed off on governesses and tutors and saw their parents but seldom. Sisi may have been unusual, but I see her rather as someone of exceptional intelligence and sensitivity, but stubborn and rebellious with a mischievous sense of humour, who hated pomp, ceremony, pretence and false pride.