Looking back, I see that I wrote the following two critiques in 2014. Empress Elisabeth of Austria is a historical figure I very much enjoy reading (and writing) about and, indeed, since penning these articles, I have read a few other works in which she features, regrettably not all as good as Brigitte Hamann’s biography.
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 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: 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.
I find Elisabeth of Austria immensely appealing.
Sisi’s Poetic Diaries
In 1951, a mysterious package arrived from Bavaria at the office of the President of Switzerland. The sender, Duke Ludwig of Bavaria, had been in possession of its contents since 1909 as part of the estate of his father, the respected occulist and optometrist Karl Theodor von Wittelsbach, younger brother of Elisabeth, the late Empress of Austria-Hungary.
The package contained three black leather-bound volumes with gilt edges and clasp in which were recorded chronologically dozens of poems, in the handwriting of the Empress herself. There were also several printed copies of the material in the two earliest volumes, a few printed pages of the third, and a letter from Elisabeth addressed to posterity.
“(***) Dear future soul , I entrust these documents to you. The Master dictated them to me and also determined their purpose, that in 60 years from the year 1890 they should be published for the benefit of political prisoners and their needy dependants. For in 60 years time, just as today, there will be little enough happiness and joy, that is to say freedom, on our little star. Perhaps on another? I am not in a position to say these things to you today – maybe when you read these lines ……. With kind regards, because I feel you love me, Titania (***)”
The Master was Heinrich Heine, Elisabeth’s spiritual hero and inspiration. Titania was her Shakespearian alter ego, to Franz Josef’s Oberon.
Towards the end of 1953, the Swiss President received a second, smaller delivery of printed versions of volumes one and two, entitled Nordseelieder and Winterlieder. These came from the estate of Prince Rudolf Liechtenstein and had survived two world wars and much political wheeling and dealing to reach their intended destination.
Rumours of a literary legacy of this kind had circulated in Austria for some considerable time. That Sisi had written poetry was common knowledge, and indeed some of her work had been published in memoirs. The 1930s biography by Egon Corti had contained some examples, and Corti himself had hinted at a much greater body of work. However, most historians believed that if any such work existed it had been destroyed. Ida Ferenczy, Sisi’s friend and confidante was known to have destroyed her letters.
Elisabeth did not trust her contemporaries at the Vienna court to see that her wishes were carried out and took stringent measures to protect what she believed the world would want to read. She entrusted Ferenczy with her poetic diaries (Das Poetische Tagebuch as they are now called), protected by multiple encasement in boxes of iron and lead, and by seals of various sorts, to be delivered with her express instructions to Duke Karl Theodor after her death. On no account had they to be delivered direct to the Swiss President.
The diaries remained all but forgotten in Swiss archives until the end of the 1970s. In 1980, Sisi’s biographer Brigitte Hamann, who had inspected the archive in preparation for her book The Reluctant Empress, suggested the diary be published by the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The Academy obtained the agreement of the Swiss Parliament, who proposed that profits from the publication of a book should go to the refugee fund of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
The Poetic Diary of Empress Elisabeth was first published in 1984 and has run to five new editions since then. I hope Sisi would have approved.
(***) the English version is mine, and I hope I have done justice to the spirit of Sisi’s letter even if the translation is not exact.