Elisabeth, Duchess of Bavaria, accompanies her sister Helene to the Austrian court where Helene is betrothed to their cousin, the eligible and dashing Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph. But Franz prefers the athletic, charming, and bold “Sisi” over her shy, pious, academic older sister. Their marriage in 1854 catapults the fifteen year old into one of the brightest but most scheming courts in Europe. Empress Elisabeth of Austria now inhabits a world quite different from the small duchy of her childhood.
Sisi adores her husband, deeply loves her children, and strives for the love of her subjects, but her domineering mother-in-law (and aunt), the Archduchess Sophie, throws an evil shadow over her marriage from the beginning. Sisi is stifled by the court’s tight regulations – for instance, the empress can only wear a pair of slippers once before they must be discarded and gloves must be worn at every meal – separated from her husband for long periods of time, spied on by her mother-in-law’s minions, and expected to produce children she isn’t allowed to nurse or mother. After her eldest daughter dies of a fever and Sisi gives birth to the long awaited male heir, she becomes ill, suffering from a venereal disease Franz acquired from a mistress. Betrayed by her husband, forcefully separated from her children, and blocked from participating in the ruling of the realm, Sisi falters, turning to strict exercise, complex beauty regimens, and little sleep. She returns from a several year trip abroad to resume her duties as empress and mother, if not wife to her unfaithful husband, champions the cause of the Hungarian people, and falls in love with the dashing Hungarian Count Andrassy. Sisi remakes her own life on her own terms with Andrassy in a country she loves. The book ends on a joyous note, excluding the historical end of Sisi’s life when her only son commits suicide and she’s assassinated by an Italian anarchist 1898.
I found this to be an interesting, if rather limited, view of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. The naive young girl undergoes a baptism by fire when she is betrayed by her husband, her mother-in-law, the Viennese courtiers, and even some of her closest allies. Sisi doesn’t find true happiness until she falls in love with her Hungarian count and reaches a rapprochement of sorts with her estranged husband. The end feels like an overly romanticized version of what was ultimately, an incredibly sad life. It felt like a Disney version of a tragic tale. The struggle Sisi faces as an empress in the Viennese court rings true, but history tells us that although Franz and Elisabeth did reconnect enough to have a fourth child, Sisi’s later years were far from happy or her own. Knowing that made the overly rosy end seem lacking somehow.
I listend to the audiobook version, and the dialogue (especially the foreign accents) felt stilted and more Russian than Hungarian. Sisi’s inner monologues also drag down the momentum. It isn’t difficult to feel great emotion for Sisi, a bright, engaging, enthusiastic young girl who becomes jaded, miserable, tortured, and ill after her experience at the Austrian court. Her actions in this portrayal, however, don’t feel authentic to the historic person or the times.
Amazon link is here.