Often compared to Princess Diana, the young beautiful Empress of Austria is the focus of two historical fiction novels by Allison Pataki – The Accidental Empress and Sisi. I first met Elisabeth, known as Sisi, through her famous Winterhalter portrait in Vienna, where she majestically holds court in the Sisi Museum. The guide compared her young beauty, rebellious spirit, and the uncomfortable relationship with her mother-in-law, to Princess Diana. Both had an obsession with weight and beauty: Sisi favored a diet of raw veal juice and milk to maintain her eighteen inch waist, while Diana was self-reportedly bulimic; Sisi rode horses and exercised while Diana went to the gym; but, most importantly, both Sisi and Diana chafed at court expectations, each carving out reverence from their subjects independent of their famous mother-in-laws.
The Accidental Empress
In The Accidental Empress, Pataki introduces the fifteen year old Elisabeth (Sisi) with her betrothed older sister, Helene, as the saga begins. After love at first sight with Franz, Sisi quickly progresses to marriage, while Pataki weaves the Hapsburg’s dynasty into the dialogue (Marie Antoinette was a great aunt).
Politics at court rivals modern day intrigue, and young Elisabeth finds court life with the Hapsburgs complicated and restricted compared to her country-style Bavarian upbringing. The romantic courtship changes after marriage, with Franz’s overbearing mother in charge of Sisi’s new life. After Sophie commandeers the upbringing of Sisi’s two daughters and the heir, Sisi runs away to recover from the venereal disease her husband has passed on to her. Her reluctant return to court, however, signals the beginning of her new influence on her husband and the future of the Austrian-Hungarian empire.
Despite the romance novel dialogue, the historical information is fairly accurate, with the depiction of Sisi skewed toward a frustrated and internally persecuted monarch – loved by her people but not by her mother-in-law. Pataki offers an historical lesson on the powerful Hapsburgs, as the widespread dynasty of 1853 slowly dissipates to lose Russia, Germany, and Italy. This novel ends in 1867, as Sisi manages to shore up the Austrian-Hungarian compromise, establishing a dual monarchy, with Franz Joseph and Sisi crowned king and queen of Hungary.
Among the poetic license Pataki takes in telling the story is Sisi’s love of Goethe, with pithy quotes from the great philosopher and author of Faust:
“One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”
“We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe.”
Sisi: Empress on Her Own
Partaki continues the saga of the famous European Empress with her second book, Sisi: Empress on Her Own. This book opens with the assassin stalking the Empress in Switzerland and backtracks to her life outside the Viennese court with her fourth child.
I am reading this sequel now, wondering how Pataki will embellish well-known historical facts like the Mayerling Incident, involving the death of Sisi’s son, Crown Prince Rudolph, and her strained relations with her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph. History tells us Sisi had a close relationship with handsome Hungarian Count Andrassy, and Pataki has already created a fictional romantic assignation in the first novel – with possibly more to come.
The romance novel interludes and dialogue can be grating at times, but if you are a fan of romantic historical novels like the Philipa Gregory series, you might enjoy a foray into another realm to learn more about one of the great houses of Europe – one that just ended one hundred years ago.