It is heartbreaking to read about the destruction of an attractive and lively personality. Yet that is what Brigitte Hamann’s biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria does. Titled THE RELUCTANT EMPRESS, Ms. Hamann’s book charts the downfall of Elisabeth (more commonly known by her nickname “Sisi”) from a carefree 15-year-old who caught the heart of the Emperor Franz-Joseph, to a teenager whose children were taken from her by her jealous mother-in-law, to a twenty-two year old who fled the Viennese court and her marriage because after six years of marriage, she became so ill, that people feared for her life.
Unable to live with a husband who was dominated by his mother, and kowtowed to a stifling regimented Spanish etiquette, Sisi tried to find something to do with her life.
In the 1860s, she agitated for the parity of the Hungarian crown with the Austrian. In 1867, her efforts were crowned with a coronation ceremony in Budapest.
In the 1870s, she dropped politics and moved onto horse-racing, becoming one of the most outstanding equestrians in the world.
In the 1880s, she focused on poetry, writing several hundred poems, most of which were not published until after her death (they were too subversive). She stopped writing poetry when her only son, the Archduke Rudolf, committed suicide in 1889.
In 1890, her youngest child married, giving her even less reason to stay in Vienna. And so she wandered, from place to place, never finding a home of her own.
For those of us who remember the trials and tribulations of Princess Diana this makes chilling reading. Like Diana, Elisabeth suffered from anorexia. Like Diana, she was a perfectionist who cultivated a cult based on her own extraordinary beauty. LIke Diana, she became an unhappy woman who never seemed to find her footing in the world. So when Elisabeth was assassinated in 1898, her death was a relief. Birgitte Hamann writes:
“This sensational act of violence in Geneva was a deliverance for a deeply unhappy, emotionally disturbed and physically debilitated woman whose parting hardly left a gap.”
What a tragedy for such a deeply gifted, and sensitive personality. Five stars.