Scared Straight by Empress Elisabeth of Austria

Scared Straight by Empress Elisabeth of Austria

In Getting Personal, Royal History9 Comments

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To many people, Elisabeth of Austria was a free spirit – a woman longing for independence who chafed at the restrictions of court life in Vienna in the 19th century.

Wild and beautiful, they think of her roaming Europe in search of fulfillment on a physical and spiritual plane she just couldn’t reach with her courtiers, subjects, family, children, or husband. Me? I think she was kind of a bitch. Before I picked up The Lonely Empress by Joan Haslip (affiliate link), I thought poor Sisi was just misunderstood. Haslip disabused me of those notions pretty quickly. This is a good thing, though, because I saw a lot of myself in Elisabeth…and it scared the shit out of me.

Blueprint for Failure

I’ve written before about how I feel like a failure on a daily basis. Absolutely nothing has changed since I wrote this post in 2014. The Word doc with my to-do list is called “InjuryInducingToDoList.docx.” It was 9 single-spaced pages last time I opened it. I stopped opening it because all I did was cry. If Tom Hanks appeared and said, “There’s no crying in writing,” I’d cut him.

When I get home from work and look at the clock, I can’t find a way to make a dent in that list in just a few hours. So what’s the point? It’s too depressing to contemplate. Some nights, I just drink and binge-watch Orange Is the New Black on Netflix. Most of the time, I work on The Dante Deception until I can’t see straight and go to bed wondering if it’s like this for everyone who writes. No matter what I did the night before, I wake up feeling like a failure. I know I’m not writing enough, blogging enough, networking enough, or marketing enough. Other people out there are facing the same circumstances and not failing at this writing thing, which means there’s something wrong with me. I’m pretty sure I know what it is, but that’s a subject for a different post.

Enter Elisabeth of Austria

I have a hard time reading fiction when I’m editing one of my own books. I mostly read non-fiction when I’m super-deep in editing mode, like now. I picked up Joan Haslip’s The Lonely Empress since I’ve had it on my shelf for quite awhile. Our subject is Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, Duchess in Bavaria, who was born into a cadet branch of the Wittelsbach family. Now, the Wittelsbachs are famous for one thing – complete raging insanity. They weren’t all insane, though, so you had to wait and see which ones went from mildly eccentric to flaming batshit crazy.

They weren’t all insane, though, so you had to wait and see which ones went from mildly eccentric to flaming batshit crazy.

Sometimes it wasn’t that bad. Elisabeth’s father, Max, liked hanging out with circus performers more than his own family. Relatively harmless, right? But sometimes the Wittelsbach genes went apocalyptic. Elisabeth’s cousin, Ludwig, bankrupted Bavaria to build Wagnerian castles until he was dethroned and imprisoned. Shortly afterward, he was found dead in the shallows of Lake Starnberg, the body of his doctor nearby. This is the genetic legacy handed down to Elisabeth through no fault of her own.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria

At first, it looked like she might take after her father and simply be eccentric. That’s how her five sisters turned out – shy, overly sensitive, and self-involved. Elisabeth was all these things, too, but it was tolerated because she was (a) a Wittelsbach, and (b) mind-bendingly beautiful, according to most people who saw her. Take a gander for yourself in the painting on the right.

At the age of 15, she was chosen by the emperor of Austria to be his bride. He was 23, and blinded by the beauty that she’d soon become famous for. They married when Elisabeth was only 16. These days, we call that statutory rape. I don’t blame her for having a hard time adjusting. When you were sixteen, could you have handled a husband? A domineering mother-in-law? A court stifled by etiquette that dictated your every move? It’s a lot to process for anyone, let alone someone whose natural tendency is to run away.

But instead of finding a way to cope, Elisabeth freaked out.

She threw tantrums and gave ultimatums to Franz Josef, her husband. She refused to appear at court events even though that was pretty much her only job. She hid from crowds because she hated being stared at, but then she got angry when people didn’t stare and fall under her spell. When her mother-in-law took charge of her kids’ upbringing and education, she ignored them instead of fighting for the right to be involved. Then she acted all passive-aggressive about her mother-in-law’s choices. It’s easier to complain than actually do something, so that was the game plan she stuck with.

And no one told her to grow the fuck up. Not one person. Not ever.

So she didn’t. She ignored everything she didn’t like or understand, which included her children and husband. She ignored anything that caused her social anxiety, which included her court and her subjects. The things she couldn’t ignore she ran away from. She was absent from Vienna, her capital, more than she was ever there.

When she returned from trips to German spas or English hunting lodges or sunny Atlantic islands, she’d stay in Vienna for a week or two…and then get bitchy and angry when Franz Josef asked her to do anything useful, like attend a state dinner. She’d sulk and pout until she finally told her husband she just had to leave again. If he asked her to stay to spend time with him and the kids, she’d say things like, “But I’ll kill myself if I stay here because there’s nothing for me.” No one ever told her, “Fine. Go ahead. Kill yourself and see if I care.” I would have loved for Franz Josef to say that just to see the look on her face.

Somewhere along the line, she also developed what was probably an eating disorder.

Obsessed with being thin, she installed gymnastic equipment in her bedroom and exercised for hours on end. She ate nothing. Beef juice, milk, orange juice – as little solid food as possible. She weighed herself three times a day. If her eighteen-inch-waist grew more than a quarter-inch, she freaked out. If her 5’6″ frame weighed more than 110 pounds, she freaked out.

Sometimes she gets credit for having a modern mindset about appearance and exercise. The people who give her this credit probably don’t understand she had one or more mental illnesses driving her to make these decisions. I’m thinking in particular of this Diana Vreeland quote: “She was one of the first modern women. She was one of the first women who did exercises, one of the first who did gymnastics, and one night a week she’d go to bed in special sheets of bath toweling packed in beefsteaks — for her skin. Apparently, she never looked older than thirty — ever.”

“She was one of the first modern women. She was one of the first women who did exercises, one of the first who did gymnastics, and one night a week she’d go to bed in special sheets of bath toweling packed in beefsteaks — for her skin. Apparently, she never looked older than thirty — ever.”

Diana Vreeland

I’m shaking my head here. Diana Vreeland claimed Elisabeth was one of her heroes, so she must have known about Mayerling. She had to. What’s Mayerling, you ask? It’s the hunting lodge in which Elisabeth’s son and heir killed his teenage mistress and then himself in a murder-suicide pact. The details are hazy. No one knows exactly how it went down or why. What we do know is that Rudolf adored his mother and she pretty much ignored him for most of his life.

Even worse, she belittled (and ignored) Rudolf’s sixteen-year-old bride.

This is rich, considering the trouble she herself had adapting to marriage in a new country at a young age.

Did Elisabeth care?

Nope.

She made fun of Rudolf’s bride, Princess Stephanie, for being awkward and – wait for it – less beautiful than she herself. Women didn’t seem to matter to Elisabeth, with the exception of her mother and sisters. They were rivals for the male affection she devoured like a black hole.

Aside from a small handful of ladies-in-waiting, the only woman she seemed to like was an actress named Katharina Schratt, whom she openly encouraged Franz Josef to have an affair with so he’d stop pestering her in the bedroom. So, to recap, this woman wanted everyone in the world to fall in love with her, express undying admiration for her, but leave her the hell alone unless she needed something from them, in which case, they damn sure better come running.

It’s a good thing Elisabeth had her looks. Ask yourself if anyone would tolerate this shit from an ugly woman.

Ask yourself if anyone would tolerate this shit from an ugly woman.

Blueprint for Change

I couldn’t stop turning the pages in Haslip’s book. I wanted to see some glimmer of hope – a wake-up call. That’s what happens in movies, right? The selfish character gets in a car accident or blacks out while drinking and sees the error of her ways. But this was real life so it never happened. To me, Elisabeth grew more detestable over time. The worst part was that I kept seeing elements of her in myself:

  • Like her, I hate being stared at. I don’t like to getting up and walking through public places because I imagine people are going to stare. I never think they’re staring because I’m awesome. I think they’re picking me apart. It does no good to tell me they aren’t. I know that. It doesn’t help.
  • Like her, I hate making small talk. I avoid it at all costs. This means I don’t go to parties or social events.
  • Like her, I hate official functions. They usually involve (a) being stared at, and (b) making small talk. This means I don’t go to meetings or conventions or ceremonies.
  • Like her, I have a tendency to give up rather than compete for attention, friendship, or professional success. Not out of principle, but because I’m afraid to put myself on the line and lose. Giving up is much easier.

The more I read, the more scared I got.

Winterhalter's Portrait of Empress Elisabeth of Austria

I gripped the book in my sweaty hands and cussed at her. I wanted someone to slap her upside the head and tell her to get a grip. The frustrating thing was that she seemed capable of it at times. When heinous shit went down, she cleaned up her act. Hungary on the verge of revolution? She networked her ass off, made the Hungarians fall in love with her (the feeling was mutual), and played a vital role in keeping the empire together. War in Italy or Germany? She sucked it up and set up field hospitals in the palace, nursing soldiers herself, no matter how contagious their illnesses or gory the wounds. I’m not saying she was all bad, far from it. Look at this painting of her – I chose this one because, to me, it’s one of the warmest. Her face is fuller, softer, rounder, and more friendly looking than in some of her other portraits. She doesn’t look like the half-crazy woman from the pages of Haslip’s book. This portrait makes me want to root for her.

But when the element of danger faded away, her resolve usually faded, too.

She’d start doing selfish things all over again. She refused to go to her mother’s funeral because traveling from Austria to Bavaria was too stressful. She refused to reach out to a suicidal son who clearly yearned for her attention. Violence is not the answer, but if this woman had stood before me as I read about the way she ignored her children, pushed away her husband, and made life miserable for her courtiers and servants, I would have clocked her to make her feel something other than self-pity.

Then I imagined people feeling the same way about me. What if they wanted to clock me for feeling so mopey and put-upon?

Elisabeth let her looks and her anxiety rule her life.

Was I letting my writing and my anxiety rule mine? It was a sobering and horrifying thought. The more I thought about it, I realized the answer was yes. I can’t stop wanting to write or to make money through writing. I can stop feeling put upon and blaming other people or things for my shortcomings. Thanks to Elisabeth’s example, I’m trying to get a grip.

Haslip’s biography ended abruptly, the minute after someone told Franz Josef she’d been killed. I think Haslip was sick of Elisabeth. I wanted to know how people reacted to her death, though, and I wish Haslip had choked down the bile for a few more pages at least and given me some idea of Sisi’s legacy. I’m not the only one who has trouble reconciling the misunderstood free spirit with the selfish and neglectful wife and mother. This Jezebel article explores that dichotomy pretty well.

I’m not the only one who has trouble reconciling the misunderstood free spirit with the selfish and neglectful wife and mother.

If you google Elisabeth of Austria on YouTube, you’ll find hundreds of tribute videos to her. People love her. I know why, but I can’t share in the adulation. I’m not sure Rudolf could have been saved, but I believe she bears a share of the guilt. Beauty isn’t a reason to celebrate someone who hurts other people. Doing what the job requires of you only when push comes to shove is not a reason to celebrate someone. It’s what we should all do – and many do more. They’re the ones we should be celebrating.

In the meantime, I’m trying to be a little kinder to myself, be kinder to others, and not get choked out by my own to-do list.

Want to read the same book I read?

 
The Girl in the Tiara: The Sparkle Is Real

Love Royalty and Tiaras?

You might like my other site, The Girl in the Tiara. I created it to write about amazing royal women and their tiaras. It’s like Drunk History meets The Crown.


Image Credits

Header Image background: Portrait of Queen Elizabeth by Gyula Benczúr, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Oval portrait: Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Affiliate Links

I’m a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. The links to Haslip’s book are my Amazon affiliate links. If you choose to buy the book through this link, I’ll earn a few extra cents.


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About the Author

Jenni

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I write thrillers, romance, historical fiction, tiara posts, and more. Right now, I'm working on a nonfiction trilogy: Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mikhailovna of Russia, and Princess Augusta of Brunswick.

Comments

  1. Very well written observations, I agree with your assessment of the book, although I did not find it so negative, Haslip is a good writer, I started the new Sisi novel, terrible. However I am reading Countess Marie Larish memoirs, she was the go between Rudolf and Vetsera and Sisi’s niece. I have great mix emotions about Sisi, but as much as I think I would admire her looks and horsemanship that were both incredible I do not think I would like her as a person. She certainly was not the Romy Schneider Sisi.

    1. Author

      Thanks so much for commenting! I was really nervous about this post because I know Sisi has a devoted following. I was kind of afraid that anything less than glowing praise might earn me some angry responses. I do admire Sisi’s looks and horsemanship, too, even if I still struggle to understand her as a woman and a mother. Haslip is a good writer – I’m reading The Crown of Mexico, about Maximilian and Charlotte, and it’s wonderful. Now I need to find out what else she’s written…I can’t get enough royal history!

  2. Delighted to have come across this article; I thought I was the only one not to view Sissi with rose-coloured spectacles!

    Living in Prague, I don’t see any love for her here, and that’s because – although Queen of Bohemia – she hated visiting the place, didn’t bother setting foot in it after a couple of visits, and never bothered to learn Czech; she treated anyone who wasn’t Hungarian with indifference or contempt, and was only interested in most people as far as they could serve her. A childish, selfish woman who was badly-suited to her position, she could be admired for her beauty – as you say – but certainly not for much else.

    I own a copy of Haslip’s book; Brigitte Hamann’s ‘The Reluctant Empress’ also makes for good reading.

    1. Author

      Hi Stewart,

      Oh, that’s interesting! I wouldn’t admire a ruler who hated visiting my country, either. Boo. On one hand, I want to sympathize with the fact that she had little training to do anything useful for her subjects…but then again, she went out of her way to avoid doing most of the things that come with the job…even simple things like, hey, come to a state dinner once in a while. There’s no excuse for that in my book. Thanks for recommending Hamann’s book – I’ve seen references to it and will definitely pick it up!

  3. Beware, it’s going to be an extremely long comment.
    This was well-written and interesting. Personally, I don’t find her as reprehensible (or at all, actually) as many seem to (people seem to either love her or hate her, with few in the middle), and I appreciate that you wrote something thoughtful, taking more than just duty into account. The things you wrote about all the things she could have done better were true, and you didn’t just laugh off her depression. However, I’m afraid that we disagree on the most fundamental point: whether she was responsible for her actions. I don’t know whether I like her or not, but I do not think it was her fault, at all, no matter how much she contributed to screwing up her children’s lives. If anything, I probably pity her.
    Let’s remember that it wasn’t just statutory rape (like a 17-year-old having relations with an 18-year-old lover), it was pure rape (as in a 23-year-old emperor, a complete stranger, forcing marriage & himself on a 15-year-old girl after seeing her ONCE, when she accompanied her older SISTER to the latter’s betrothal to said emperor). She soon turned 16, and he married her, then raped her within 3 days. The marriage makes no difference (actually, it made it worse, because she could have gotten away from a regular rapist, but not one who could make her marry him), while the 7-year gap, her age, as well as the stranger status do matter. I realize that arranged marriages and age gaps were unavoidable back then, but this was ridiculous even by the 1800s’ standards. She was a duchess, not some pretty farm girl he could drag into bed (which would equally as bad; I’m just saying that it would have been far more plausible) and use as a tool for rebellion against his tyrannical mother.
    Her 19-year-old sister, who expected and agreed to marry him (even eager), was much better suited for the position. Whether she would have been great or merely dutiful is unknown, but at least she WAS raised to be married off to someone of his station, and she consented. Sissi did not. As the fourth daughter, she was assumed by both her parents and herself to have the liberty to live a much freer life. She was never mentally prepared, nor did she consent to this sudden “infatuation” that overcame him. Her first 3 children were conceived of rape, and the last one of her exchanging her body for the sake of Hungary. The 4 of them had the right to be angry at her, but no one else has. Her parents weren’t able to keep him from forcing the marriage (not necessarily their fault, but they do forfeit the right to be indignant about the grandchildren they didn’t help raise), her rapist never tried to court her or even ASK her before blindsiding her with an unwanted marriage and far more unwanted advances on her, and her monster-in-law took her first 2 children away from her.
    Could she have just grown up and fought for her rights? Could she have done much better to try and accept her situation? Could she have carried her duties to the court (I mean political, not conjugal)? Could she have done better by her children? Could she have stopped obsessing about her weight (by the way, she was 5’8″, not 5’6″) for a few minutes and tried to improve the countries over which she had great influence (besides Hungary)? Could she have been kind to her son’s wife? Of course. But let’s face it, who gave her a chance to?
    Her parents didn’t train her to deal with things or have fortitude (they probably expected her to settle down in her 20s with someone titled, but with less money and power than their family, so that he wouldn’t be able to restrain her). She grew up, as you said, avoiding and running away from things. She was raped and pregnant at barely 16, then had to continue giving birth to produce a bloody heir as her monster-in-law instructed (even helpfully left a pamphlet both warning her to do so, and not to influence politics) like a brooding mare, and didn’t even get to bond with the first 2 (if there ever were a case that would surely lead to postpartum depression, this would be it). Her rapist kept harassing her, hoping she would allow him to continue taking her body against her will when she probably hated him (the hate may be conjecture, but the fact that she never loved him, liked him, or even consented was the simple truth).
    Wives were expected to take whatever their husbands dished out. Mothers still are always expected to drop everything to make their children happy. But plenty of wives hated their husbands, and plenty of mothers traumatized their children. The only reason these other wives and mothers were not crucified was that they kept appearances and allowed their husbands to use them, and they over-disciplined or spoiled their children instead of ignoring them. She wasn’t a wife by choice, so I see no reason why she should fulfill those obligations (the conjugal ones, not the political ones). She wasn’t a mother by choice, either. Not all rape victims react the same way, but many cannot stand (or even hate) the progeny of their rapists; her ambivalence and sometimes indifference to her children could simply be the only way she knew how to cope. The fact that she was far more affectionate with her last child is consistent with this theory, as the latter was the only one she willingly bore.
    She could have made more effort politically, but why should she? She wasn’t equipped with the knowledge of how to handle situations in high court, her family wasn’t there to teach her, and I doubt the rapist’s mother, who STILL had almost iron control over him, ever helped. Imagine a rapist that tied your daughter/sister/best friend to him for life, forced her to have his children, and continued to do things as Mother planned (including but not limited to allowing the latter to constantly tell her how to live, and abuse her emotionally). Is it any wonder she couldn’t relate at all to her daughter-in-law, who was also 16 marrying a 23-year-old, yet actually LIKED her son and had a happy marriage at first? It must have been completely incomprehensible and confusing to her.
    She never aspired to affect countries or change the world, only to explore them. She liked what she liked, and didn’t care for what she didn’t like. After going away multiple times to try and ‘cure’ her illnesses, she got ill every time upon returning to Vienna, with real physical symptoms; that alone showed how much she hated the place.
    To recapitulate, the rapist telling her to go die would have been the least helpful thing to happen; the most helpful one would have been to ask for her favor in the first place like a sane person, and accepting rejection gracefully. Barring that, assuming he persisted in a forced marriage, he could have at least made a deal to grant her freedom after procuring an heir. He was Catholic, so divorce would have been impossible (despite it being allowed otherwise in 1800s Austria), but they could have separated. She might have been able to ‘grow up’, once completely removed from the horrible situation, with the promise of no more rape and no more dealing with his mother. She hurt her children and her subjects; but the latter were only hurt because of a marriage she didn’t ask for, and the former only existed because of relations she didn’t ask for. Honestly, I think she merely suffered more than others in similar situations, because she grew up flying freely and was caged. Once she tasted that freedom, it was difficult to go back to a cage, no matter how gilded. She would have been happier and less criticized by posterity if she hadn’t been born free.
    What a pity she wasn’t born with her wings clipped, like so many others before and after her. Then she would have made a good wife and mother, like so many before and after her.

    1. Author

      Thanks for your very detailed comment! It’s nice to have a civilized conversation online with someone who’s thought long and hard about the issue at hand, which you clearly have. I do see your point with regard to how little choice she had in her marriage, the subsequent rape (because yes, that’s what it was), and subsequent childbearing (products of rape). Obviously, I can’t say how that situation affects a woman’s mental state, since I’ve never had to go through those terrible things. But I can’t help but think she should still bear some responsibility for the choices she made.

      She couldn’t have been expected to say no to Franz Josef at age 15, even with misgivings about the marriage. Her mom obviously wasn’t going to let her in any case (no matter what poor Helene might have thought or wanted). She couldn’t have been expected to change Austrian court protocol – no one except Franz Josef could, by that point. So she had a lot working against her.

      But I think she could have been expected to hold back her disgust for court functions a bit more often. And I think she could have been expected to show a little more kindness to Stephanie, especially once cracks in her marriage to Rudolf appeared.

      I totally understand that she’d gone through so much physical and emotional pain that she didn’t want to bring any more of it on herself, hence her unwillingness to do anything she didn’t want to do. And that her parents completely failed her on the educational front, including providing any sort of discipline so she’d know what it felt like to have to do something she didn’t want to do. As valid as all these points are, my gut is still telling me that she should have mustered the effort and the courage to do more than indulge in her whims, even if those whims were driven by her inner pain and trauma. I feel like if I agree that she shouldn’t have had to change (or, at worst, was incapable of it through no fault of her own), I’m saying no one who has ever had a personal tragedy is responsible for their actions. And I don’t want to take that step. Okay, here I go, putting my personal beliefs into a historical situation – probably a sign I should stop writing this!

      Even if we don’t agree on Sissi’s responsibility, I’m so glad to be able to talk about it with you. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

      Jenni 🙂

  4. Just an off-topic observation: you don’t use profanity in your responses to posts. Why do you use so much of it in your writings? Is it to provide emphasis, to shock, or a writing style? I’m just curious, because it just doesn’t seem like your genuine voice-quite contrived and distracting, compared to your posts, which I feel reveal far more of your personality and style. Please don’t be angry, because I don’t question your knowledge or intelligence-this is only my opinion, and my intention is to be helpful.

    1. Author

      Hi Jolene,
      Thanks for the comment! Don’t worry – you didn’t offend me or make me angry. It’s an interesting observation, and yes, there is a reason. In real life, I actually swear like a sailor. And the way I write is the way I think, hence the swearing. And because this is my site and my blog, I feel like I can do that without censoring myself. If someone doesn’t like that style of writing, they have the choice to click away, no harm, no foul.

      But when someone comments and I reply, I feel like that’s a public space…as if we struck up a conversation. And I wouldn’t swear in conversation with someone I just met, the same way I never swore in front of my grandparents and I don’t say anything worse than “crap” in front of my parents. I can totally see how that might look like there are two versions of me, but really it’s a public face and a more private face, which I think everyone has to a degree (except maybe my husband, who freely swears when we’re talking to neighbors we just meet in the street). Not everyone feels this way, but I do. I hope that makes sense!

      Jenni 🙂

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