Tuesday, 9 February 2021

The Lonely Empress by Joan Haslip

The Lonely Empress is a biography about Elizabeth of Austria. Known as Sisi she has mesmerised a whole world and it was with great anticipation I started to read. I think a lot of people, including myself, have a somewhat romantic image of her, but you realise rather quickly that you are wrong. She is far from a romantic princess, rather the contrary. But let's start from the beginning.

She was one of a big family of siblings in the Wittelsbach family. Growing up rather freely, close to nature and away from binding court protocol, her future life came as a shock to her. Emperor Franz Joseph's mother Sophia and Sisi's mother Ludovica were sisters and planned to marry off the young emperor to the oldest Wittelsbach daughter, Helen. As it happened, Sisi was accompanying her sister to the first meeting with the crown prince, and, as they say, the rest is history. He fell madly in love with Sisi and persuaded his mother to change her mind about who should become his wife. 

"Neither Ludovica nor Sophia seems to have given a thought to the fact that Francis Joseph and Elizabeth were not only first cousins, but that Elizabeth was a child of second cousins, both of them Wittelsbachs - a dangerous inheritance for the heirs to the Austrian throne."

After their first meeting in the spa resort of Bad Ischl Sisi had to go back home. 

"In the most romantic of all Austrian towns they said good-bye, and it seemed as if the Emperor would never tire of kissing Elizabeth's tearstained face. But it was two strangers who said good-bye, two people who as yet knew nothing of one another, and who would only gradually discover the incompatibility of their characters, the divergencies of their tastes. But whereas Francis Joseph's love would be strong enough to survive all the vicissitudes of their married life, Elizabeth's love, fragile and ephemeral as a dream, would fade in the first hour of disillusion." 

The last sentence above more, or less, sums up the character of Elizabeth. She lived in an imaginary dream, suffered from melancholia, was very shy and had physiological problems of various kinds. A little bit of paranoia added to it makes a troubled life.  Although she did love her husband for some years, it slowly disintegrated. "The tragedy for Elizabeth was that she was married to a man with no imagination." Two souls that never really met. Elizabeth had very little empathy and could not even give love to her own children, the exception being her last child Marie Valerie. She was a worried soul which made her travel around Europe for most of her life. Elizabeth and Franz Joseph were married for forty-four years, but it seems they only spend around four years together. Elizabeth went from one place to the next, without finding any peace. She got easily bored and ventured on another trip.

Part of the problem was the Habsburg court which kept the most rigid etiquette in Europe. Strict rules on how to spend the days, both with the family and the court itself. It came as a shock to Elizabeth who had grown up in a rather unruly household. She never took to Vienna and only reluctantly stayed there when she had to for political reasons. She loved Hungary and even learned Hungarian. She took their political course into her heart and this was the only time she engaged in the politics of the Habsburgs and Austria. 

Elizabeth was considered the most beautiful woman of her time. She could be very charming when she wanted to and people fell for her spirit. In a way, it turned out to be her curse. She came to worship her own beauty which took peculiar turns. She spend hours every day to do her hair, she let the maids make face cream out of strawberries and she slept with raw meat on her cheeks, just to keep her beauty. She was a fanatic for exercise and walked hours every day. Her main love seems to have been for horses and she was considered an excellent rider and hunter. She could easily compete with any man on a hunt. Her restless energy made it difficult for most people to keep up with her pace. Afraid of becoming fat she dieted most of her life and sometimes only ate an orange or two during the day. I think today she would have been diagnosed with anorexia. All these factors did not improve her health. 

Elizabeth often talked about how she wanted to die: "I would like to die alone, far from my loved ones, and for death to take me unawares." In this sense, her wish was fulfilled. She was stabbed by an anarchist on the Montblanc quay in Geneva and died soon afterwards. The Habsburg family suffered many losses of loved ones and various accidents during their lives. When Emperor Franz Joseph received the news that the Empress had passed away he said: "'Is nothing to be spared me on this earth?' Count Paar was the only one to hear the harsh and bitter sobs of a broken-hearted man questioning his God. Then raising his head, Francis Joseph looked across at the portrait of the woman he had worshipped but never understood. And speaking to himself, rather than to Count Paar, he said, 'No one will ever know how much I loved her.'"

The biography covers not only Elizabeth but also part of the life of Franz Joseph and the family. The Mayerling drama is here, as well as political events during the latter part of the 19th century.  "The tragedy of Francis Joseph was that he was never prepared to make sacrifices until it was too late." The political upheaval in Europe during the latter part of the 19th century might have needed an Emperor who was more flexible and not so bound to traditions. 

The biography makes for fascinating reading, both on a personal account of the Habsburg family and their, somewhat, doomed heritage. When looking back on the personal lives of Franz Joseph and Sisi, I think Franz Joseph turns out to be the nicer person of the two. His love lasted a life-time and must have caused him a lot of sadness, considering how Sisi spent her life. Sisi on her side, should not have been an Empress. She would probably have been happier in an ordinary marriage, living a simpler life, close to nature. Having said that, she definitely enjoyed the lifestyle of the rich. That is, she was free to choose the lifestyle she wanted. 

Joan Haslip has managed to capture the life of a lost soul and a tragic life. The biography is very well researched and documented and gives an in-depth view of the life of the royals at the time. The difficult balancing between private and official lives, having to adapt to external circumstances. Joan Haslip treats the story with great respect, documenting their lives and showing sympathy to the people she is writing about. An excellent biography. 

(PS I have used the Austrian (and Swedish) spelling of the names of Habsburg and Franz Joseph (except for quotes from the book). It seems in English you can use both b and p for Habsburg and the biography uses p. Franz Joseph is Francis Joseph in English.) 


  1. Thanks for introducing this book to me. Her life sounds fascinating and so very sad and unfulfilled. I think I'd enjoy learning more about this dynasty and period.

    1. It was a very sad life indeed. The Habsburg dynasty is a very interesting subject. They dominated Europe for so long with their two branches of the family.