Elisabeth’s childhood unfolds simply, Winter in Munich, Summer in the country, there where the Bavarian plateau gently rises up to the tops of the Alps at the Austrian border.  Possenhofen, an old castle bought by her father in 1834, is a rectangular building in red stone.  Flanked by stables and a chapel, surrounded by a park and magnificent rose-gardens spread along the grey waters of Lake Starnberg, this venerable home is not at all refined.  The farm is next-door to the house, looked after by domestics who are part of the family.  Along with horses and dogs, the dogs being the real owners of the armchairs, in a peaceful, united family atmosphere, Possenhofen is a children’s paradise.  Everyone calls it affectionately “Possi”.  The children too have nicknames.  Karl-Theodore is Gackerl, Helena becomes Nene, Mathilda is Moineau, Max Emmanuel is Mapperl.  As for Elisabeth, she is called Sissi.

Maximilien, Duke in Bavaria.

Of these years 1840-1848, we must remember the very great liberty enjoyed by the children of Max and Ludovika.  They see their parents continually evolving with an absence of manners and distances which contrasts with the inevitable coldness in numerous great families.  Sissi is raised in ignorance of constraints.  She watches for her father’s arrival and invades his study where he attempts to awaken weary inspiration, with an applied pen.  Poetry is the Wittelsbachs’ secret pleasure.

Princess Ludovika, Duchess in Bavaria.

Charged with Sissi’s education from 1846, Baroness Louise Wulffen, a governess quickly overrun, observes that she is the most dreamy, the most tender and the most distracted of the eight children.  Paradox:  she is also the most scrupulous with what she loves.  The only part of her timetable that she respects is breakfast with her mother, at eight o’clock at the latest.  Then lessons go to two o’clock.  Without doing it on purpose, the Duke saps the governess’ authority, messing up the programmes and the timetable.  Very soon, he has felt that Sissi’s real studies are life around her.  He has understood that her secret companions are called the wind, flowers, stars.  He has noticed that the horses receive her first secrets, and the dogs her first caresses.  The laxism of this father has been strongly criticised for not preparing Sissi to become Elisabeth.  On the contrary, he knew how to assure her a happy dawn of life.

Max is happy to find in this spontaneous character, who doesn’t calculate, an avalanche of enthusiasms which explode into a ball of life.  Too bad if her instruction is reduced, and her manners ordinary.  Too bad if she isn’t gifted for music.  In vain, she martyrises a piano.  On the other hand, she has a passion for writing.  Very early, she expresses grave sentiments and emotions.  Max decides that Sissi should follow her preferences in order to blossom.  He does nothing to stop her.  Sissi grows up in freedom.

The Napoleonic tempest had shaken the Austrian Empire in different ways.  For five hundred and seventy-five years, the Habsburgs had been at home along the Danube, writing the History of Central Europe with the idea, already greatly advanced, of a multinational State.  At the Congress of Vienna, the congress of revenge on Napoleon, Austria recuperated, among others, the Tyrol, the Saltzburg region, and obtained Lombardy as well as Venetia.  For thirty years, Austria had known stability.  Peace and economic development for some, immobilism and the stifling of nationalities for others.  Emancipation was refused to the Hungarians, to the peoples of Bohemia and Italy, for emancipation would have meant dislocation.

In March 1848, revolutionary fever arrived in Austria.  After bloody clashes, the Vienna Court had to take refuge at Innsbruck, the capital of the Tyrol which was faithful to the monarchy.  Budapest and Milan rose up and Venice even wanted to proclaim a republic.

The restoration of Austrian authority, that is to say, order, passes obligatorily by the re-establishment of imperial prestige.  But Emperor Ferdinand, weak, suffering from worrying attacks of nerves, has no prestige.  Since the time when, as the young Prince and Heir, he wandered the corridors, clutching his aides-de-camp, and stammering, his state had worsened.  The epilepsy from which he suffered, was still an ill that was very badly known.

Theoretically, it is his younger brother, the Archduke Franz-Karl, who should wear the crown.  Alas, he is not very brilliant.  His timidity, his lack of character and concentration, eliminate him.  The Austrian problem is therefore, firstly, a family problem.  While the nationalism storm rumbles and Vienna is the echo-chamber of Paris, who has chased out Louis-Philippe, the only possible candidate is his son Franz-Josef.

The Emperor’s nephew is eighteen and the nervous illness has luckily spared him.  His manners are perfect, his allure is beautiful and his judgement healthy.  His mother, the Archduchess Sophia, is a Wittelsbach, sister of the King of Bavaria and of Ludovika.  Authoritive, strict, a true leader, endowed with an energy which was lacking in her husband.  Since the birth of her eldest son on 18 August 1830, she has been thinking of taking her revenge on this poor husband, so “absent”.  This son, to whom she inculcates very early the precepts of order and rigour, this boy whom she educates in the hate of chaos and laxity, she calls Franzi.  With him, the time has come to install upon the Habsburg throne a healthy, well-balanced sovereign.  The Emperor’s youth will rejuvenate the Empire.

On 2 December 1848, Emperor Ferdinand abdicates, then Archduke Franz-Karl, his brother, renounces his rights.  It is eight o’clock in the morning.  Before an assembly of high dignitaries, Franz-Josef kneels and asks his uncle to bless him.  The old Emperor still has enough strength to say to his successor:

“May God bless you.  Remain simply courageous and God will protect you.”

An impressive silence follows this advice.  The new Emperor is eighteen-years-old, but, in a few seconds, he has aged.  Pale, hugging his mother, he will say, a few hours later:

“Adieu, my youth!”

A crushing mission is now his.  So begins a reign comparable in importance to those of Louis XIV and Queen Victoria.  His mother does not hide her relief.  At the beginning of her marriage, she had declared:

“I am not happy, I am satisfied”,

a cutting remark which was a vow.  She is now relieved and venged, her son is Emperor.  Her son enters into History, but this day is her triumph.  In her white moire gown, the Archduchess glows with pride.  In her hair, pink flowers alternate with diamonds.  Around her neck, she wears a necklace of turquoises and diamonds that her husband had given her for the birth of Franz-Josef.  And she is draped in a red scarf with gold embroidery.  In extremis, the trembling monarchy is saved and Austria has a new master whose obsession, which will go as far as blindness, is resumed in one word:  duty.

To be continued.

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