Archive for July, 2011

Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary, by Raab (1867).

The crowning of the sovereigns in Hungary now has to be prepared.  Upon learning this news, Elisabeth becomes twice as passionate, deepening even more her linguistic knowledge with her lady companion and the journalist Falk, whose liberal influence displeases more and more at the Hofburg.  Hungary is a veritable revenge for the bullied, downtrodden Empress.  By seeking to suffocate her personality, the Court has pushed her toward a more favourable climate, and Elisabeth, seduced by it, absorbs herself in the game.

The couple leaves for Ofen on 8 May 1867.  Sissi’s welcome is an immense cry of love from the Hungarians for their most prestigious partisan.  Baron Jozsef Eotvos, former Leader of the Opposition, writes:

“There was only one chance remaining to us, that is that a member of the House of Austria love our nation from the depths of his heart.  Now that we have found that, I no longer fear the future.”

The future is called Erzsebet, Elisabeth in Hungarian, an angel who has known how to listen and speak.  Her only worry is that Kossuth, who is talking of treason, might attempt some violent action against herself or Emperor Franz-Josef during the Coronation.

Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria by Winterhalter (1865).

On 29 May, a telegramme informs Franz-Josef and his mother that the former lawyer of Indian origin, the Republican Benito Juarez, has captured Maximilien at Queretaro, a town North of Mexico City.  Worry turns to anguish.  What is going to happen?  What is happening?  The telegramme has taken fourteen days to arrive from Mexico…  Franz-Josef, very affected, is however unable to delay the Coronation.

An old tradition dictates that the lady sovereign must herself perform the needlework necessary to repair and alter the mantel that the sovereign is to wear during the ceremony.  She must also adapt the royal crown to the dimensions of his head by garnishing it with a velvet lining.  Soon, it is learnt that Sissi will be crowned at the same time as Franz-Josef, when it is customary to have a second ceremony for the lady sovereign.  This is a supplementary gesture to honour the angel who has been so devoted…

Saturday 8 June 1867.  At seven o’clock in the morning, the Ofen Palace’s mass is already whitening in the sunshine.  An admirable day is beginning.  A long cortege forms with, at its head, Franz-Josef on horseback in the uniform of an Hungarian Field-Marshal.  He is followed by the carriage, drawn by eight horses, that Sissi and Franz-Josef had used for their wedding.  Behind its windows, the Empress has never been so sublime, in a gown of brocade and silver made in Paris, by the House of Charles-Frederic Worth.  Sissi is wearing a black velvet bodice and a diamond crown.  Surrounded by guards in embroidered costumes garnished with fur, wearing headgear where coloured feathers wave, the cortege climbs the streets of the old Buda quarter.  The carriage stops on the grand Trinity Square between the Town Hall and the Church of Saint Etienne.

Assisted by the Hungarian Primate, Andrassy acts as Viceroy.  His is the honour of placing the crown on Franz-Josef’s head.  The scene is astonishing.  Nineteen years after having been condemned to death by Franz-Josef, Andrassy now has all his confidence.  Elisabeth’s charm has brought about this event.

The crown has the form of a skullcap in fine gold incrusted with pearls and stones.  It is surmounted by a latin cross and decorated with very beautiful enamels.  In the XIth Century, it was soldered to an open crown of Byzantine style.  The whole, which has a bizarre aspect, weighs one-and-a-half kilos.  The Saint Etienne mantel, in blue-green satin, is very heavy.  With the heat and his uniform, Franz-Josef is perspiring copiously.  His spouse is seated on a velvet bench under a crimson baldaquin.  Then, according to custom, the crown is placed on Sissi’s right shoulder, a gesture which differentiates the spouse of a king from a reigning queen, who is crowned on the forehead.  The great organs play a vibrant Messe du couronnement composed by Franz Liszt.  The Hungarian composer, who lives in Rome, has come for the Coronation.  In this solemn moment, Sissi is emotional like a fiancee, and it could be said that she is marrying the Hungarian nation.

Upon leaving the Cathedral, the enthusiastic crowd cries out, several times:

Eljen Erzsebet!  Long live Elisabeth!”

In her thirtieth year, the Bavarian Princess who had become Empress of Austria, is now Queen of Hungary.  Trembling with emotion, she is able to savour the result of her patience.  Liszt will write to his daughter Cosima, Wagner’s future second wife:

“I had never seen her so beautiful.  She appeared like a celestial vision within the unfolding of barbaric splendour.”

On his white horse, Franz-Josef unsheaths his sabre and brandishes it in the air in the form of a cross.  The blade is pointed alternatively toward the four points of the compass;  this “salute to the cross by the sword” symbolises the defence of the Magyar country against its enemies.

Franz-Josef has become Ferenc Jozsef.  Thousands of gold coins are distributed to the crowd by the Finance Minister.  In the scramble, two horses bolt and throw two bishops to the ground.  Two coffers, each containing one hundred thousand ducats in gold, a gift to the couple, are given by the sovereign to orphans, widows and the poor.

While this is happening, Elisabeth returns to the palace and changes, happy to remove her gown weighed down by a train. In a tulle crinoline, she crosses the Danube on a little steamboat and watches the rest of the ceremonies from a flowery balcony.  In her honour, the flowers are blue and white to recall the Bavarian colours.  It is midday.  A banquet is served.

Over nearly five days of rejoicing, one thousand people are fed with goulasch.  Night festivities succeed those of the first day and an extraordinary parade of living animals gives a country tone to the national joy.  This is accentuated even more by a general amnesty and the restitution of confiscated goods.  The exiled revolutionaries will return swearing obedience to the crowned King and to the laws of the country.  Kossuth alone will refuse.

To be continued.


Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary, by Raab (1867).

Elisabeth returns to Buda-Pest on 2 August 1866, to see her children.  Emperor Franz-Josef, unhappy, immediately writes to her how much he is suffering from her absence.  She replies glacially.  And as she refuses to come back, pretexting that the Schonbrunn air is unhealthy at this time of the year, he lets his bitterness flow:

“I shall therefore resign myself and shall continue to patiently support my long solitude.  I have already been put to the test on this subject but one finishes by getting used to it.”

Then, Sissi realises that she has been unjust and comes back to him.  Franz-Josef’s traditional birthday – he is thirty-six – is celebrated in a tense atmosphere, but the Emperor has learnt to be happy with little.  Sissi leaves again the next day.  It can be seen that these two people, who are so different from each other and who persist in separating, spend an incredible time sending each other letters, telegrammes, notes.  He cries out his distress:

“Try to be good to me…  I am very sad, very lonely and I need joy.”

And, on 22 August:

“I miss you terribly, for you are the only one with whom I am able to talk and you bring me a little joy…  even if you are rather nasty.”

He calls her his “treasure”.  And this treasure is escaping him.

The following day, peace is signed in Prague.  Despite his sadness, it’s a relief.  Franz-Josef writes to his fugitive spouse:

“I love you with a love so great that it is indescribable.”

On 2 September, Sissi returns to Vienna.

Fatality continues to attack the Habsburgs.  It is learnt that Charlotte, the wife of Maximilien, has debarked in France and called Napoleon III to her spouse’s aid.  He is entangled in the Mexican hornet’s nest, and is thinking of abdicating in Mexico.

The Empress still hopes for the triumph of her Hungarian ideas.  But upon his return from Bad Ischl, Franz-Josef chooses a Saxon as new Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Sissi’s bitterness is immense.  She plunges back, tenacious, into the study of Hungarian.  She takes a decision which starts gossip.  A journalist in prison, Max Falk, a close friend of Andrassy, mentioned to her by Ida Ferenczy, is liberated to help perfect the Empress’ Hungarian lessons.

Falk will have a strong influence on Elisabeth.  At the end of 1866, through her one-track mind, Sissi has succeeded in transforming the Hofburg into a veritable Hungarian Embassy.  A lady companion, a professor, ladies-in-waiting, everyone speaks only Hungarian.  Sissi is absolutely convinced that her efforts will soon arrive at a result.


Louis II of Bavaria.

1867.  The reports from Mexico are alarming, and Charlotte, who has returned to Miramar, is suffering from a worrying persecution malady.  It is stated that, during a stormy interview at the Vatican, she had thought that the Pope wanted to poison her by giving her a “bad” cup of chocolate.  She is sinking into madness.  But on 22 January, good news arrives from Bavaria.  At last…  King Louis II has just become engaged to Sissi’s youngest sister, Princess Sophia in Bavaria, aged twenty.  In Munich, the news surprises some and reassures others.  The King does not have a reputation for particularly appreciating feminine charms.  Is he being reasonable in obeying the repeated wishes of his government which wants to consolidate the throne by giving it a lady sovereign?  Or has Louis II romantically fallen in love with the young girl who has already ravaged a few hearts?  The truth is elsewhere.  When the young King was obliged to send away Wagner, only one voice was raised in defence of the musician, that of Sophia.  And Sophia’s resemblance with Sissi did the rest.  Louis II resumed his attraction:

“In supposing that I could get along with any woman, I could not do better than to choose one of the admirable Empress’ sisters.”

Louis II is making a transfer, which is already preoccupying.  Unfortunately, the transfer is double, for the King considers that the young girl is a Wagnerian heroine.  He courts her in bizarre fashion, which finishes by worrying Princess Ludovika, Duchess in Bavaria, Sophia’s mother.  The announcement of the engagement reassures her.  The King made his marriage proposal to Prince Maximilien, Duke in Bavaria, at seven o’clock in the morning – which is not usual – but the Duke is not a man to worry about such details.

Enchanted by the news of her little sister’s engagement, Sissi arrives in Munich.  The King of Bavaria, who has caught cold, is shivering with fever when Sissi arrives at the station.  He rises and, against all medical advice, goes to welcome the Empress.  The two sisters, at the height of joy, embrace each other at length, and discuss the marriage which has been fixed for 25 August, the Feast of Saint Louis.

Elisabeth does not stay long.  Another of her sisters, Mathilda, who is now Countess Trani, has just given birth to a daughter, in Zurich.  Sissi, as usual, writes to Franz-Josef.  And, in her letter, it can be seen that the negotiations on Hungary are still at the centre of her deepest preoccupations.

“I hope that you will not delay in advising me that the Hungarian question has been resolved and that we shall soon be going there.  If you write to me that we are going there, my heart will be in peace, since the goal will then have been reached.”

Discussions are progressing.  Franz-Josef receives an Hungarian delegation, led by Andrassy, at the Hofburg.  The Emperor of Austria has put on his Hungarian Field-Marshal’s uniform and reads a speech where an “arrangement” is mentioned.  On 8 February 1867, Sissi returns to Vienna, and on 18th, before the Hungarian Parliament, the reading of the text addressed by Franz-Josef consecrates all of Sissi’s efforts:  Andrassy is named Prime Minister of Hungary.  She has won…

From now on, Hungary is an independent kingdom of the Austrian Empire, but the two monarchies are tied by an hereditary union in the Habsburg posterity.  Each of the two countries is in charge of its own internal affairs.  Only foreign politics, military and financial questions are decided in common.  Finally, the Head of State, Emperor in Austria, King of Hungary, accepts to be crowned apostolic sovereign in Buda-Pest.  The Austrian Empire is over;  this is now the time of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy for which Sissi has worked so hard.

Andrassy’s triumph is her triumph.  Her popularity in Buda-Pest is considerable.  In Vienna, it diminishes by the same amount.  Archduchess Sophia of Austria’s entourage is completely crushed to see Franz-Josef bow to his spouse’s liberalism.

To be continued.

Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary, by Raab (1867).

July 1866.  The Prussians are marching on Vienna.  The population is wondering whether they are going to occupy the city.  Is flight necessary?  In the middle of these interrogations and the beginning panic, a miracle occurs:  Archduchess Sophia of Austria pays homage to her daughter-in-law.  In the catastrophe that is sweeping away all her political hopes, the Archduchess clings to the strength of Elisabeth, who is pale, exhausted, but still there, still standing, active, with a poor, forced smile, in the middle of the tears and consternation.  On this subject, the letter that Sophia writes from Schonbrunn, on 5 July, to her grandson Rudolf, is quite a document:

“I send you these few words in haste, my dear child, to tell you, as a consolation, that, thank God, your poor Papa is in good health and that your dear Mama is supporting him like his good angel, that she is always beside him and only leaves him to go to one hospital or another and carries aid and consolation everywhere.”

The good angel…  It has taken a war, thousands of victims and the crumbling of Austrian predominance for Sophia to recognize Sissi’s loving qualities.

It is Hungary which is going to play a surprising supporting role in the unravelling of the Austrian Empire.  In light of the Prussian progression, Franz-Josef judges it prudent to send his wife to Buda-Pest, on 9 July.  The official pretext for Sissi’s visit is the hospital installed in the royal palace of Ofen.  But the real reason for this voyage has not escaped Andrassy who is also looking to come to an understanding with the Habsburgs.  In contrast with the harsh tendencies put forward by Kossuth, who wants to profit from Vienna’s weakening to make Magyar nationalism triumphant, his language is that of a man of heart.

Sissi judges that Andrassy is the strong man who can still conserve Hungary under Austrian domination.  Her idea is clear:  Franz-Josef must name Andrassy Minister for Foreign Affairs.  In this way, a veritable dialogue can begin, for Austria cannot allow itself to be isolated, and its present isolation is total.  The emissary sent by Franz-Josef to Napoleon III to ask him to save Austria from the Prussians has failed.  The French Emperor had promised to remain neutral and the size of the Austrian disaster is making him think twice about intervening.  Further, his Italian dream is now coming true:  it is evident that Venetia can no longer remain Austrian…

Three days later, Sissi is in Vienna.  She begs Franz-Josef to listen to her.  Only Andrassy can protect the Empire’s rear.  The Emperor hesitates, the decision is delicate.

The next day, 13 July, Elisabeth, joined by Gisela and Rudolf who have arrived from Bad Ischl, sets off again for Ofen.  Panic is overtaking the inhabitants of Vienna who are watching the Prussian progression from the heights of the magnificent forest surrounding the city.  Before boarding her train, Sissi suddenly takes the Emperor’s hand and kisses it with feverish tenderness.  The convoy is precious in every way:  piled inside and hidden is the Hofburg treasure, the Crown jewels, the gold- and silverware.  Parures, necklaces and relics of the Holy Empire take the road to exile.

Barely arrived in the villa that she has rented on the Buda hills, since the palace is only a hospital now, Sissi receives Andrassy.  She is certain that he can save the monarchy.  He tells her that he accepts.  She sends a letter to Franz-Josef which is an ultimate appeal.

“I beg you, telegraph me immediately if Andrassy must go to Vienna by this evening’s train.”

Two days later, the Emperor announces to Sissi that he awaits Andrassy.  The interview takes place on 17 July, at midday.  It lasts an hour-and-a-half.  Franz-Josef has estimated the Hungarian to be

“neither strong enough nor seconded enough in the country to succeed in the task which he imposes on himself”.

Why is he hesitating so much?  Firstly, because he is a bit wary of Sissi’s exaltation, of Andrassy’s talent for seducing women, and of his excellence in presenting himself as a saviour.  Then, because he finds that Sissi is very tired and fears that her health might be distorting her judgement.  Finally – and above all – he does not want to give the impression of giving in to the Hungarians.  He admits that the Hungarian situation needs changes, but refuses to make them hurriedly.

Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria by Winterhalter (1865).

Franz-Josef’s calm and his determination not to be totally overwhelmed are surprising, for Wilhelm I is only fifty-five kilometres from Vienna.  On 20 July, the Austrian fleet beats the Italian fleet at Lissa, saving Vienna’s honour, but too late…  Peace preliminaries are already engaged.  Bismarck and Wilhelm I play delicately, avoiding humiliating Austria too much and accepting that Napoleon III intervene as mediator.  But the territory administered by the Habsburgs is firstly amputated of Schleswig, annexed, like Holstein, to Prussia, then, which is more serious, of Venetia.  By losing his last Italian province and losing all influence in Northern Germany, the Austrian Empire sees the benefits of half a century of efforts annihilated.  Prussia will reorganize the northern German States and Italy will reinforce its growing influence.  The Austrian defeat allows the two most affirmed nationalisms in Europe to advance on the road to unity.

Sissi is truly exhausted by the Empire’s defeat and her own failure to succeed with her supplications.  She asks Doctor Fischer to come to examine her.  He advises calm and a stay in the mountains.  At this epoch, the correspondence between the two spouses takes on a very affectionate tone.  She writes to him every day, and Franz-Josef begins all his harassing days with a letter to Elisabeth.  His favourite names, at this time, are “My Adored Sissi” and “My dear little angel”.  He signs “Your little man”, “Your poor little one”.

“If you could come to see me, it would give me so much pleasure…”

Between Sissi and her husband, the ultimate question which could seal their relations is that of Hungary.  Elisabeth is a little vexed at not having been heeded.  However, the idea is progressing, and Andrassy is again received ny Franz-Josef.  The Emperor is more amiable, but he is still weighing the pros and cons of the Hungarian’s nomination.  Sissi, thinking that the moment has come to act, returns to Schonbrunn.  A discussion on the subject explodes between the two spouses, although they are happy to see each other again.  Sissi sighs:

“I nourish very little hope of seeing my efforts crowned with success.”

To be continued.

Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary, by Raab (1867).

On 29 January 1866, accompanied by a dazzled Emperor Franz-Josef, Elisabeth (Sissi) begins a decisive voyage in what the sulky Viennese call “her new country”.  However, the hardest part is yet to be done, for numerous families have not been able to forget the repression of 1848 and 1849.  When, on 1 February, Franz-Josef addresses the parliamentarians in delegation, he leads them to understand that he cannot fulfil all their hopes.  The reception is rather cold.  But when Sissi says to them, in Hungarian, that they must content themselves with “realizable wishes”, which amounts to the same thing, the delegation is impressed.  That is Sissi’s magic, to be able to warmly pronounce rather restrictive words;  the goodwill that she inspires also carries affection.

Two days later, a request is addressed to the Emperor, clear and audacious;  the Hungarians want an independent government for Hungary.  He refuses, and disappointment is profound.

Count Andrassy, although a rather offhand collector of feminine hearts, is himself under the daily charm of the young sovereign.  Before leaving the royal palace of Ofen, the Empress suddenly says to Andrassy:

“I have confidence in you.  So I shall say to you what I would not say to everyone.  If the Emperor’s affairs go badly in Italy, it upsets me.  But if it is the case in Hungary, it kills me.”

On 5 March, the couple boards the imperial train which will take it back to Vienna.  All the Hungarians, starting with Andrassy, notice that the Empress has tears in her eyes.  She sighs:

“I hope to be able to come back soon to my beloved Hungary.”

This trip is a decisive step toward an indispensable comprehension, even if Franz-Josef is still deaf to certain requests. 

Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria by Winterhalter (1865).

The Emperor’s hesitations can be explained by worries more serious than the Hungarian revendications.  In fact, the European crisis that Prussia has been cultivating over the last few months is on the point of exploding.  Conscientiously, diabolically, Bismarck has been poisoning Prussia’s relations with Austria.  He wants to eliminate Austria from German affairs, and impose Prussian predominance.  When Wilhelm I makes demands, Franz-Josef protests and the situation, untenable, is evolving exactly according to Bismarck’s calculations.  Bismarck is also carefully neutralizing Italy, at least for three months, by signing a commercial treaty with her which hides a military alliance and will rapidly display its true nature.  Twenty-four hours later, Bismarck deposes a motion before the Frankfurt Diet, which aims at constituting an elected German Federal Parliament, without Austria.  Vienna refuses.  So, Bismarck loudly clamours that this is a flagrant violation of their agreement.  Playing the victim, Prussia invades Holstein, which is under Austrian administration.  All around Austria, Hanover, Saxe, Wurtemberg and Louis II’s Bavaria prepare to enter into war against Prussia.  The King of Bavaria, torn from his dreaming, pertinently notes:

“It’s a civil war.”

The Tsar and Napoleon III have in fact assured Bismarck of their neutrality, leaving the Germans of the North and those of the South to mutually destroy each other.  Panicked, Elisabeth returns to Bad Ischl with Gisela and Rudolf, reflecting on the attitude of the Hungarians in this crisis.  Kossuth, exiled, negotiates with Bismarck for the creation of an Hungarian Legion which would fight beside Prussia against Austria.  Hungary against Austria?  It is unthinkable that all her efforts be annihilated.

On 14 June, Austria obtains that the federated States respond to Prussia, by nine votes to six.  There is no longer a Confederation, there is only the North against the South.  That same night, Bismarck extracts a declaration of war from Wilhelm I and armed conflict begins.

From Bad Ischl where she is staying, Elisabeth decides that her place is beside Franz-Josef.

“I do not want to leave the Emperor alone when war is at the door”,

she had written to her mother, on 1 May.  Now, war is here and the Austrian troops are marching.  Sissi leaves Gisela and Rudolf at the Kaiservilla.  The little boy, very grave at the announcement of these events, says a prayer:

“By your grace, dear Father who is in Heaven, in this hour of trials, let my dear Papa be supported by your love and your supreme power.  Preserve him from danger and remove all sadness from his path.  Pour joy and consolation into his heart by a happy conclusion to the war.”

Elisabeth has not forgotten that she was once Princess in Bavaria.  Her brothers are fighting in Louis II’s army.  Very worried, she returns to Vienna.  Four days earlier, at Custozza, near Verona, Austrian troops had beaten the Italians.  The same day that Sissi arrives at her spouse’s side, the Hanoverian troops are eliminated by Prussia, in Saxe.  The Prussians are equipped with modern weapons.  They have received the famous breech loader to replace the old guns loaded by the cannon.  The multiple ethnicities of the Empire are also a serious handicap.  Further, fearing a desertion by the Italian contingents, the Austrian High Command has integrated them into the Hessian and Bavarian troops.  But, despite being commanded by Austrian officers, many detachments pass to the enemy.

Elisabeth maintains her role with grandeur.  She is “of admirable calm” at her husband’s side and, when he is meeting with his generals, she visits the wounded.  A Bohemian who needs his right arm amputated is refusing the operation, which is urgent.

“If Your Majesty stays for the operation, I’ll consent to it…”

Elisabeth, very pale, forces herself to agree.  And seated beside his bed, she holds his valid hand.  When the wounded man awakes, Elisabeth is there.  Sissi never backs away from these dramas.

Bad news keeps accumulating.  On 3 July, the decisive battle takes place in Bohemia, less than one hundred kilometres to the North-East of Prague.  Forty thousand Austrians are killed, wounded or taken prisoner.  It is finished:  in seven weeks, Prussia has eliminated Austria from the North of Germany, and the Empire appears to be in danger.  The road to Vienna is open…  That same day, the Bavarians capitulate at Kissingen.  Sissi and her mother-in-law, drawn closer by adversity, let their anger explode against the fantasque Louis II who had been unable to galvanise his army.  They estime that their country has abandoned them.

To be continued.

Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary, by Raab (1867).

For more than a year, the Empress of Austria has been very closely watching Hungary;  her knowledge of the Hungarian language has made very great progress.  One evening, Elisabeth and Emperor Franz-Josef take place in their box at the theatre.  Archduchess Sophia of Austria is seated in hers.  She notices, as the spectators rise and turn out of deference, that the Empress is wearing a gold-embroidered headdress similar to those in use with the wives of influent Hungarians.  The Archduchess adjusts her opera-glasses and studies her daughter-in-law.  An ostensible gesture which does not escape the public.  After a long examination, the Emperor’s mother places her opera-glasses on the edge of her box, and everyone can see her face, which is both astounded and extremely angry.

This incident is revealing.  Sissi, who loves to rattle convention, sees no reason not to honour Hungary, and the Emperor, who is struggling with persistent difficulties in Buda and Pest, is unable to deprive himself of such a sublime ally as his spouse.  When they see how naturally and with what brilliance Elisabeth wears their national costume, the Hungarians will understand that she could be their best ambassadress.

To deepen her linguistic knowledge, Sissi decides, in Autumn 1864, to have an Hungarian lady companion, to avoid her having to flick through dictionary pages, but also to talk to her about the state of mind of the Magyar people.  In the most absolute secret, a list of the greatest names of Hungarian aristocracy is drawn up.  Sissi chooses a young girl who lives in Kecskemet, an agricultural town, in the South of the country.  A photograph and precise information about little Ida Ferenczy will quickly convince the Empress that she has found the right person.  She is simple, natural, she is only twenty-three-years-old and, most importantly, she is not acquainted, by near or by far, with Archduchess Sophia…

One morning in November, she is presented to Sissi who declares, after a few seconds, in Hungarian:

“I like you.  We shall be together a lot.”

As can be expected, the Archduchess, furious, will attempt to submit the young girl to her influence.

“Address yourself only to me in all things and tell me everything that Her Majesty says.”

But Sissi had forseen the manoeuvre and explained things to the young Hungarian girl.  In turn, she questions her about her mother-in-law’s interrogations.  Ida Ferenczy is submitted to a crossfire of exigencies, but, intelligently, she does not betray Sissi.

It is certain that a sort of mutual admiration exists between the Empress and her Hungarian attendant.  Elisabeth is charmed by the patriotism and the intelligence of the young girl with very black hair and eyes.  On her side, the young Hungarian girl admires Sissi’s beauty and understands her fantasque, tolerant character.  And, very frequently, while the Empress brushes her abundant hair in the evening, Ida remains beside her and converses with her in a way that totally escapes the official entourage.  Ida is Elisabeth’s best ally.  She at last has total confidence in a lady of her suite.

The Hungary which fascinates Elisabeth is giving numerous worries to Franz-Josef.  The population is divided between two tendencies, the irreductibles, inspired by Lajos Kossuth, exiled in Italy, and the moderates, represented notably by the attractive Count Gyula Andrassy, ready for numerous conciliations with the Habsburgs.  In December, having come to the Hungarian capital for the opening of Parliament, the Emperor notices that people are talking only of the Empress.  Her popularity has attained new degrees and he has to promise to come back with her.  And what if Elisabeth could succeed there where the politicians are failing?  Why couldn’t she be the bridge between the opposing clans?  Upon his return, he promises himself to organize that voyage that is being asked of him.

On 8 January 1866, the Empress receives an Hungarian delegation which has come, officially, to wish her happy birthday two weeks late.  The event is much more important than a simple manifestation of goodwill.  Sissi waits in the throne room, wearing the Hungarian national costume which suits her so well:  embroidered skirt, lace apron, velvet bodice with muslin sleeves, bonnet surmounted by a diamond crown.  She is not only the prettiest of Hungarians, but also the sovereign of a Viennese Court where Hungary is now represented in a spectacular manner.  In fact, Sissi is surrounded by eight palace ladies, all of Hungarian nationality.  They have just been named, and comments are raining down from offended Austrian families.

The moment is solemn.  The Cardinal Primate of Hungary leads the delegation of these important people who have great allure in their uniforms with frogging, their mantelets thrown over the shoulder and their boots polished like mirrors.  One man towers over them – both literally and figuratively – by his height, Count Andrassy.  Elisabeth has of course heard of him.  His political and worldly legend is very spicy.  Exiled in Paris since 1848, he had been condemned to death by hanging.  As he had fled, firstly to England then to France, he had only been hanged in effigy.  And in Paris, he had lost count of his feminine conquests.  Women called him “the beautiful hanged man of 1848”.  Elegant, racy, he married a rich countess whose ancestors are, for the Austrians, one of the symbols of fidelity to the Habsburgs.  Since being accorded personal amnisty by Franz-Josef, he is an efficient supporter of the Habsburgs.

The Cardinal addresses the Empress by speaking about “the indefectible loyalty of the Hungarian nation to its Queen” and underlines that “like all Hungarians, he hopes to have the honour of receiving her in their capital”.  Sissi replies in Hungarian:

“I have no dearer wish than to see again that splendid city.”

Lightning striking the Hofburg would have had less effect.  An ovation rises from the decorated breasts:

Eljen Erzsebet!  Long live Elisabeth!”

In these magical seconds, Sissi is able to savour an immense personal triumph.  Her marriage had changed her into an empress, Hungary transforms her into a future popular sovereign.  In fact, Franz-Josef and Sissi have still not been crowned in Buda-Pest.  That which laborious constitutional discussions, false parliamentarianism and tenacious susceptibilities had been unable to obtain, a gracious angel has just succeeded in doing.  Sissi replaces all the ministers, all the public servants.  She has signed a pact of love with Hungary.

To be continued.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria with Shadow.

On 1 May 1865, the imperial couple inaugurates the Ringstrasse, a long, circular Viennese artery, the work on which had begun seven years earlier.  A new capital is rising from the ground.  But the gaiety of the ceremonies is attenuated by Rudolf’s health.  He has grown a lot, and is very pale.  His mother fears that he might have diphtheria.

July.  Holidays at Bad Ischl.  On the programme:  hunting and excursions.  Little by little, trophies are hung on the walls, starting at the entrance to the Kaiservilla.  The Emperor will collect here the antlers of two thousand chamois and one thousand six hundred deer, to which can be added an immense eagle killed in Hungary, the head of a bear killed on the Tsar’s territory, a boar’s head, and even a derisory weasel shot at Schonbrunn, on 29 December 1860.

Sissi and her husband go hiking like they did during their engagement.  And the Bad Kissingen cure?  Elisabeth feels well, she walks for hours without the slightest fatigue.  Must she take the waters?  Doctor Fischer is adamant:  the annual regularity of the treatment is the best guarantee of its efficiency.  Elisabeth reluctantly agrees, but she will make the briefest stay possible, barely a week.  Her cousin, King Louis II of Bavaria, does not come.  He has lost his illusions about Wagner, although he continues to have his operas played, and refloats his finances.

When she returns to the Kaiservilla, Sissi finds Bad Ischl ravaged by fire.  It is said that two drunken coachmen had been smoking in some straw.  A regional catastrophe.  Twenty-two houses destroyed.  The flames had licked the walls of the imperial villa, where the children were sleeping.  Emperor Franz-Josef is very upset, his beloved Bad Ischl is devastated.

Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria by Winterhalter (1865).

On 18 August the Austrian Emperor celebrates his thirty-fifth birthday.  At Bad Ischl, where the destroyed houses are being rebuilt, thousands of people surround the imperial couple, who cross the esplanade on horseback.  Popular enthusiasm is at its peak when Rudolf appears in a little carriage drawn by donkeys.

Rudolf incarnates the immediate future of the monarchy.  However, his education poses a very serious problem for his mother.  The child’s nervosity comes, of course, from his heredity, but the way that he is being raised aggravates his too-sensitive nature even more.  The Empress leads a tardy and difficult enquiry on this domain reserved for her mother-in-law.  She discovers that Rudolf’s governor, Colonel Leopold of Gondrecourt, chosen by the Archduchess, is a military bigot who ostensibly goes to daily Mass to be seen by the family, in particular by the Emperor and his mother.  The governor unites two qualities, one of them glorified by Franz-Josef, the other sung by the Archduchess:  he is a perfect soldier, he is an excellent Christian.

What does the Emperor want?  He wants his son to learn the profession of arms at an early age, therefore, that he become familiar with courage and danger.  Gondrecourt finds nothing better than to lock the little boy inside a hunting reserve near Schonbrunn and, having left him alone inside, cry out:

“Prince!  Take care, a boar is charging you!”

The stupidity of this experience is consternating.  Gondrecourt also finds it indispensable to impose cold showers on the child, and thinks it instructive to fire shots from a revolver during his sleep.  Rudolf is, quite simply, terrified.

Princess Sophia, Archduchess of Austria.

What does the Archduchess want?  She wants to prepare a prince of high moral value, raised in the faith of God.  But gossips report to Elisabeth – she now has her allies – that Gondrecourt is only a Tartuffe, who purposely passes under Franz-Josef’s windows at six o’clock in the morning, holding a Rosary and a Book of Prayer.  It is said that the volume contains, in reality, a box of cigars, and that the governor, instead of devotions, is going to take breakfast with his mistress, a blonde chorus girl from the theatre.  Dismayed, Sissi exclaims:

“This is madness!”

In fact, this very special education given to Rudolf can only accentuate his fragility.  The child is often ill, he is afraid of the dark, and of noise.  Franz-Josef and his mother do not agree with all of Gondrecourt’s initiatives, but think that Rudolf needs a bit more vigour.  Sissi is enraged.  A discussion begins with her spouse.  Franz-Josef hesitates, as he always does as soon as it concerns the Archduchess.  Sissi plays her last card:

“I can no longer tolerate this.  It is Gondrecourt or I!”

On this 24 August 1865, the Empress of Austria addresses a veritable family ultimatum to the Emperor, putting her whole life in the balance, confirming in writing her intentions:

“I wish to have full powers for everything that concerns the children, the choice of their entourage, their place of residence, the complete direction of their education, in a word, it is I who will decide everything until their majority.  Further, I desire that, for everything concerning my personal business, such as the choice of my entourage, my place of residence, all changes in the household, etc., I be the only one to decide.


She couldn’t have been clearer nor firmer.  This is no longer anger from Sissi, this is a warning from the Empress who is twenty-eight-years-old.  For the first time since their marriage, Elisabeth refuses to give up one inch of her authority.  In a few lines, she has become perfectly adult.

This peal of domestic thunder is followed by a Court revolution:  Franz-Josef gives in, he agrees with his wife.  Gondrecourt is replaced by Count Josef Latour of Thurnberg, who reveals himself to be an excellent educator.  And Prince Rudolf’s health is entrusted to a new doctor, Dr Widerhoger.  Sissi will ask him for frequent reports, and will read them attentively, when before, she was kept in ignorance by his predecessor.

It is an immense victory.

A radiant and serene Autumn succeeds these upheavals.  Sissi, very beautiful, calmer, is supported by her husband.  Her victory is also that of their united, fortified couple.  On 4 October, the day of Saint Francis (Franz), Sissi organizes a dinner to celebrate the Emperor’s patron saint.  To Rudolf, she recounts:

“At table, we laughed a lot, I made all the ladies empty a flute of Champagne to Papa’s health.”

And she adds that one lady-in-waiting had almost “become too gay” and that another “had difficulty standing upright”.

Sissi has only snatched her independence from the Emperor so that she can be closer to her husband.  Sissi is happy.  Her victory is that of love.


Empress Elisabeth of Austria with Shadow.

1864.  A year of upheavals, questions and romantic dreams.  On 10 March, news comes from Bavaria.  King Maximilien, suffering from a kidney problem, dies, leaving the throne to a nineteen-year-old prince who considers that “affairs of State are only stupidities of State”.  He is tall, beautiful and strange.  He takes the title of Louis II of Bavaria.

Sissi likes this cousin a lot.  He is younger than she by eight years, and sometimes came to Possenhofen when he was a child.  She had been seduced by the Prince’s perpetually raised head, as if he were trying to rise above the mountain crests.  In Vienna, the new King’s inexperience causes anxiety.  Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria is also worried about the incredible campaign, led by Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie, with London and Madrid, to install his brother Maximilien on the Mexican throne.  If the Archduke accepts, he must renounce his rights to Austria’s throne.  Is the French proposition really compensation for the loss of Lombardy?  Isn’t the project senseless?  So many delicate questions.

Like all her family, Elisabeth remains perplexed.  Mexico, so far away…  An empire?  Isn’t it an unsustainable charge?  Her conversations with her sister-in-law Charlotte are frank but tinged with sincere cordiality.  On the other hand, Elisabeth is witness to a very violent scene between Franz-Josef and his brother, white with rage, about the renunciation of his rights to the Austrian Crown that the Emperor is imposing on the Archduke.  But ambition is stronger.  On 14 April, Maximilien and Charlotte leave for Mexico.  It is the first act of a tragedy fomented by pride, ambition, ignorance and blindness.

Sissi goes back to Bad Kissingen for her annual cure.  Apart from her health, which still preoccupies her, she is very curious to meet her cousin Louis II of Bavaria, a sovereign who, in three months, has already caused a lot of talk.  The King on the Munich throne’s sole political programme is to find a musician of genius, who has been insupportable almost everywhere, Mr Richard Wagner.  Wagner, fleeing, covered in debt, pursued by creditors, jealous husbands and policemen, had launched this cry to a lady friend:

“Only a miracle can save me!”

This miracle is called Louis II.

Louis II of Bavaria.

At Bad Kissingen, Europe is taking the cure.  A veritable thermal congress, where the Tsar rubs shoulders with the German princes.  When Sissi sees her royal cousin, she is seduced by his allure.  One metre ninety, with very dark, curly hair, very blue, interrogative eyes, the King of Bavaria is the youngest ruler in the European Courts.  Strange rumours are already circulating about him.  Some judge him to be supremely intelligent.  He is.  Others find him original.  He is that too.  Between Elisabeth, twenty-seven, and Louis, nineteen, an immediate bond is formed.  Both of them detest protocol, they read poetry, they love impromptu things, horseracing and, more than anything, their country, luminous Bavaria.  The young King, whose taste for women is inexistent, had announced that he would remain at Bad Kissingen only a few days.  Under Sissi’s charm, he stays a month.  Louis II’s strange character fascinates Elisabeth, the Empress’ radiant beauty subjugates the King.

This beauty is rising to the zenith.  On 10 October, a very great artist finishes the sketch of a work which will become a famous painting.  He is called Franz Winterhalter.  German, he has become the great illustrator of the European Courts.  Invited to Vienna, he will paint Sissi several times.  Franz-Josef admires the painter’s work and recognizes:

“These are the first portraits which truly resemble her.”

In February 1865, Sissi goes to Dresden for the wedding of her favourite brother Karl-Theodore and Princess Sophia of Saxe.  When Sissi appears in a violet gown embroidered with sliver clover leaves, covered by a coat in silver lace, her hair woven with diamond stars, each one of them with a ruby in its centre, given to her by Franz-Josef for Christmas, the Empress of Austria, twenty-eight, eclipses her new sister-in-law, aged twenty.  The Queen of Saxe confides to a lady friend, four days later:

“You cannot imagine the enthusiasm that the beauty and amiability of the Empress have suscitated here.”.

On 15 February, as her special train is leaving Dresden for Vienna, Sissi asks one of the members of her suite:

“Could you tell me the time?”

With no hesitation, the man, dazzled like all men, affirms:

“One minute after sunset, Your Majesty.”

Sissi is compared to the sun which is disappearing from Saxe as she leaves it…  However, although such notoriety can content Sissi and calm her anxieties, she regrets having to leave her children, in particular Rudolf, who is a fast learner, and with whom she already speaks several languages, but mostly Hungarian.

She is hardly back, than she leaves for Munich.  She arrives there at the time when a platonic love affair of her cousin, the King, with Wagner is unleashing anger in the whole of Bavaria.  It should be recognized that the musician has a gift for antagonizing.  His inextinguishable debts, his liaison with Cosima, the daughter of Liszt and wife of his orchestra conductor, as well as his progressist ideas, displease.  Sissi is curious to see the King again.  His comportment is enigmatic, divided between puerile crushes and romantic obsessions.  On 29 February, Sissi receives her cousin.  His arrival is singular:  it is raining, and the King, in Austrian uniform, is under an umbrella, but holding his hat in his hand so as not to mess up his hair which he has had curled.  He alights from his carriage, drawn by four horses and escorted by pike-bearers and equerries, dashes to Sissi and kisses her hands so many times that the Empress’ mother asks herself if he won’t wear them out.

Louis II’s visit leaves a tenacious memory:  he had inundated himself with Cyprus perfume.  Elisabeth is torn between uncontrollable laughter and worry.  The King is passionate, but his bizarreries are harming the Crown’s prestige.  Despite the comments which run on his manners, she judges him with indulgence and tenderness.  She admires him almost.  He has arrived at the same result as she.  Without travelling far, he escapes to dreams of a world where Art is the only reason for living and reigning.


To be continued.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria with Shadow.

In the first half of April 1862, the Empress’ mother, very worried, arrives in Venice.  She asks questions.  There had been talk of lungs, they are no longer mentioned.  Now an oedema is evoked, hydropsy, and there is still great anaemia.  Princess Ludovika, Duchess in Bavaria, decides that the advice of Dr Fischer, her own doctor, is indispensable.  A message informs Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria that his wife is not well, and adds that Ludovika and Elisabeth are going to go directly to Bavaria, without passing through Vienna.  The Emperor is terribly disappointed.  He goes to Venice.  It is true, the Empress is suffering.  What climate, which skies will be favourable to her?  He returns sadly to his capital, condemned to more weeks of solitude.  He adores Sissi, but she is escaping him.  He shows a patience that will become perseverance.

Princess Ludovika, Duchess in Bavaria.

At the end of May, the Empress and her mother arrive in Reichenau, where Dr Fischer is waiting for them.  The doctor and Princess Ludovika consider that the heat of sunny islands is not advisable.  On the other hand, he thinks that a thermal cure could regulate Sissi’s nervous system, and firmly suggests a stay in Bad Kissingen, at the extreme North of Bavaria.

Elisabeth leaves on 2 June, and the cure does wonders for her.  Recovered, having again found sleep, she then goes to her family’s refuge, Possenhofen, with her sister Helena and her sister Maria of Naples.  Maria has just lived an adventure which is, at the very least, unsettling.  Having lost her throne, while taking refuge in Rome under the Pope’s protection, she had suddenly fallen brutally in love with a Belgian officer in the pontifical Zouaves… who had accorded her particular protection.  The result had not delayed, she is five months pregnant…  This story scandalises Sissi’s ladies-in-waiting, already obliged to frequent Prince Maximilien, who is always flirtatious with women.

When he arrives at his father-in-law’s place on 13 July, Franz-Josef finds the Empress as well as possible.  He asks her to return to Vienna, and she begins by refusing.  Before her husband’s immense disappointment, she gives in.  At last!  And, one month later, on 14 August, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, makes her entry into the capital.

A triumph, after fourteen months of absence.  What an extraordinary difference between the population’s joy and Sissi’s pernicious anguish.  Six hundred singers belt out a veritable serenade in prelude to a torchlight procession which assembles nearly twenty thousand people.  Elisabeth forces herself, makes an effort, moved by the daily attentions of a husband who no longer knows what to do to make her happy.  To celebrate his spouse’s return, he gives her pure-blood horses.  When she returns to Schonbrunn, the whole Palace celebrates.  In the couple’s intimate life, Schonbrunn presents a notable exception:  Sissi and Franz-Josef share a bedroom.  The walls are covered in blue silk, woven in Lyon in 1854, with matching curtains.  The furniture is in Brazilian rosewood.  The Empress’ salon, with gold and white wood-panelling, has armchairs covered with silk brocade, and marble tables.  On the wall, a portrait of Marie-Antoinette recalls that the Queen of France lived here while she was Archduchess of Austria.

Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria.

Her mother-in-law having remained at Bad Ischl, Sissi has a feeling of independence that she rarely knows.  The spouses barely leave each other, and if Franz-Josef has to leave, Sissi waits for him in the garden.  Rudolf, who has just turned four, plays there under his mother’s tender gaze;  the entourage is relieved not to hear Sissi talking of leaving or travelling.  In a letter of 15 September, a lady-in-waiting notes:

“She is looking very well, she is another woman, she has colour in her face.  She eats well, sleeps well, does not yet tighten her corset, but, as soon as she remains standing, a vein in her left foot begins to swell.”

It is curious that no doctor thinks about the inconveniences of the corset fashion on blood circulation.  To resume, Sissi has found laughter again, and in this month of September, at Schonbrunn, the grey veil of implacable melancholy has been torn to reveal a life that is at last normal, at last beside the man who loves her…


Christmas.  Sissi celebrates her twenty-fifth birthday.  Radiant in a white gown studded with sapphires and diamonds, her dark hair lightened with white camelias, she attends Court receptions and balls.  Even her mother-in-law is unable to prevent herself from being admirative:

“She is truly superb.”

Her deficient health is just a bad memory.

After a peaceful Winter, the 1863 Spring represents months of happiness.  When Summer returns, Sissi is again examined by her doctors.  She is still well but, just to be careful, another cure at Bad Kissingen is recommended.  When Sissi arrives there in June, her healthy appearance contrasts with that of the other curists.  And, immediately solicited, surrounded, she acts like a Muse of Health.  Very often, she personally takes the blind Duke of Mecklemburg for an outing.  An hemiplegic Englishman is immediately seduced by the angel who takes interest in his Calvary.  He doesn’t know the young woman’s identity.  In a few days, he falls in love with her.  When he learns who she is, he has flowers and books delivered to her.  When she leaves, on 25 July, she leaves only dazzled regrets among those whom she had helped.

On 31 July, while playing, little Rudolf, who is nearing five, falls from a tree, striking his head on a paving stone.  Cries, confusion, imprecations, the child is carried to his bed, where he lies unconscious.  Archduchess Sophia takes a sensible decision:  it is not necessary to advise the Empress and compromise her equilibrium.  On the other hand, Franz-Josef hastens there, in panic.  Two doctors proceed with the usual traumatology examinations.  Rudolf regains consciousness, and the Court breathes again.  That the Empress knew nothing about it, reveals to what point a rampart can be thrown up to keep her away from her children.  But death had caressed Rudolf.  For the first time.

Unfortunately, Rudolf suscitates anxiety again.  The Heir to the Throne has attacks of something, sometimes briefly, sometimes lengthily.  He throws tantrums and becomes disagreeable.  Have the consequences of his fall been properly assessed?  Or is it something else?  Whatever it is, a brutal access of fever, on 5 December, raises fears of typhus.  A doctor is immediately called.  For two weeks, the child suffers.  From convulsions to trembling, he finally recovers before Christmas.


To be continued.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria with Shadow.

Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) would like to be alone, but it is impossible for her to travel without a suite.  Thirty-three people accompany her, including Doctor Skoda from Munich.  She has barely arrived in Corfu than her face takes on colour, she sleeps better and coughs less.  The truth is out:  Vienna is nocive to the Empress of Austria.  Her illness is really strange.  She can be seen bathing in wild creeks and walking under the moonlight.

Franz-Josef receives contradicting reports and decides to send Count Grunne with the mission, delicate, of finding out exactly how his spouse is.

Sending Grunne is a diplomatic error, for Sissi judges him to be under the Archduchess’ influence.  Right from his arrival, she treats him like a spy from the Hofburg.  Grunne becomes vexed, Sissi loses her temper, is sorry, but it’s too late:  the mediator has failed.  Franz-Josef, bewildered, begs Helena (Nene) to go to Corfu, for she remains Elisabeth’s favourite sister and could have a good influence on her.  Nene arrives on 23 August and goes back to being the big sister.  The two women have a long talk, and Helena is probably the first person to be able to establish the true nature of the ills suffered by the Empress.  She understands that Sissi is tortured by an aversion to her mother-in-law and anything that reminds her in any way of her despotism.  With tact, Helena exposes the exact reasons for the problem to Franz-Josef.

The Emperor listens.  We are at the end of September 1861.  In ten months, he has only lived with his wife for six little weeks.  Helena convinces him:  he will go to Corfu to have it confirmed.

Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria.

When he arrives on the island, on the morning of 13 October, he finds the Empress in good health and decides to talk to her to help her take reasonable decisions.  The most important one is to return to the Empire.  These prolonged stays in foreign lands are still having a disastrous effect.

Elisabeth agrees, but poses two conditions, the first being the rapid removal of the First Lady-in-Waiting, Countess Esterhazy, who takes part in all the domestic tyrannies;  the second being not to return directly to Vienna.  She asks to be allowed to stay in Venice first.  He accepts the transaction.  Venice is a good choice, including politically.  The couple finds itself again, united in the joy of being with their children.  Franz-Josef will have them come to Venice without his mother, he promises.  They are reassured.  Elisabeth feared that Gisela and Rudolf might forget her.  She had written to each of them during Summer, asking them in all of her letters to “think of your mummy”.

Franz-Josef, too, has appreciated the charms of Corfu.  He is optimistic.  On the evening of 21 October, he leaves his wife, happy about his pending reconnection with family life.  The Emperor of Austria has been delivered of a terrible weight:  Sissi, his Sissi, has accepted to come back…


Disembarking from the steam-frigate Lucia which drops anchor in Venice on 26 October, the Empress has only one wish:  not to be noticed.  But Venice is an Austrian city, and the Mayor of Venice thought to do the right thing by organizing an illumination on the Saint Mark square.  Sissi judges this idea to be regrettable.  She is above all thinking of her children, expected in a few days.  Their presence in Venice only worries Franz-Josef on one point, the mediocre quality of the drinking water.  By precaution, the Emperor organizes daily deliveries of water taken from… Schonbrunn.  In the palace’s park there flows a source, discovered in the XVIIth Century, which has given it its name, Schoner Brunnen:  beautiful fountain.

Gisela and Rudolf arrive in Venice on 3 November with Countess Esterhazy.  Sissi savours the joy of being with her children.  Of course, there is still the Countess and her angry looks…

Franz-Josef arrives on 30 November.  The atmosphere is doubly glacial.  Politically, the Venitians support less and less well the Austrian domination from which their neighbours in Lombardy have been delivered.  Family-wise, relations between the Empress and her First Lady-in-Waiting are at the paroxysm of exasperation.  After a discussion where Sissi begs her husband, the Emperor of Austria takes an immense decision:  he dismisses Countess Esterhazy.  What a relief!  What a victory over Archduchess Sophia!  And what embarrassment for Franz-Josef when he announces this measure to his mother.  To the dismissed Countess, he will offer a bracelet with his portrait, a gift which cannot efface the bitterness.

Psychologically, Sissi immediately recovers her equilibrium, and conjugal harmony is serene.  The former Austrian Ambassador to Paris, who is also staying in Venice, notes that the Emperor is still madly in love “like the first days of their marriage”.  It is with reluctance that Franz-Josef again boards his green-coloured salon-carriage, decorated with his coat-of-arms and surmounted by dragons retreating before the Roman Catholic Empire.  For Christmas, the Emperor comes back, and the family festivities unfold in an atmosphere of tenderness.  Sissi seems to be feeling better.

But it is only in appearance.  Her legs swell and she is very weak.  Obliged to immobility, she invents a new pastime which will set the whole of Europe talking:  she begins a collection of photographs.  Photography, a new art, has definitely entered into people’s lifestyles.  For the Empress of Austria, the photos are another way of travelling, of being somewhere else, a way of bringing the world before her eyes.  We could query the Empress’ exclusive wishes, for she seeks only feminine images, the most beautiful possible.  The answer is simple:  Sissi wants to measure her beauty – compromised by her health – and judge European aesthetism.  She will ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to transmit to all the Embassies her request for photographic research.  Saint Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, London are solicited, and a hunt for photos begins.  The most delicate mission is the one entrusted to Ambassador Prokesch, in post at Constantinople.  Sissi asks the impossible of him:  photographs of the inhabitants of the harems of the Ottoman Empire.  At the cost of dangerous difficulties, the diplomat will procure a few images of languid beauties waiting to be chosen to distract the Sultan.

The arrivals of all these beauties make her realise her own state.  Sissi wants to be more beautiful.  But her feet are hurting and the pain is marking her face.  It sometimes takes two people to help her walk.  Her health is, once more, alarming.

To be continued.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria with Shadow, her Irish Airedale.

In the absence of Elisabeth (Sissi), Archduchess Sophia of Austria has again found all her influence, and evokes at length the situation in Budapest.  It is evident that the October Diploma is not much appreciated and the federalist experiment is failing.  A new text is elaborated.  It marks a very clear return to constitutionalised centralism.  Under his mother’s influence, Franz-Josef maintains Hungary in a semi-dependent regime with regard to Vienna.

At the end of March 1861, Sissi envisages leaving Madera.  Her true malady, the one from which she will never be cured, manifests its first symptoms:  the Empress cannot stay in one place.

“I find that I want to always go farther and keep moving.  Each boat which leaves makes me want to be aboard it.  Whatever its route, Brazil, Africa…  Anywhere, just to not remain in the same place for too long.”

Elisabeth has realised that one always returns from a voyage, sooner or later, and that reality is then even more difficult to deal with.  The fear of returning has a name:  the Archduchess.  The time for taking stock has arrived.  Sissi no longer wants to suffer, she wants to run away.  It is too late to patch up the ties between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law, too late for the Empress to bloom freely.  She has fought for six years, she is giving up.  Her life will be a perpetual flight.

On 28 April, Sissi leaves Madera, leaving also a lot of regrets and some of her illusions.  The Empress now knows that her duty calls her, more for worse than for better.  But Sissi has discovered the charm of sunny islands;  she will go from island to island like a lost seagull.

A delicate attention, Queen Victoria has sent her personal yacht to Funchal.  It is the most sumptuous of floating palaces, the Victoria and Albert II, Sissi is astonished to discover this boat, whose decoration had been supervised by Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert.  The walls of the gangways are papered, the bedroom is furnished with a mahogany bed surmounted by a baldaquin in printed calico.  Because of her size, Sissi is not obliged to use the two steps which facilitate access to the bed for Victoria.  Green blinds open onto a royal dining-room for eight people.  A salon offers sofas, an upright piano, table, desk, wall-maps.  The yacht has a crew of two hundred-and-forty.  They are barely to be heard:  vocal orders are very much reduced, and they wear rubber-soled shoes…

Sissi is not in a hurry.  Her first stop is Cadix, on 30 April 1861.  She manages to visit the city without being recognized.  Still aboard the Victoria and Albert II, she reaches Gibraltar, then Majorca and Malta.  Finally, on 15 May, the yacht drops anchor on the west coast of Corfu.

Corfu…  a magical name.  Sissi is enthusiastic, marvels at, and is seduced by, the warmth of the climate, the rows of cypress and the forests of olive trees.  She forgets the charms of Madera.  The Empress would like to remain here, but Franz-Josef is waiting for her at Trieste.

On 18 May, Victoria’s yacht stops beside the Emperor of Austria’s paddle-yacht with its two chimneys, called Fantasy.  It has been exactly six months since they left each other.  They are happy to see each other again.  Elisabeth is sublime, Franz-Josef impatient.  The couple goes to see Franz-Josef’s brother Maximilien, who resides with his spouse Charlotte near Trieste in an incredible castle which has just been finished.  It is Miramar, a Moorish, Gothic pastiche, with towers, tourelles and loggias, on a peninsula overlooking the Adriatic.  Sissi appreciates her brother-in-law’s cordiality, but doesn’t like her sister-in-law’s personality very much.  She judges her to be ambitious and pretentious.  Even worse:  Archduchess Sophia likes Charlotte, which is difficult for Sissi to bear.  Seeing Charlotte again, is a foretaste of the Hofburg cabals.

An upsetting incident opposes these two sisters-in-law at Miramar.  Shadow, Elisabeth’s big dog, attacks Charlotte’s little dog and mortally wounds it.  The Airedale has no great merit in killing the lap-dog.  The ladies exchange looks and words of consternation, the dog being a gift from Queen Victoria.  Drily, Sissi declares, as her only excuse:

“I don’t like little dogs.”

Neither does Shadow…


Princess Sophia, Archduchess of Austria.

Vienna.  The Empress’ return is a celebration.  Sissi rushes to see her children.  Gisela has learnt to read and Rudolf is superb with his big eyes.  But the celebration is spoilt:  the return to the Hofburg means that Sissi must become an empress according to the Archduchess’ code.  And the circle of ladies-in-waiting closes about her, like a vice.  Only four days after her return, Elisabeth dissolves into tears and starts coughing again.  Once more, she is ill.  Franz-Josef is very upset.  Her Munich doctor, called urgently because she has faith only in him, judges her state to be serious and wants to treat her.  Sissi refuses.  She knows that oppression is her deep ill, and has only one idea, to leave as soon as possible.

The cancelled receptions feed crazy rumours.  No-one is able to understand how the Empress, arriving healthy, rested and radiant can, within a few days, be suffering from a strange ill.  The Viennese doctor diagnoses tuberculosis, and the Bavarian Ambassador sends a report to his sovereign, saying that the Empress has only a few weeks to live.  No-one evokes a psychological illness in the Emperor’s presence;  who would dare to recommend that she be moved away from Archduchess Sophia?

Sissi clings to her memory of Corfu, and decides to return there.  On 21 June, accompanied by Franz-Josef, she boards the train which is to take her South.  In the Vienna station, the crowd is silent.  One witness reports that he could hear

“the sobbing of several women.  At the train’s departure, we had the impression of seeing a funeral procession passing by.”

Sissi has entrusted her children to their governesses “as the only thing left to the Emperor”.

On 27 June, she is in Corfu.  The choice of the Greek island has not been approved by everyone.  Of course, the climate is agreeable there, but cases of malaria have been signalled.  Other comments add that, within the Empire, there must surely be healthy places.  Why choose, once again, a foreign land?

To be continued.

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