Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria arrives in Munich on 13 March. He brings to Princess Elisabeth in Bavaria, known as Sissi to her family, her mother-in-law Archduchess Sophia’s gift, a magnificent complete parure, with tiara, necklace and earrings in opals and diamonds. But its true value is that of a symbol: the Archduchess wore these jewels on the day of her marriage, thirty years earlier. Sissi’s aunt is decidedly an aggressive mother-in-law whose gifts are always poisoned by an acid remark. Diabolically, the Emperor’s mother never misses an occasion to diminish her daughter-in-law by making disagreeable comments. Rather embarrassed, Franz-Josef tells Sissi that she must not use the familiar second person singular when addressing her aunt, as she had done in her last letter. Sissi thought that she had done the right thing, but, as usual with her mother-in-law, she makes only mistakes. Her face saddens. She pleads spontaneity, family affection. Alas, she had forgotten respect. The Archduchess has very well judged that the respect due to her person would be the last rampart that would conserve her influence at Court, where a new empress will soon be installed. Franz-Josef still addresses his mother in the formal second person plural, Sissi must do the same. Swallowing her tears and retaining the lesson, Sissi obeys in a letter of thanks from which all warmth has disappeared. She begins her letter by a formula dictated to her by her fiance:
“Beloved and very honoured Archduchess…”
In their Ludwigstrasse palace, the Duke and Duchess in Bavaria give a reception in honour of their daughter who is going to leave them. This goodbye is reinforced by a ceremony heavy with solemnity which unfolds thirteen days later, in the throne room of the royal palace of the Residenz. Very moved, Sissi signs her Act of Renunciation to the Bavarian throne in front of the King and the Court. A ceremony that she judges useless and even uncalled for, as, for her to claim her rights to the Wittelsbach throne, there would have to be an unbelievable succession of catastrophes, the male descendants of both the elder and younger branches having had to have died. The probabilities that Sissi would have had to reign in Munich are practically non-existent. But dynastic principle must be respected. On Monday 27 March 1854, juridically speaking, Sissi is no longer Princess in Bavaria. Before God and Men, she will be Empress in less than a month. She is no longer herself, bundled into an apatride state, obliged to renounce her past, pushed toward a new existence which frightens her. The witnesses are unanimous: returning from the Residenz, the young girl is very grave.
During these heavy formalities, Franz-Josef is tied to his desk, in almost permanent consultation with his Cabinet, which is pushing him to war. War! As if it’s the right moment, one month from his marriage, which is fixed on 24 April. Reading the reports with his right hand, swallowing cups of hot tea with his left hand, the young Emperor resumes his feelings:
“War with Russia might happen but it shouldn’t happen.”
And he decides to quickly send an emissary to Berlin. Without enthusiasm, Berlin replies that Vienna can count on Prussia’s assistance. An agreement is signed entitled Defensive and Offensive Alliance. The crisis degenerates: on 27 March, the British and French fleets having been in the Black Sea for two months, London and Paris declare war on Saint Petersburg. On the horizon, Crimea appears through the fog.
So many worries, when Franz-Josef would like to have eyes only for Sissi’s fresh face… Archduchess Sophia gets busy in the Hofburg imperial palace, overseeing the preparation of the imperial couple’s apartments. She chooses the decoration, the furniture, orders that the floors be polished, that the wooden panels be re-gilded. Behind these austere walls, the Archduchess governs her own kingdom, the imperial palace.
On 16 April, Easter Sunday, a last gala concert gathers around the Bavarian Court the whole diplomatic corps accredited to King Maximilien. There is a crush in the reception room.
Sissi wears her first empress Court gown, on which are spread her first Austrian decorations given to her by Franz-Josef. In her beautiful hair, at her neck, at her ear-lobes, the parure that he has given her. Those present are dazzled by the Princess’ shining beauty and surprised by her gravity. The Prussian Ambassador will write the following day to his sovereign:
“The young Duchess seems, despite the brilliance of the elevated situation which awaits her, to suffer at the idea of leaving her country and being separated from her illustrious family…”
Sissi is grave for the first time in her life. Childhood is over, the time of secrets in the forest and equestrian escapades is well and truly over. So is the time of dreaming at Lake Starberg, rippled by the wind. She opens her exercise book and, with a nostalgic pen, says goodbye to her happy years:
Goodbye, silent rooms,
Goodbye, old castle.
And you, first dreams of love,
Rest in peace at the bottom of the lake.
Goodbye, leafless trees
And you, bushes and underbrush,
When you start to green again
I shall be far from this castle.
Roughly three hundred kilometres separate Munich from Vienna; it is relatively close, but on the other side of the border, an unknown world awaits her and watches her. This departure is the brutal interruption of a radiant springtime of life. Sissi knows that she is losing her independence. Deep down inside, she senses what is waiting for her in Vienna.
Thursday 20 April. After Mass in the chapel of the Palace of the Dukes in Bavaria, an open carriage, pulled by six horses, passes through the four columns of the patrician gate. Along the Luwigstrasse, the crowd waves affectionate hands. The cortege arrives at the Victory Gate, an imitation of Constantine’s triumphal arch in Rome. When the carriage passes under the arch, Sissi, who is seated on her mother’s left, rises and waves her left hand. The crowd greets its Princess. What a contrast between the people’s joy and the anguish which is rising in the young girl. Munich is applauding her joy, Sissi is crying her sadness. Through her tears, she sees her sisters sitting opposite her, including Helena, who should have been in her place. Her mother, Princess Ludovika, hides her emotion. In the second carriage, her father, Prince Maximilien, with the rest of the family, responds to the crowd, moved, enchanted.
The next day, at two o’clock in the afternoon, the ducal family arrives at Passau, at the confluent of the Danube, the Inn and the Helz Rivers, the frontier port between Bavaria and Austria. The quay is decorated with a triumphal arch, with flowers and the flags of the two countries, blue and white, red and white. A delegation of high-ranking public servants and imperial personalities welcomes Sissi.
For the first time, the young girl is officially treated like an empress. She meets her first subjects, who bow. How frail she seems in her dark travelling costume… But what grace, what charm…
To be continued.