Two paddle-steamers with high chimneys slowly leave the wooded rocks and fortifications of the old Bishopric of Passau. On the City of Regensburg, Princess Elisabeth in Bavaria, known as Sissi to her family, sees the churning Danube, king of the Central European rivers, and symbol of the ties that the imperial couple will do their best to represent. After four hours of peaceful navigation, the boats berth at Linz.
It is six o’clock in the evening, and the family stops for the second night. But they are surprised by the presence of Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria. Unplanned by protocol, it underlines his passion. High Austria’s capital is celebrating. Bells are ringing, flags and standards are fluttering in the wind. A theatrical gala with an appropriate play, Elisabeth’s Roses, is followed by a torchlight procession with choirs in the streets of the old city. Exhausted, Sissi’s head is spinning with this programme. Fresh and impatient, Franz-Josef barely sleeps. At four-thirty in the morning, he is already on his way to Vienna, where he will greet Sissi this afternoon.
At eight o’clock, the Bavarian family boards a bigger boat, the Franz-Josef, transformed into a floating garden whose deck is covered in arches of roses cut the day before at Schonbrunn Castle. Sissi tries to take some rest in her cabin of purple velvet, but a whole country, her new country, wants to see her. The villages and their good people have dressed in their best clothes. Pale, weak, rigid with anguish, she appears on deck.
Four o’clock in the evening… The boat arrives at Nussdorf, a charming Vienna outer suburb, bustling with outside cafes where tasty wines are drunk, and where Beethoven searched for inspiration. Sissi has just changed her clothes. When he sees her in her pink silk crinoline and her white coat, her face so young and so moving under her little white hat, Franz-Josef can wait no longer: the steam-boat has not finished its manoeuvre. The space between the quay and the boat is still wide. The Emperor leaps on board and throws himself at his fiancee.
A fantastic ovation greets this gesture of an impatient lover. He gives her a long kiss. Sissi, staggering, disengages herself. Then, indecisive, she looks for her lace handkerchief and timidly waves it. The enthusiastic cries grow louder.
“Long live Elisabeth!”
It is night-time when the carriage, pulled by eight splendid Lippizans, arrives at Schonbrunn. Sissi is sitting beside Franz-Josef, opposite Archduchess Sophia of Austria, and her father, Prince Maximilien, Duke in Bavaria. In the castle grounds, another impatient crowd waves thousands of lanterns. The ordeal is not yet over. Sissi must still appear on the balcony. To wave, smile, wave again, smile again. From now on, she will be the image of happiness for the Austrian people. Nearing exhaustion, Sissi fights to remain standing. She can no longer be herself. She has become a model, an example. She no longer has the right to disappoint. But, at sixteen-years-old, is this possible?
Of this evening, two extreme and complementary moments must be retained. The first is the gesture of a Franz-Josef carried on the wings of love. In the grand gallery, which evokes the Galerie des Glaces at Versailles, the Emperor gives the Princess her marriage gift, a splendid diamond crown. The second is the revenge of protocol on love. Archduchess Sophia gently starts the etiquette machinery. She presents Countess Esterhazy-Liechtenstein to her daughter-in-law. She will be her First Lady-in-Waiting. An anguishing face-to-face for Sissi: her lady-in-waiting has yellowish skin, pinched lips and is fifty-six-years-old, forty years older than the future Empress. The Countess with the parchment face is very austere, a salon Cerberus who knows everything, sees everything, hears everything and therefore, alas, judges everything. The Archduchess has also named two other ladies-in-waiting, younger and more attractive than Countess Esterhazy, but Sissi cannot rely on their indulgence. Their mission is to transform Sissi into an Empress. The first terrifying document is given to Sissi with the title Ceremonial for the Solemn Entry of Her Royal Highness the Most Serene Princess Elisabeth. It describes Sissi’s arrival the next day in Vienna. The second organizes the wedding, which will take place the day after that. The protocol of the Vienna Court takes its rigour from that of Spain. Everything is covered, the manner of walking, the number of steps, the way of sitting-down, the rhythm of the genuflexions. In studying these nineteen pages, one has the feeling that each breath obeys an immuable order. These two documents are the first lessons that Sissi will have to learn the next day. Her worried eyes meet those of her future husband, which are attentive and reassuring. He tries to soothe her:
“This is part of our function…”
After a sumptuous supper, Sissi, accompanied by three Court ladies, retires to her apartments, where three chambermaids, two servants and a chambervalet await her. Her first night at Schonbrunn does not slow the whirlpool of her fears. Her first palace is her first prison. Etiquette, like Sissi, doesn’t sleep.
Sunday 23 April. The ladies-in-waiting watch over the Princess’ preparation. Her dressing will take four hours. The result is a Sissi frozen in a gown of satin with a silvered train, entwined in roses, her hair sparkling with diamonds. Accompanied by her mother, she takes place at the beginning of the afternoon in a carriage harnessed with eight white horses whose manes are plaited with silver. The carriage enters Vienna. A long cortege surrounds it, crawling with lackeys, guards on horseback and haleberdiers. The Archbishop of Vienna, the Primate of Hungary, the Princes, follow. A symbolic gesture: the Princess crosses for the first time a new bridge baptised Elisabeth Bridge. Sissi inaugurates her first work of art.
Finally, the carriage arrives before the Hofburg Palace. Sissi hesitates. Facing the crowd is trying. But she has no way of avoiding it, even less so in that the coach has wide glass windows. Instead of being a refuge, it is an indiscrete magnifying glass. And no-one can miss seeing that Sissi is sobbing. She finally rises, advances to the step. In alighting, she catches her tiara in the doorway. She gracefully adjusts it under her mother-in-law’s furious gaze. To lack dignity to such a degree is inconceivable! But, luckily, the Emperor is there; in grand Field Marshal’s uniform, he leads his fiancee for the first time through the sombre imperial palace. Begun in the XIIIth Century, with additions over time, the Hofburg is a city within a city. The fiances take their places in the Gothic chapel, confess themselves and receive Holy Communion. Then Franz-Josef shows Sissi their apartments, twenty-six rooms out of the one thousand four hundred and forty that the palace then has. At the entrance, Sissi receives from her two brothers-in-law, Ferdinand-Maximilien and Karl-Louis, a desk-set in gold and lapis-lazuli. Franz-Josef tenderly asks his fiancee:
“Do you like it? Tell me what you want and you shall immediately have it.”
Clutching the Emperor’s hand, the Princess remains silent. Everything is so beautiful, perhaps too beautiful.