Although there is no official account of Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria’s wedding night, his mother, Archduchess Sophia, has her informers, the most intimate secrets not escaping the attention of the chambermaids. According to these witnesses, Empress Elisabeth, known as Sissi to her family, only became a woman during the third night.
Early on the first morning, protocol affirms its rights. The couple will not be allowed to breakfast alone. At eight o’clock, the Archduchess settles herself into her role of mother-in-law, with great appetite. The day after the wedding, Tuesday, and the day after that, Wednesday morning, her interrogative gaze had been insupportable. Submitted to this atmosphere of gossip, Sissi would like to flee. Impossible, breakfast must be taken as a family… But on Thursday morning, having become a woman, Sissi refuses, and decides to savour her coffee in her apartments. Franz-Josef hesitates, then agrees. When he appears in his mother’s apartments, she, reassured, insists that Sissi be present at the table. Franz-Josef prefers to give in. He returns to see Sissi and asks her to appear at the family table.
From this moment, when the Emperor does not dare to disobey his mother, dates the definitive poisoning of relations between the Archduchess and her daughter-in-law. Humiliated, Sissi bursts into tears and sits down with no appetite. Even worse: after a few minutes, the Emperor rises and disappears to his study; State duties are added to the Archduchess’ despotism, to separate the spouses. For a long time already, he has known that there is a time for everything. Sissi has only one principle, exactly the opposite, spontaneity. She is going to suffer a lot…
“It is out of love for him that I shall accompany him”,
she would say later to one of her ladies-in-waiting, while evoking this unforgettable breakfast.
That same evening, there is a great Court ball presided by Their Imperial Majesties. In white satin, the young Empress wears a diamond belt at her waist, and in her hair a crown of white roses as well as a tiara. She is very beautiful. Protocol forbids them to dance together before the cotillon, and it is noticed that Franz-Josef indicates smilingly to Sissi that she is making a mistake in her steps or that she is out of time.
The following day, at the Prater, a former royal hunting ground opened to the public in 1766, a “people’s ball” takes place on the esplanade which will become the rendez-vous for fashionable Vienna. Sissi becomes acquainted with this park, of which Madame de Stael had spoken warmly, and where the Eaglet [l’Aiglon], a frail silhouette, had mounted his horses. Since then, the Prater mostly comes alive on Sundays. People eat roast chicken there and go to the circus. After luncheon, which is more of a gigantic picnic, the imperial couple attends a performance. Sissi’s face lights up at the sight of the prowess of the equestrians and acrobats, and the Empress’ passion for the circus will later increase. Ernest Renz, king of the Central European Circus, works twenty-four horses in quadrille, twelve white and twelve black. The Empress finds her authority again to ask that Ernest Renz be presented to her. Sissi’s happiness this afternoon is deep. A recreation, to breathe… and she has only been married for three days.
Alas, this family day comes to an end. Her father, also an enthusiastic spectator, her mother and her sister Helena are leaving tomorrow. And the appalling truth imposes itself: Sissi is going to find herself alone. She would later say,
“I was afraid of this world of strangers”.
To understand the anguish which clutches this very young woman of sixteen, let us follow a normal day at the end of April 1854.
The day begins by the inevitable appearance of Countess Esterhazy, who religiously carries a document where the day’s obligations are inscribed. Even if these dispositions are called “respectful observations” or “respectful reminders”, Sissi always has the feeling that she is behaving badly. Some of the customs of the Vienna Court are surprising, such as the obligation to keep her gloves on at table, or the obligation of wearing a pair of shoes only once, then giving them to her chambermaids. That the Empress must always be ready to be seen, that is to say, dressed, appears normal, but it is a lot less so when no visit is announced. Etiquette likes to envisage the unforseen, but detests it occurring. The most difficult part for Sissi is never being able to be alone, and to know that two hundred and twenty-nine ladies of quality have the right to enter her apartments, at any time, and that she is obliged to hold a circle at certain hours. Sissi will shock, and upset this pyramid of conventions.
First scandal: she wants to drink beer at table. Beer? Does the Empress think that the Hofburg is a Bavarian tavern? Inadmissible… Second scandal: the Empress wants to have a bathtub. She intends taking a daily bath, which is an evident sign of anarchy. The third scandal erupts when Sissi decides to go out in Vienna with an escort reduced to only one lady-in-waiting, and buy things that she has chosen herself. How dare she? One feels that conflict is permanent with the Archduchess. Sissi will take off her gloves for her meals, and will wear her little boots more than once. Her free spirit collides with an absolute intransigeance. Doubtless, maturity would have allowed the Empress to establish a difference between insignificant details, and more serious intrusions into her personal life. Like a sulky child, Sissi becomes stubborn, says no to everything, and nervously declares:
“This rule no longer exists!”
An earthquake would have had less effect. Sissi is in revolt against habits that are carefully maintained by the Archduchess, for although the Emperor’s mother has successfully organized her son’s marriage, she does not estime that her task is finished. His spouse is not worthy of him. Sophia is the guardian of the traditions, however stupid they may be. In Sophia’s eyes, her daughter-in-law’s sin is not to have been worthy of this Austrian throne. Since she is not in her rightful place, she must be reminded ceaselessly to put herself there.
To be continued.