Very quickly, Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) becomes distressed. She often coughs, in prey to attacks of claustrophobia in the staircases – there are fifty-four of them – and in the corridors – there are twenty-six… Her only recourse is her love, but State duty is a permanent barrier. Franz-Josef is very much in love with his young spouse. However, he decides to arbitrate the conflicts between his wife and his mother as little as possible. There is a bit of cowardice in this attitude. In his mother’s presence, the Emperor becomes Franzi again. And he also thinks that time will take care of it. The Emperor is not aware that the affrontment between these two personalities can only end by the renunciation of the more vulnerable of the two. So, withdrawn into her solitude, Sissi opens her exercise book, her only confidante, and writes a poem whose title is a confession: Nostalgia.
What does the charm of Spring matter to me
In this country of exile?
I long for you, my country’s sun…
Far removed from this moodiness, the happy Emperor decrees a general amnesty which is particularly felt in Hungary. A delegation goes to Vienna. Franz-Josef dresses in an Hungarian uniform and Sissi wears the Magyar national costume for the first time. Their appearance suscitates great fervour. Then Franz-Josef announces to the delegates:
“May God bless you! Soon, I shall bring your Queen to you in Hungary and I hope that you will give her a warm welcome.”
The Empire identifies itself with the new image of the young couple which appears on the engravings, the paintings and the crockery. With Sissi, Franz-Josef has not only found an Empress, he has also found his popularity again.
The couple settles into Laxenburg Castle, one of the Court’s Summer residences, roughly fifteen kilometres from Vienna. On 3 May, Franz-Josef abandons Sissi to hunt wild fowl. For this first, brief separation, Sissi is taken with panic. She can no longer even irrupt into the imperial study, where her entrances shock the stuffy top public servants. When the Emperor returns from hunting, Sissi runs across the lawn to throw herself into his arms, which naturally makes the Archduchess indignant. Sissi is advised to take, more calmly, the Emperor’s arm.
The enthusiastic nature of the young woman constantly clashes with the intention of forging a heartless, cold empress, without a soul. Her slightest wish is smothered, her least desire strangled. As for ideas, Sophia condemns them, particularly as she knows that her daughter-in-law likes to read; a woman who reads has too many ideas. A certain coldness, attested by the distance which often separates the spouses, is going to characterise the couple’s life. The origin of this uneasiness resides in these first weeks of life in common, where Sissi is enraged at not being allowed to be natural. The heart knows no etiquette.
Vienna’s proximity allows the Emperor to go there every day. He leaves at Dawn and returns to retire to bed early, each time that he can. Sissi finds that she is not seeing enough of him and manifests her intention of accompanying him. The Archduchess quashes this by reminding her that she has not married a tradesman whose wife follows him everywhere in the most bourgeois manner. Once, Sissi succeeded in accompanying Franz-Josef to Vienna. In hiding. Upon returning, the radiant couple is met by a furious woman, who forbids her to do it again. The Empress will later say:
“I didn’t do it again.”
All of Sissi’s “scandals” during the first weeks can be resumed in one wish: she wants to live with her husband… She loves him, and feels despair at being unable to act like millions of couples, without intermediaries. When she would like to spend time with the Emperor, she has to go to the chapel. There is always an “activity” programmed, and it’s always an unwelcome duty. The long period of crisis which the imperial couple traverses is the result of three elements: the spontaneous but pudic tenderness of Sissi; the awkward but sincere love of Franz-Josef who, respecting his mother, avoids confronting her; finally, the defiance of the Archduchess who wants to dominate. If ever a mother-in-law poisoned her daughter-in-law’s marriage, Sophia did. What were the real intentions of her whom Sissi quickly qualifies as “nasty woman”, in answer to the nickname of “Bavarian goose” attributed by the Archduchess to her daughter-in-law? Is Sophia as “nasty” as Sissi thinks? Despite appearances, it’s not certain. The Archduchess is reasoning politically: the Emperor’s marriage consolidates the regime, the Empress must strengthen the imperial edifice and participate in its brilliance. Any thoughtless initiative, any independence would be very badly received, in her opinion; there would be gossip, there would be mocking and it would be regrettable. Further, there is also a quasi maternal feeling in Sophia, who must guide her niece, a very young woman lost in the jungle of traditions. But Sophia does not explain; she gives orders. So, the Empress goes back to being Sissi. She runs away with the help of words, she writes a transparent poem, The Caged Bird:
In vain, under a blue sky,
I languish, in prison.
The bars, rough and cold,
Insult my nostalgia.
On 8 May, new poem, new cry from the prisoner.
… I awoke in a prison,
My hands charged with chains,
And my nostalgia still grows:
“And you, liberty! You were snatched from me.”
Today, the diagnosis would be clear: Sissi is suffering from depression. Unhinged by a brutally interrupted adolescence and a maturity impossible to acquire in a few days, particularly at sixteen, she fills this emptiness by dreaming and crying.
If the Empress is suffering from neurasthenia, the Emperor displays good humour and visible optimism. His blue gaze becomes warm, his budding moustache modifies his face, he slips smiles into his authority. In this month of May, Ernest, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, brother-in-law to Queen Victoria, writes after an audience:
“I find the Emperor extraordinarily changed to his advantage, more energetic, brighter and more resolved in his movements. Despite a less than joyful political situation, one remarks in him enthusiasm and a sort of awakening. Domestic happiness seems to influence his temperament in a most fortunate way…”
One could ask whether Franz-Josef well understands what personality in search of itself hides within Sissi. He makes laudable efforts, takes into account Elisabeth’s tastes, tears concessions for her from etiquette, tries to understand his spouse. At Laxenburg, both go horse-riding without an escort, as he had promised Sissi, with liberating gallops which transfigure the imperial amazone. The Emperor’s aide-de-camp, Count Grunne, does not approve these escapades, more for reasons of security than for motives of convenance. Rare and marvellous moments where the Emperor and the Empress are no more than two young people finding each other. Their youth makes their love vibrate.
To be continued.