Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

On 15 July 1856, at seven o’clock in the morning, Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sissi) gives birth to a second girl.  With elegance, the Emperor does not show his disappointment.  His mother, Archduchess Sophia, is more than disappointed.  The child is given the name of Gisela, in memory of a Bavarian princess from the Xth Century.  Vienna and Austria are both equally upset;  to efface this (relative) sadness – the event is still a happy one – the Emperor decides on a trip with Sissi.  At the end of August, a violent incident opposes the Empress and her mother-in-law.  Gisela is also taken from her mother, who is angry and begs the Emperor to agree with her, even more so because the health of little Sophia, aged seventeen months, is worrying.  She has inexplicable attacks of vomitting.  In this combat of a mother who demands to be near her children, Elisabeth is tenacious.  The Archduchess, glacial, refuses to listen.  She finds that Sissi has bad educational principles.  Sissi replies acidly by remarking that it is bad to be raised by maniacal old ladies.  The said old ladies hiss back that the Archduchess has had four sons.  Franz-Josef, laden with complaints, is obliged to decide.  Neutrality is no longer sufficient, the Empress demands a decision.  And, for the first time, he finds in favour of Sissi.  Two days before his departure, he writes to his mother.  Sissi has won.  If the letter is only received by the Archduchess on the day of the couple’s departure for Austria’s South, it is doubtless not an accident.  Franz-Josef has only affronted his mother in writing, but that doesn’t matter.  Sissi’s victory is immense, a mother’s victory but also a wife’s victory, as well as that of an empress.

Radiant, amorous, the young sovereign leaves Vienna for two weeks.  A trip which resembles a second honeymoon…

Emperor Franz-Josef and Empress Elisabeth of Austria in the Schonbrunn park.

The region that Franz-Josef shows Elisabeth is grandiose.  Connecting the Salzburg hills to the North with Carinthia in the East and eastern Tyrol in the West, the decor assembles an unique panorama of over thirty-five peaks higher than three thousand metres, and nineteen glaciers.  The beauty and purety of the Alps.  Mountaineers, the Emperor and the Empress decide to make a grand excursion.  While they are preparing, a message arrives, addressed by the Archduchess, already mad with rage, forbidding the outing.  Happy, invigorated by that Nature which attracts them and unites them, Franz-Josef and Sissi obviously do not change their plans;  they decide that Elisabeth will go as far as possible on horseback, while Franz-Josef, whose foot is surer, will advance over the Pasterze Glacier.  The alpinists who accompany him are very proud, both for themselves and for him.  No Austrian can remember an emperor ever having climbed so high.

But the Archduchess has not renounced.  A second letter reaches Franz-Josef at Graz, the capital of Styria.  His mother threatens to leave the Hofburg.  The Emperor, preoccupied, decides not to answer immediately, which is another victory for Sissi.  He only writes to his mother when he returns to Schonbrunn, on 18 September.  In a firm tone, he sweeps away all of the Archduchess’ objections, including the fallacious one of the absence of sunlight in the apartments destined to the children.  Franzi has handed his pen to Franz-Josef, Emperor of Austria, who would like to be treated as master in his family, as he already is in his empire.  He dares to demand that his mother

“judge Sissi with indulgence considering that, if she is, perhaps, a too-jealous mother, she is also a very devoted spouse and mother”.

Franz-Josef is clear.  In a few sentences, the Emperor has literally set off a palace revolution.  The Archduchess is obviously not going to leave the Hofburg, nor renounce battle, quite the contrary.  She will cleverly change the battlefield…  Sissi has won on the subject of family.  But on the subject of politics, she has no dimension.  In this domain, the Archduchess fears no-one.  She is the woman who “made” the Emperor.

The Empire’s interior politics cannot be called peaceful.  Two regions are ceaselessly agitated with troubles, the Lombardo-Venitian zone, where the upheavals of the Italian unity desired by Cavour more and more contest belonging to Austria;  and Hungary, where nationalism has sharpened.  And these problems of interior politics quickly overflow the imperial framework.  On the one hand, Napoleon III is favourable to Italian unity, Franz-Josef knows that.  On the other hand, the Hungarian agitation interests Russia, which has sworn to venge itself on Austria, but Franz-Josef has not totally realised that.

The first planned voyage is to Italy.  Baron Bach, Minister of the Interior, insists that Sissi make the trip.  She has become the Empress of Charm, and her presence smooths many difficulties.  Involuntarily, Sissi becomes an instrument of propaganda.

During the preparations for this voyage, which appears delicate, two celebrations assemble the family in Vienna.  On 4 November, Franz-Josef’s second brother, Archduke Karl-Louis, aged twenty-three, marries Margaret of Saxe.  Further, the impending engagement of Franz-Josef’s first brother, Archduke Ferdinand-Maximilien, to Princess Charlotte of Saxe-Coburg, the daughter of Leopold I, King of the Belgians, is being organized.

Princess Sophia, Archduchess of Austria.

A new discussion explodes between the Empress and the Archduchess, again about the children.  Seduced by the idea of the voyage with Franz-Josef, Sissi does not want to sadden this joyful perspective by leaving her daughters at the moment when her maternal rights have at last been recognized.  But Gisela is very young.  On the other hand, Sophia appears to be badly weathering the Viennese Winter and Sissi, very worried about the pallor and thinness of her elder daughter, wants to have her with her.

On 17 November, the couple leaves Vienna for a tour that is going to last nearly four months, a length which reveals the political importance of this visit to hostile lands.  The first stage is Laibach, the capital of Slovenia.

Sissi asks to visit an Ursuline convent and hears talk about three black children bought at a slave market somewhere in the Orient.  The Empress becomes Sissi again, and the Mother Superior has the three black girls brought.  The Empress gives them sweets and spends her afternoon in their company.  Countess Esterhazy is indignant, and when the Empress is reminded that she is awaited elsewhere, she laughs out loud, which is rare, for she is complexed about her teeth and, for this reason, keeps her mouth closed.  The Archduchess, who had not missed this fault, had mentioned it to her son:

“Yes, she is very pretty, but she has yellow teeth!”

To be continued.