Elisabeth of Austria

After a thirteen-hour agony, at a quarter-past-three on the morning of 28 May 1872, Archduchess Sophia of Austria renders her dignified, courageous soul to God.  An old family crucifix is placed on her breast.  Sissi’s face is grave.  Her heart is full of remorse.  Franz-Josef, shattered, is in tears.

The duel between these two women had lasted eighteen years.  From now on, Elisabeth is totally sovereign.  Another chance is given to her.  Sissi, Queen of the Magyars, can once more become Empress of the Austrians.

1873.  A year that is different from those that had preceded it, for the Empress is going to force herself to play her role of representation, of spouse and of mother.  On 20 April, in Munich, Gisela marries Prince Leopold of Bavaria.  Sissi had imposed this delay of one year’s engagement.  She adopts a very immoderate tone to make her daughter see that she can wait until she is seventeen.

“It is a bizarre mania to want to abandon one’s liberty when one is so young.  But one realises too late what one has, when one has lost it.”

Each time that Elisabeth attends a wedding, the bride is forgotten as everyone looks only at her.  And, in her gown embroidered with silver, wearing her double crown of hair and diamonds, she is luminous.  At thirty-five-years-old, she looks like an older sister to Gisela.

It is an old tradition that the Court Theatre perform, in the evening, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The choice of this work surprises Sissi:

“How can one choose, for a wedding, a play where the princess falls in love with a donkey?”

The husband bursts out laughing:

“Could this be an allusion to me?”

Franz-Josef, an attentive father, notes:

“The young couple is truly very happy.  We are naturally going to miss Gisela a lot, but at least we are not worried about her.”

The imperial couple returns to Vienna to finish preparing for the great political and economic event of the moment, the International Exhibition.  Grand exhibitions punctuate the second half of the XIXth Century like glorious chants dedicated to the new gods of Technology, Science and Progress.  Chronologically, that of Vienna is the fifth and, by its size, is five times bigger than that of Paris in 1867, where France’s Second Empire had shone with a thousand lights, in a sign of confidence in the future.  By the triumph of business and ideas, the Vienna Exhibition must counter-balance the loss of military supremacy engendered by Sadowa.  Imposing constructions have necessitated months of work.  The “palace” itself spreads over seventy thousand square metres, with a giant room nine hundred metres long, twenty-eight transversal galleries and a rotunda whose diameter is one hundred-and-seven metres.  It is called the “pastry”, or, more proudly, “the eighth wonder of the world”.  Two estimations are given to the Emperor:  fifty thousand exhibitors will be welcomed and seven million visitors are expected.

Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria by Winterhalter (1865).

On 5 May, the inaugural visit lasts three hours.  Flags flutter in the light air, the brass-bands announce the presentation of the delegations, the crowd is admirative and grateful.  Its lady sovereign is there, adding her prestige to the technical miracles.  The whole of Europe parades in Vienna.  On 1st June, the Tsar is welcomed at his arrival by train.  He is in an Hungarian uniform by courtesy, but it is a glacial courtesy.  He only defrosts when Elisabeth appears, accompanied by her son Rudolf, ill-at-ease in a Russian Lieutenant’s uniform.

Franz-Josef admits, between two visits:

“I’m really tired and I would willingly have myself put on the sick list.”

But he has to keep going.  On 24 June, Caroline-Augusta of Prussia, the spouse of Wilhelm I, arrives at Schonbrunn.  Sissi thinks that this visit “will be more tiring than that of the Russians”.  Effectively, the German Empress is “tiring”.  Despite her sixty-three years, her energy is intact.  And she wants to see everything, visit all the museums.  Sissi finishes by declaring forfait and Franz-Josef, resigned, replaces her.

A beginning of panic reaches the Court, for cases of cholera are signalled, even at Schonbrunn.  Sissi and Franz-Josef have to lead by example and continue their hosting duties.  The illness will, however, frighten visitors.  The enormous investments for the Exhibition will not be amortized;  the deficit will reach fifteen million florins.

On the other hand, Sissi’s personal prestige is definitely on the rise with the arrival, on 30 July, of the Shah of Persia.  Nasir al-Din is making his first voyage to the West.  Rumours of Elisabeth’s beauty draws him to Vienna in particular.  He arrives wearing a lamb fur bonnet decorated with an enormous emerald surrounded by diamonds.  His suite is worthy of the East, with his favourite horses, his wise men and his astrologists, in all fifty-seven people.  Fearing the cholera, he had sent three princes as emissaries.  They didn’t succumb, therefore the visit is maintained…  When he sees the Empress for the first time, he adjusts his gold-rimmed glasses, circles her in silence and caresses his black beard.  Sissi doesn’t dare to move during this ill-mannered inspection.  He finishes by saying:

“She is truly beautiful!  My God, how beautiful she is!”

Before the un-European manners of the Persian sovereign, Sissi has difficulty in not bursting out laughing.  At table, he warily tastes the fish-sauce with the sauce-spoon then, pulling a face, puts it back in the jug, empties a silver bowl full of strawberries, and wants to drink with Elisabeth, whom his eyes never leave.  Franz-Josef judges him to be very amusing but a bit cumbersome.  On the morning of his departure, he has the Palace’s First Lady-in-Waiting woken to tell her that he will never forget the Empress.  And he leaves, repeating:

“If ever I return, it will only be to bring my homage to her.”

The West and the East have come to salute her, admire her, verify her legendary beauty.  She has supported, aided and comforted Franz-Josef by surrounding him with an aura of charm which politics are unable to do without.

Invisible before, she has been present, residing for several months in a row in the Austrian capital, re-establishing an urgent equilibrium.  Despite the financial gulf, the Exhibition has been an immense worldly, political and diplomatic success.

***

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