The imperial family at Godollo.

On 18 August 1880, the Austro-Hungarian Empire celebrates its master’s birthday:  Emperor Franz-Josef is fifty-years-old.  The multinational character of this State is particularly illustrated when the different peoples who compose it are heard singing the national anthem, each in his own language.  On this day, quarrels are forgotten and, from Vienna to Budapest, from Budapest to Prague, a long life is wished on the Emperor with Masses and parades.


Prince Rudolf of Austria’s wedding is fixed for 10 May 1881.  Elisabeth is inhabited by an implacable premonition…  Sadness mixed with resignation emanates from the Crown Prince;  his engagement has curiously darkened his personality.

Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria.

In Belgium, the women who, for months, have been working on Princess Stephanie’s trousseau, have given her the nickname Rose of Brabant.  A rose?  When the fiancee, met in Saltzburg by Rudolf, arrives on the morning of 6 May at Schonbrunn, the comments which circulate at Court on the King of the Belgians’ daughter are not very amiable.

“Her dull, blonde hair is done as badly as possible.”

Stephanie is very tall (one metre seventy-six) and her silhouette, at this epoch, is deplorable.  Other family remarks assure:

“Poor Rudolf!  His wife is as delicate as a dragon…”

However, Franz-Josef and Sissi greet Stephanie in the Small Gallery at Schonbrunn.  The forty-eight branch chandeliers and the candelabra in sculpted, fine gold-plated wood, light the scene.  Franz-Josef advances towards his daughter-in-law and hugs her.  The Emperor is happy about this marriage, which is dictated only for reasons of State.  Elisabeth, wholly concerned with unions where there are feelings, tries to hide her opposition by detachment.

The next day, a lady-in-waiting, Countess Festetics, notes her impressions:

“The Princess is not at all shy, is very banal, and has a strange comportment.”

Her bad taste in clothes and the fact that she is not pretty make the comparison with the Empress tip once more in favour of Elisabeth.  And the lady-in-waiting asks herself whether Rudolf would not be tempted to make this same comparison.  On the morning of 10 May, a difficult scene is reported by the Countess.  On the point of gathering the train of her gown, she hears Rudolf calling her:

“Countess Maria, don’t leave, stay for a while…”

The Archduke is morose and nervous.  He speaks of a bouquet that he is going to give to the bride, then he holds out his hand to the Countess, begging her:

“In Heaven’s name, say something nice to me.”

The lady-in-waiting dissolves into tears.

“May God bless Your Imperial Highness and his happiness!”

Despite many efforts, the wedding in the Church of the Augustines is not joyful.  Sissi, very grave, hears her daughter-in-law answer a loud “Yes” to the Cardinal while that of her son is barely audible.

Stephanie of Belgium, having become Archduchess and future Empress of Austria, will conserve a nightmarish impression of her honeymoon.  She writes:

“My illusions were destroyed by the terrible experience of my wedding night.”

The honeymoon unfolds at Laxenburg, and Sissi does not appear to have bothered about installing an agreeable decor there for the young people.  It is cold, it is snowing.  A smell of mildew reigns throughout all of the Castle’s badly-lit rooms.

“Not one plant, not one flower to celebrate our arrival.  (…)  Nothing seemed to have been prepared.  There were neither carpets nor a dressing-table.  Near my bedchamber, a basin on an iron tripod.  (…)  I could not help noticing that no-one had felt any interest for me, the child-woman.  I was not even accorded a residence worthy of the future Empress of Austria.”

It is revealing that Elisabeth did not seek to surround the young couple with delicate attentions.  This marriage is not to her liking, for it is not a marriage of love.  As for Rudolf, he has gone to the altar with appalling resignation.  He has obeyed his father, he has sacrificed himself.  But who has noticed?  His mother’s instinct does not permit her to see the whole importance of the unfolding drama.


In July, Sissi is in Bavaria at the home of her brother Louis-Wilhelm.  News about Louis II is more and more worrying.  He doesn’t want to be seen by anyone but his cousin.  What is going to become of Bavaria?

Elisabeth meets Franz-Josef at Godollo.  The Emperor is satisfied.  He has just concluded an alliance with the new Tsar, Alexander III.  (On 13 March 1881, Tsar Alexander II had not escaped the fifth attempt to assassinate him.  He had died, torn apart by a bomb.)  The accord – kept secret – disposes that Austria, Russia and Prussia each agree to remain neutral if one of them is attacked by a fourth power.  The most interesting element of this accord is to allow Austria-Hungary to transform the occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina into annexation.

Drama is never faraway.  On 8 December, while Franz-Josef is finishing dinner at the Hofburg, His Chamberlain brings him a message.  In a broken voice, he reads:

“The Ringtheater is in flames…”

The fire is a catastrophe:  it had started onstage.  The theatre was full.  The Viennese had come in great numbers to see the second performance of The Tales of Hoffmann, the posthumous chef-d’oeuvre by Offenbach.  While the fire was spreading with incredible speed, the audience had rushed to the exit doors which opened inward.  The first collective panic of the theatrical world made four hundred victims, either burnt or crushed against the blocked exits.  Emotion is high and the deceased are considered national martyrs.  At his own expense, Franz-Josef will have an expiatory chapel raised at the emplacement of the destroyed theatre.

Vienna and the Empire are in mourning.  The Press accuses the Government of incompetence.  It is more than time to reform the absurd system of doors that do not open outward.  For Franz-Josef, this ordeal is difficult.  Sissi is worried.  To her lady-in-waiting, she admits, disillusioned:

“Popularity is so fleeting…”

To be continued.