Friday, August 19, 2011
Consort Profile: Empress Elisabeth of Bavaria
Contrary to what some think it was actually Princess Ludovika (rather than Princess Sophie) who was most interested in pushing another Hapsburg-Wittelsbach marriage. In 1853 Princess Elisabeth and her older sister Helene were taken by their mother on a little vacation to Upper Austria where the Duchess Helene was to be aimed at the young Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph. Yet, it was the 15-year old Duchess Elisabeth, a luminescent beauty to be sure, who captivated the Emperor and he determined to marry her. His mother, Princess Sophie, advised against it, fearing that Elisabeth was too immature, but Francis Joseph would not be dissuaded and on April 24, 1854 he and Elisabeth were married in Vienna. From that point on she became Empress of Austria. The strict protocol of the Hapsburg court was quite a change from the relaxed, informal life she had lived in Bavaria and there was a clash, from the very beginning, with her new mother-in-law Princess Sophie (or Archduchess Sophie). She had not been overjoyed with Sissi as a wife for her son, thinking her too young and immature and, from the start, Sissi did not do much to prove her wrong.
Many in Vienna were still haunted by memories of the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848 when rebel leaders declared a republic and nearly brought down the whole of the Hapsburg empire. Because of this, there were many who remained very nervous about any and all things Hungarian. Empress Sissi, however, was enthralled by Hungary, loved the people and at great effort learned the history of the nation and to speak Hungarian (which was not easy as it is a very unique language). There was, of course, nothing wrong with this, she was the Queen of Hungary and it was completely proper for her to take an interest in the country. In return the Hungarians adored her and Sissi came to be seen by the Hungarians as their highest advocate in Vienna, which she was. Yet, others in the German-speaking half of the empire were put off by her sudden fascination with all things Hungarian and tended to see it as a slight against the Austrians, as if Sissi was siding against them in being so sympathetic toward Hungary.
In 1867, with restlessness still strong in Hungary, Empress Sissi was key in working out the compromise, agreed to by her husband, which put aside the Austrian Empire and created Austria-Hungary. This was the one political issue she was instrumental in, due to her love of Hungary and her great popularity amongst the Hungarians. From that time on the Hapsburg empire would be one monarchy reigning over two countries, separate but equal, each with their governments and each with their own legal systems. Franz Joseph and Sissi reunited to go to Budapest for their formal coronation as King and Queen of Hungary. In 1868, in Hungary, Sissi gave birth to her last child, Archduchess Marie Valerie, who she had all to herself from day one and who she always favored best.
Sissi did not take the loss well. First, in quite a cruel display, she blamed Rudolf’s wife Princess Stephanie of Belgium. Given the problems she had with her own mother-in-law, it may surprise some how cold Sissi had always been toward Stephanie, dismissing her as altogether too pious and unattractive (as a woman who was rather obsessed with her own attractiveness) and she accused Stephanie of driving her husband away by being unaffectionate and aloof. Likewise, for a woman who held such liberal views and who was generally disdainful of monarchy she had always considered the Belgian Royal Family too lowly to be tied by marriage to the venerable House of Hapsburg. All of this was quite unfair to Princess Stephanie who had given the Crown Prince a daughter and might have given him a son were it not for the fact that Rudolf gave her a venereal disease, picked up during his frequent carousing, that made her infertile. Later, however, Sissi began to blame herself or more particularly the history of insanity in the Bavarian Royal Family and she began to fear that her blood had caused Rudolf to take his own life.
To this day, the Empress known to everyone as Sissi, continues to hold a special place in the hearts of many. Personally, I cannot count myself among her many admirers, yet she remains an undeniably attractive figure. Although I can understand the fascination with her life, I cannot have a great deal of sympathy for her. Being a royal, and a royal consort for certain, requires a certain selflessness and devotion to duty which, it seems to me, Sissi simply did not possess. Taking all I know of her story, the impression I am left with (forgive me Sissi fans) is that of a basically self-centered woman, concerned more with her own feelings and her own image than the welfare of her family, country or dynasty. Her marriage seems ill-fated indeed considering that duty and obligation were the constant principles for her husband. I regret that she was to such a large extent an unhappy woman, yet, it seems to me that she simply made up her mind to be unhappy and that was that, despite having what most people would consider more than enough to make a happy life. In any event, I hope she has found peace, where she is now.