Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Hot and the Dead – Empress Elisabeth of Austria

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Any tedious old idiot can be a royal person. All one has to do is be born into a royal family, marry someone who is already in a royal family; or convincingly knock a royal person off their chair. But just because you’re royal, doesn’t mean you’re interesting.

For my money, there are some very specific requirements for being an interesting royal person. A little bit pretty. A little bit crazy. A little bit sad. A bitchface mother-in-law who hates your guts. People who want you dead. And here, ticking all the boxes, is Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

Born to Duke Maximilian Joseph and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria on Christmas Eve 1837, Her Royal Highness Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie in Bavaria was already royal before the midwife had even washed her hands. She was nicknamed ‘Sisi’, because by the time the household staff at Possenhofen Castle finished saying, “Your Royal Highness Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie in Bavaria, your dinner is on the table!”, her Leberknödel would go cold.

Sisi’s father didn’t seem to like being royal very much, and avoided the responsibilities that went with courtly life. He and his princess brought up their eight children in a fairly relaxed way, putting no particular emphasis on attending classes or curtseying properly.

One afternoon when Sisi was fifteen, she accompanied her mother and eldest sister Helene to visit her Aunt Sophie, Princess of Bavaria. The Princess had arranged for Helene to marry her eldest son, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. But the Emperor took one look at the tall, slender Elisabeth and declared that if he couldn’t marry her, he wouldn’t marry at all.

So, against the wishes of Princess Sophie, Elisabeth and the Emperor became engaged, and were married eight months later. It’s fair to say that the new Empress Elisabeth, who had barely enough time to acquaint herself with puberty, let alone a husband, was unprepared for marriage. In all the rush to set the date, make the frock, book the church and sugar the almonds, nobody bothered to tell Sisi what was expected of her on her wedding night. She was a little surprised. Shut-herself-in-her-room-for-three-days surprised.

Elisabeth was also unprepared for the very stringent ceremonies and etiquette of Austrian court. No more running around barefoot in the countryside and using whichever fork she liked. She was expected to turn up on time, do her royal duties and shut the hell up about it.

Sisi was born into royalty and married into royalty, but that’s not where the story ends. What about the stuff on my list of interestingness? Let’s have a look, shall we?

A little bit pretty: check.

Sisi was beautiful, and she knew it. While she shunned the marital bed and the constraints of the royal household, she concentrated a great deal on her looks.

Her hair reached the floor, and was brushed, braided, pinned and perfected for more than two hours every day. She slept on a metal bed (for her posture) wearing a leather face mask lined with veal or strawberries (for her skin) and a cloth belt soaked in vinegar (for a slender waist). She had leather corsets made in Paris and tight-laced her waist to a circumference of 40cm. She exercised rigorously, frequently and for long periods, keeping her 172-cm frame to a weight of 50 kg or under throughout her life.

Elisabeth sat for no portraits after the age of 32, in an effort to preserve a youthful impression. But there was no shortage of portraits made before her remarkably vain deadline. Search for her image on the internet and you’ll find almost as many pictures of the Empress as there are of Miley Cyrus’ tastebuds.

A little bit crazy: check.

Just in case the beauty regime left any doubt that Sisi had a few eccentricities, allow me to outline a few more of her curious little ways.

Shortly after her marriage, Empress Elisabeth developed a bad cough, which persisted for many years. The coughing would disappear whenever she travelled away from her husband, only to reappear when she returned to him. She was frightened of staircases and fat people. She was concerned that her mind could escape through her hair onto her hairdresser’s fingers. She asked her husband for a tiger and a fully-equipped insane asylum for a present.

A little bit sad: check.

To be fair, Sisi’s quirks were partly the result of frequent and substantial sadness. Aside from her obvious displeasure with married life, she was often surrounded by tragedy. Her youngest daughter, Sophie, died of typhus at age 2. In the late 1880s, both Elisabeth’s parents died, shortly followed by the suicide of her only son Rudolf, who gave up his claim to the Austrian throne in a spectacularly horrible way by also murdering his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Sisi spent the remainder of her life in mourning dress.

A bitchface mother-in-law: check.

The haughty and domineering Princess Sophie of Bavaria didn’t like Elisabeth from the moment her son made his marriage ultimatum. So she did what any meddling rich lady would do – she stole Sisi’s children. Despite Elisabeth’s wedding-night trauma and sexual reluctance, she managed to bear four children in total. Princess Sophie removed the first three (two girls and then a boy) from Sisi’s care almost before the stirrups were packed away. Until Sisi’s first son, Rudolf was born in 1858, Sophie berated her daughter-in-law for failing to provide an heir, leaving notes around the house describing the ‘proper’ role of a Queen. Sisi’s fourth child, Marie-Valerie, escaped the clutches of her grandmother by being born ten years after her previous sibling. Sophie, then 63, seemed to have lost interest in baby-pilfering.

People who wanted her dead: check.

Elisabeth’s beauty and flouting of protocol made her popular with the people of Austria and Hungary (which she helped to unite in 1867). But no matter how pretty and popular and royal you might be, there’s always some nutjob wanting to stick you with the pointy end of something. Unfortunately for the Empress, that someone was Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni on the 10th of September 1898.

Elisabeth, who had taken to travelling in the later, freer years of her life, was about to board a steamer in Geneva for a trip to Montreaux. While walking to the ship with her lady-in-waiting, Lucheni sauntered past, stumbled and surreptitiously stabbed the Empress with a sharpened needle-file. His motivation was flimsy - the assassin had originally come to Geneva to kill the Duke of Orléans, but being unable to find him, settled for the next aristocrat to cross his path.

Elisabeth’s tight corset managed to slow the bleeding that would eventually end her life. She had enough time to return with her companion to their hotel before she died, aged 60. She had been Empress of Austria for 44 years.

Elizabeth of Austria

Shelley Stocken

Shelley Stocken is a freelance writer when she’s not feeding, clothing and wiping family members.

Follow her on twitter @shellity