—quoted from a letter written by Victoria, Crown Princess of Prussia of Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary
So much has been written about Sisi that she has been practically elevated beyond the realm of reality. Some call this phenomenon a cult of personality. When we are confronted with this circumstance, it becomes almost imperative we know something more personal, more intimate about the celebrity to bring us closer to them. We want to see the inside of their house, read their letters, touch their clothes. Then we can take away that comforting notion that we are intimate with that person and even, perhaps, that we’ve found in their life a parallel to our own.
So it is with those who still, to this day, adore Sisi. And we are fortunate to have two sources that bring us closer to the woman famous for holding a fan in front of her face whenever photographers were present.
It was customary in the latter half of the nineteenth century for royals to visit one another. This was seen as an excellent means of promoting goodwill among European countries, primarily by the principals themselves. Of course, the advent of World War I disproved this delusion but at least we have some letters that survive describing in contemporary terms what these people were like.
Vicky was the oldest daughter of HM Queen Victoria of Great Britain. She married the Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia and on occasion would travel with her husband, as ordered by her father-in-law, Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, to visit rival Austria and the Imperial family there. Vicky was just three years younger than Elisabeth and one might expect the two to enjoy many things in common. But that was not the case, apparently. As Vicky describes in a letter to her mother, Sisi was not easy to get to know:
“I am quite charmed with the Empress, her beauty though not regular is surpassing. I never saw anything so dazzling or piquant…She is immensely tall & wears very high heels besides…She seems to be laced dreadfully tight which surely is not necessary with such a magnificent figure. (However,) she neither sings, draws or plays, speaks very little of her children…The Emperor seems to dote on her, but I did not observe that she did on him.”
Oh, dear. Trouble on the horizon.
Vicky’s own son, Willie, later Kaiser Wilhelm II, would accompany his parents on these visits as he was almost the same age as Sisi’s son Rudolph, who died tragically. The Kaiser wrote in his memoirs that he was once required to hold the Empress’ train, which he was nothing loathe to do. He observed:
“(Sisi) did not sit down–she took a seat; she did not stand up–she rose; she did not walk–she wended her way.”
What a contrast to his mother, who was not nearly as tall or elegant, even if many said she was a good deal more clever and accomplished.
It used to be the case that one could only view Sisi’s personal effects through the overpowering lens of the massive Hofburg palace in Vienna. Room after room of incredible Baroque decoration had to be sifted, obeisance had to be paid to countless Hapsburg notables from Maria Theresa to Francis II to find tiny examples, here and there, of Sisi’s presence. Two gymnastic rings hanging from a door frame in one of the formal state apartments, for instance. One can almost imagine the stifling court protocol and monumental environment that Sisi avoided whenever she could.
But now we can enjoy Sisi without the weight of her family’s dynasty snuffing her out. The Sisi Museum seems designed for a woman who was always trying to break free of her destiny as Empress of one of the world’s most tightly controlled empires. In this place one can view her jet jewelry that she wore forever after the suicide of her son. The interior of her railroad car has been faithfully reproduced–a monument to the restless travelling that filled her days as she sought to flee from her husband and her duty. And –dare I say? Her coat lies there as well, marred only by a tiny hole through which an assasin’s file pierced to end the life of one who, as one historian says, was a ghost in her own life.
Visit Angelyn at her blog www.angelynschmid.com to push aside the heavy protocol of history and glimpse the intimate details of those who lived it.