Book review: “Elisabeth von Österreich” by Conte Corti

During a “meet the author” interview about his book “Danubia”, Simon Winder remarked that she was the Lady Di of her era. He was talking about Empress Elisabeth of Austria, or “Sisi”. If you have visited Vienna and seen the Winterhalter portraits, you know she was fabulously beautiful. After reading this biography, it is clear she and Princess Diana had something in common.

The pocket, with the famous Winterhalter portrait on its cover, stood in the bookcase for decades. The opening of a small, temporary “Sisi” exhibition at Het Loo Palace, ensured it was finally read.

Conte Corti’s biography was bought during a short stay with a German friend living near Bavaria with whom places with a Sisi-connection were visited. In Austria, a few similar places had been visited. And it is difficult not to watch the series of Sisi-films with Romy Schneider at least once, as these are regularly rerun on television channels. But you need only the read the first few chapters of this biography to realise the films and reality haven’t got much in common.

The biography was one of the first and appeared in paperback in 1975. It has been reprinted regularly, for it is thoroughly researched and based on various sources, including Sisi’s own papers. There are excerpts from diaries and letters from ladies-in-waiting, friends, even from Sisi’s husband. It also contains several of her poems.

The book starts with a short introduction to the Wittelsbach family, who ruled Bavaria for so long. It covers the marriage of Sisi’s parents and birth of their children. There is Sisi’s eldest sister Nené as well as younger brothers and sisters; nine children in total.

Young Sisi is no beauty, somewhat clumsy, but has an immense charm. She is dreamy and over-sensitive, prefers animals to people, writing poetry to studying, and adores nature. She is a reserved, shy, private person who is wary of strangers and dislikes big events and large crowds.

The family’s country seat Possenhofen, is her favourite place and she will visit it throughout her life. When Sisi is about 12 years old, her mother – like Jane Austen’s mrs Bennet – is already worrying how to get all her girls married into decent families.

The family may not be overwhelmingly rich, they have a network of relations covering a large part of Europe. They are extremely well-connected. The first chapter of the biography not only goes into the background of Sisi’s family and Bavaria. It also describes Austria’s history and political situation. For Sisi’s aunt has married a member of the Habsburgs: Austria’s ruling family.

The two sisters plot to marry off the eldest son of the one – Emperor Frans-Joseph – to the eldest daughter of the other. They think his younger brother might be a possible partner for the 15-year-old Sisi. Anyone with a vague knowledge of European history or the Sisi-films, knows this plan back-fires spectacularly.

For Franz-Joseph does not fall head over heels for Nené. He meets her, but on spotting Sisi, it is love at first sight for the Emperor. He will adore Sisi the rest of his life.

But Sisi will never grow accustomed to court-life in Vienna, even though she has become a beauty. People who meet her are unable to describe what makes her so exquisite. In Vienna, police regularly need to save her from being mobbed and crushed. But she also has to cope with slander and the 19th century gutter press.

Her formidable mother-in-law ensures the young bride is surrounded by people loyal to her. Sisi goes through the same experience as for instance Catherine the Great of Russia: her three eldest children are taken from her and raised by her mother-in-law and her favourites. It takes several years for Sisi’s husband to stand up to his mother, but by then, Sisi has had a nervous breakdown and her eldest child is dead.

Things only change gradually. Under the stress and isolation, Sisi develops a pattern which endures the rest of her life. Illnesses are followed by searches for cures throughout Europe, the building or rebuilding of homes away from Vienna, and longer and longer journeys.

What might be termed hobbies, occasionally develop into manically pursued interests. Sisi can walk for hours and hours, for days on end. Later in life, she will become what would now be termed a fitness-fanatic. She becomes so focussed on weight-control she weighs herself three times a day, follows starvation-diets to obtain an ideal weight which lies far below a healthy one, and resorts to only drinking the 19th century versions of energy-drinks. To us, it is clear Sisi suffered from stress-related illnesses and various eating disorders.

Things do not improve, when over the years, her small circle of trusted friends shrinks. When her distant relations Ludwig II of Bavaria and his brother slip into madness, she fears she will become mad too. She also blames herself for introducing hereditary madness into the Habsburg family. (She should not have worried, for the Habsburgs had their own hereditary diseases, including madness). She suffers further blows and then Mayerling happens.

After her youngest daughter marries, Sisi leaves Vienna and Austria. Though her husband still cares for her, he has found someone else who offers the kind of support he seeks. Sisi herself introduced Katharina Schratt to the Emperor and encouraged their friendship.

According to Conte Conti, travelling expresses Sisi’s inner restlessness – but it may also have been a flight from life. While travelling, she is stabbed by an anarchist in 1898 in what seems like a tumble. Though she falls, nobody including herself have an inkling the attack is fatal. Through a tiny wound underneath her many layers of clothes and corset, she bleeds to dead.

This excellent biography stresses how Elisabeth’s upbringing, character and personality not only made it extremely difficult for her to cope with her public role and duties. She herself, the medical world’s ignorance, psychology not yet having developed and become acceptable, ensured what problems there were, remained untreated or were even made worse. Throughout the book, quotations from sources underpin events.

She was fortunate in her husband and marriage. Franz-Joseph spoilt his wife and indulged practically every whim. At times, her close friends and relations do wonder what Sisi complains about. Reading the excerpts from diaries and letters, one can only agree.

Though Sisi seems unable to cope with stress, when the occasion calls for her to act, she can be immensely strong. For it is she who has to break the news of events at Mayerling to both the girl’s mother as well as her husband. As at other taxing occasions, Sisi raises to the challenge.

This well researched, yet easy to read biography shows that what outwardly seemed like a fairy-tale existence, actually hid a life which was partly unfulfilled, empty, unhappy, disappointing and certainly frittered away. It clarifies that part of the problems, pain, suffering Sisi experienced were caused by herself. It forms an excellent counter-balance to the sugary-sweet and unrealistic fairy-tale which is still maintained by for instance films and exhibitions.

As stated above, a very small temporary exhibition on “Sisi” can be visited at the Palace Het Loo, in the Netherlands, till the end of September 2015. However, reviewers are not positive about it. It consists only of two rooms, does not contain much original material, and spins out the usual superficial story.

“Elisabeth von Österreich”, Conte Corti, Heyne Biographien, German paperback ed pp 508, 1983.
There are various similarly excellent and downright deplorable Sisi-biographies and novels available through Amazon. Try to steer clear of the novels and biographies depicting Sisi as a modern woman or victim.

Danubia, a personal history of Habsburg Europe“, Simon Winder, PanMacmillan, is available through Amazon in Kindle and hardback editions. The paperback edition can be obtained at good bookshops.

Palace museum Het Loo in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, can be visited throughout the year.


One thought on “Book review: “Elisabeth von Österreich” by Conte Corti

  1. Elizabeth of Austria was always one of my favorite people. She has this in common with Princess Diana: both lived in palaces but were not happy. Elizabeth’s husband, Emperor Francis Joseph loved her forever while Prince Charles always loved someone else. As a child, i saw several of the movies about Elizabeth. I loved them. Eugenia Renskoff

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