Thursday, September 17, 2015
The Accidental Empress
This is the story of Franz Joseph Habsburg, Emporer of Austria during their height of European power. After an assassination attempt, Franz' mother (who was the one responsible for Franz getting to be successor to the throne and had a BIG say in EVERYTHING) decides it's high time for him to produce an heir and writes to her sister inviting her to bring her eldest daughter, Helene to be Franz' betrothed. Elizabeth, or Sisi, as she is affectionately called, is just a few years younger and is allowed to come and help her sister transition to the role of Empress-and perhaps in the future meet her own good match! Needless to say Franz is captivated by Sisi instead of Helene (who doesn't want anything to do with the Emporer or the title of Empress) which is how Sisi accidentally becomes the Empress.
What ensues is a most taxing mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship. Maybe one of the worst in history. As a wife to know that your husband's mother has your husband's ear more than yours must be infuriating. I was incensed at the time period in history when there was such a maddeningly huge double standard. Sisi was threatened that she'd better be a virgin on her wedding night or there would be an immediate annulment. Yet, she was told and prepared that her husband would NOT come to the wedding bed a virgin. That there were certain rites of passage a young man had-especially when you were an emporer. In fact, those men were practically EXPECTED to have have mistresses. But for some reason they had to marry a woman of "good breeding" in order to produce a "proper heir" so basically Sisi ends up feeling like a breeding mare instead of a woman to be loved and valued. Even her children were basically snatched from her at birth to be raised by her mother-in-law (and named by her as well) and was given very little access to them. Anyhow, back to the double standard, Sisi got very ill and had to spend a couple years abroad in warmer temperatures. There are two major differing opinons of historians on what caused that illness, but one of them is that she contracted a venereal disease from her husband. GAH. Women were supposed to be faithful for what? Their husband's to make them sick? I'm SO glad I didn't live back then.
The other thing that was interesting was that royalty truly felt that they were divinely appointed to be rules, and that they had God on their side in every battle. Really? Being born into a certain blood line can determine who is divinely appointed to be a leader? In this book, even Sisi questions this line of thinking. But that's honestly what they believed. And that it was sometimes a burden, but they can't refuse to serve God, can they?
There have been a lot of criticisms of the way Sisi was portrayed. Some say she was too whiny, but I didn't really feel that way. Maybe a little melodramatic, but when I read the notes in the back, it appears that much of history agrees that Sisi had a temperment that was NOT really compatible with her role as Empress. And she reacted to things in the way that I feel I would have as well if faced with the same situations. However, I don't have previous knowledge of this story in history, so I might have found more to criticize if I had. But it was an enjoyable read, even if it wasn't always "edge of your seat" like Traitor's Wife was. And it has sparked an interest in this part of history that I might look into more deepy. I also enjoyed all the music references to the composer of the court (and later Franz Liszt's role in composing for the coronation of Franz and Sisi as officially recognized King and Queen of Hugary).