I had never heard of Sisi until I visited Vienna and have since been fascinated by her beauty and her story though I cannot say I admire her. Sisi is fondly known as the “Empress of Hearts” and often compared to Lady Diana of England. Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie or Sisi was born on 24 December 1837 in Munich, Bavaria. Her father was Duke Maximillian and her mother, Duchess Ludovika (a real princess) of Bavaria. Though from a royal family, she enjoyed a free and informal childhood, her favorite activity being riding in the country side. She later became the Empress of Austria and ruled for 44 years, the longest in its history but Sisi is perhaps most famous for her beauty, her obsession with it and the extreme measures she took to retain it.
Her marriage was quite accidental. In the year 1853, Princess Sophie of Bavaria arranged for her son, Emperor Franz Joseph, to be married to Sisi’s sister Helene. Sisi accompanied her sister and mother to Vienna to formally accept the proposal. It is said that Franz Joseph fell in love with 15-year-old Sisi at first sight and refused to propose Helene. He rebelled against his authoritarian mother and she had to give in to him because he threatened never to get married unless to Sisi.
Princess Sophie described their meeting in a letter to Marie of Saxony: “He beamed, and you know how his face can beam when he is happy. The dear little one did not suspect the deep impression she had made on Franzi.”
Five days later their engagement was announced and they were married on 24 April 1854. Her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph was passionately in love with her and remained infatuated by her till he died but it is said that she never reciprocated the love. Because of her carefree upbringing, she could never adapt to the strict lifestyle and etiquette of the Hapsburg and this struggle continued throughout her life. She suffered from anxiety, depression, and other insecurities right from the first year of marriage.
Princess Sophie, Sisi’s mother-in-law, was a domineering mother and for as long as she was alive, Sisi couldn’t live her life in her own terms. She was extremely critical of young Sisi and would not even allow her to take care of her own children. Sisi was only 17 when she gave birth to her eldest child, just 10 months after marriage. Immediately, Princess Sop
hie took away her granddaughter from the mother and refused to even let her breastfeed the child. She named the daughter Sophie after herself. Her mother-in-law took even her second daughter, Gisela, when she was born the following year in 1856. She constantly pressured Sisi to produce a male heir and even created rumors and gossips in the kingdom after Sisi gave birth to two daughters. In 1857, Sisi’s eldest daughter Sophie died and the next year she gave birth to a son, Rudolf, the Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, who also grew with his grandmother. To escape her mother-in-law’s constant naggings, Sisi started to travel with her husband and she soon grew to love travelling. She had another daughter, Marie Valerie in 1868, maybe hesitantly because she believed pregnancy was destroying her shape and beauty. Marie Valerie was born in Budapest and was the only child Sisi brought up.
“Children are the curse of a woman, for when they come, they drive away Beauty, which is the best gift of the gods”.
Sisi maintained a very rigid beauty regime and even after four pregnancies, she was supposed to have kept her weight at 50kgs and a tiny 19-inch waist. She exercised rigorously and would often starve herself to maintain her slender figure. She was particularly proud of her ankle-length hair. It is said that her personal hairdresser would comb her hair for almost three hours during which she had language teachers to teach her Hungarian and Greek. Unlike other women of her time, the Empress didn’t use much cosmetics because she wanted everybody to see her natural beauty. When she was 32, she refused to sit for portraits and banned photographers from taking her photographs perhaps because she thought her beauty was depleting. Whenever photographers would approach to take photographs she hid her face behind a fan or parasol.
A seagull am I without a land,
Or any shore to call my home.
No place can hold me fast
As I fly from wave to wave.”
― Empress Elizabeth
Sisi was well read, she wrote poetry but stayed away from political affairs. She chose to be unhappy and spent more time traveling and living abroad, mostly in Hungary (where she felt free), than in Austria. Traveling was a kind of escape from her life which she considered miserable. She saw very little of her children or her husband and it is said that she herself introduced an actress to her husband and encouraged their affair so that the emperor wouldn’t miss her when she was traveling. In 1889, her only son and the Crown Prince, Rudolf committed suicide with his mistress and from then on, she wore only black mourning gowns.
In 1898, Empress Elisabeth and Queen of Hungary was assassinated by an Italian anarchist in Geneva, Switzerland. She was 60. It is said the Emperor Franz Joseph was heart-broken is said to have died a very lonely man. Sisi was the ‘reluctant queen’ who wished to remain hidden but instead became a celebrity. She was religiously trolled by the whole of Europe when she was alive and she continues to win hearts with her beauty and inspire those who seek to remain young forever.
Vienna is full of memories of Sisi and it was a enlightening to visit Sisi Museum at the Hofburg palace where her life from childhood to her assassination is displayed through her personal items and exquisite portraits. Her sarcophagus lies in Kaisergruft or the Imperial Crypt and more flowers are found there than in any of the other 100 plus Sarcophagi in the vault.