Helene (Nene), and Elizabeth (Sisi) are sisters; both are Duchesses of Bavaria. The elder sister, quiet and withdrawn, is the opposite of her younger sister who is a free spirit, independent and precocious. While one would like to enter a nunnery, the other has dreams of a bright and exciting future. Therefore, when Helene, 18, was summoned by her Aunt Sophie, The Archduchess of Austria, to marry her son Franz Joseph, 23, she was horrified and disappointed. Her sister, only 15, was exuberant and joyous. She could not wait to leave and go to Austria to be her sister’s confidante. When they arrived there, it was Sisi who suddenly felt herself attracted to one of the soldiers while Nene held back, joyless and filled with gloom and trepidation. When the soldier beheld Sisi, he too felt himself drawn to her. It turned out, it was not Sisi he was meant to be attracted to, but Nene. Unbeknownst to the women, the soldier was their cousin, 23 year old Franz Joseph, the Emperor himself.
Although separated by several years, the two fell deeply in love, and although he was betrothed to her sister, they defied protocol and married. The author presents a picture of an Empress at once glorious and blissful and then an Empress who falls into a state of despair because she is shut out from the affairs of state and from the care and nurturing of her own children. Her husband and his mother have an unnatural affinity towards each other and an unbreakable bond of loyalty. She rarely sees him as there is war in the air, and she is desperately lonely. At 15, she thought she met the love of her life. At 16, she married him, and by the age of 17, she already had a child, a daughter soon to be followed by another. While it may in fact be true, that Sisi was too young to bear the burden of an empire and a family, she was never given the opportunity to even try. The Archduchess had never taken a liking to her and she immediately took each child and reared them. Sisi was powerless to defy her because Franz Joseph was in complete agreement with her.
Feeling like an outsider, Sisi withdrew from court life whenever she could. Although she loved Franz Joseph completely, she felt neglected and alone. She was not Austrian. When, Princess Sophie, her eldest daughter succumbed to illness, she sank into a state of deep depression from which she did not recover for several years. She, too, became ill. She relinquished control of her younger daughter and removed herself from the family, returning to her home in Bavaria, to the Possenhofen Castle where she hoped to recover from her illness and depression. She remained away for an extended period of time, traveling and gaining strength, dreading her return to the place in Vienna where she felt she did not belong. When she did return to the Castle, she was soon pregnant once again, and this time she delivered a healthy boy, the Crown Prince Rudolph. Swiftly, with the birth of a son, the future Emperor, Sophie swept in and took over his care and education. Sisi had fulfilled her duty and had lost control of another child. She had given birth to the future monarch of the Habsburg Empire, an Empire that was swiftly diminishing in size due to misguided judgment and arrogance, leading to its defeat in war.
During the not quite decade and a half that the book covers, from 1853 to 1867, the Empress met Count Andrassy, the beloved leader of Hungary. In her loneliness, she found him attractive, as he did her, and soon the two became smitten with each other, although they were often separated. Complicating matters further was the fact that Hungary was at odds with the Empire. The Hungarians wanted to detach themselves from Austrian rule and become a sovereign nation. When the differences were worked out, Elizabeth became the darling of the Hungarians. Since the Empress and the Count had a strong affinity for each other, tongues may have wagged about their relationship, including about her private efforts to achieve Hungarian independence from Austria. It was due to her work behind the scenes that war was avoided and Hungary remained a part of the Austrian Empire, albeit an independent part.
When I finished the book, I wondered, was Sisi actually a traitor or a savior to the Habsburgs because of her relationship with the Count and her efforts on his behalf? Also, in the book, on the one hand, Sisi is painted weak and ineffective when it comes to her power over Sophie, the Archduchess and Franz, the Emperor, yet on the other hand, in matters of state the author gives her great power. That seemed like a contradiction, since sometimes she seemed far younger than her years and sometimes far older, sometimes inexperienced and sometimes worldly wise.
I found the quotes from Goethe apropos and stimulating. It pointed to the intelligence and free spirit of Sisi. I felt that the imagined interludes between the Count and the Empress were the most implausible moments in the book. I found it hard to believe that their relationship could have been kept secret when it was implied that Sophie had spies everywhere, watching her. Even with precautions as she became stronger in her own right, could Sisi have managed such secret meetings? Also, it seemed a bit contrived that every time she found herself alone, the Count was somehow there as well. I also felt that she was naïve to think that Franz Joseph would have been monogamous and immature to think that he could spend more time with her when there were pressing affairs of state closing in on him. She just seemed to go too easily from a woman woefully weak and unable to handle the greater problems she faced, to a woman who could solve the problems of the world.
Perhaps, at times, the author chose to understate or overstate Sisi’s power for effect and sometimes went too causing it to lack credibility. Sisi also seemed far more interested in sex than a well brought up child of royalty, especially in those days, would have been, She knew little about it other than the fear her mother instilled in her with the advice to simply grin and bear it. It was he duty as a wife. I thought the author was best when she described the life at court, the sacrifices required, the arrogance of some, the lack of privacy with spies everywhere, the competition, protocol, and gossip evident there. It often seemed like a treacherous environment.
The author imagined the story well. It is easy to read and the historic references are accurate. On a really positive note, the book inspired me to look further into the Habsburg Empire and to learn more about the romantic involvements of the Emperor, the Empress and the Count and to discover more about the Empire and its slow dissolution. It is, however, a novel, and the author admits she took liberties, including moving historic events around in time. Since the book only proceeds until Hungary becomes independent from the Empire, and Franz Joseph and Elizabeth are crowned King and Queen of Hungary, it bodes well for a future book, a book about a colorful Empress who leaves Austria for Hungary to reign over the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an Empress who finally raises one of her own children, another daughter that she conceived in her effort to bring peace to the Empire and joy to herself.