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The Life of the Legendary Sisi

A short outline of the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria

Part One


Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1854-1898) and Queen consort of Hungary (1867-1898) was surrounded by love and worship in Hungary during her lifetime, which increased after her tragic death. This interest and admiration towards her have not decreased over more than a hundred year. Most people who love Elisabeth got to know her from Ernst Marischka’s Sissi-trilogy of the 1950s starring the beautiful actress, Romy Schneider. In Hungary, this popular cult trilogy is on one of the Hungarian TV channels every Christmas remembering, perhaps unwittingly, of Elisabeth's birthday since the Bavarian Duchess was born on 24th December 1837.

The aim of the paper below is to provide a short outline of the life of one of the most interesting royals of the 19th century.

Elisabeth at the age of fifteen - photograph by Alois Löcher, 1852/53 © Austrian Library, No.: PORT_00052037_0


The Bavarian childhood

Elisabeth was born on 24th December 1837 as the daughter of Duke Maximilian in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria, who was the daughter of the King of Bavaria. Elisabeth had a carefree childhood. The girl was called Sisi in the family. Max and Ludovika had ten children (two sons died soon after birth), five daughters and three surviving sons. The family could enjoy a life free from etiquette and ceremonies because Duke Maximillian belonged to that line of the Wittelsbach family which had no official function at the Munich court. The family lived in Munich in winter and had a country estate in Possenhofen beside Lake Starnberg, where they spent the summer months. Possenhofen meant liberty and happiness to Sisi as well as her siblings. As regards the children's upbringing, Duke Maximilian believed in freedom and direct contact with nature, furthermore, in the relationship with the local people from the lower classes. Thanks to him, horse riding became Sisi’s passion, who was an excellent and daring rider like her father, and it was also him, who made Sisi love travelling since he was a great traveller himself. As an empress, Elisabeth would travel a lot. The young duchess loved outdoor activities, such as mountain climbing, swimming and fishing in Lake Starnberg. It is interesting to note that unlike it is depicted in Ernst Marischka’s movie, the marriage of the parents was not an idyllic one. Prior to their engagement, Ludovika had a romance with Prince Miguel Braganza, the future Portuguese King, who (because of political reasons) she could not marry. Maximilian loved a civil girl, and shortly before the marriage he declared that he did not love Ludovika, his bride at all, so the marriage was unhappy from the very beginning. (Articles suggested: Elisabeth's Nickname)

Emperor Franz Joseph visited his fiancée in Possenhofen (boating on Lake Starnberg). Left to right: Maximilian, Elisabeth's father (playing the zither), Franz Joseph (rowing) and Sisi © Austrian Library, No.: PORT_00052037_0


Engagement in Bad Ischl

The fifteen-and-a-half-year-old Elisabeth and the twenty-three-year-old Franz Joseph met for the first (actually for the second time: they had met some years earlier, they were first cousins) in the fashionable resort, Bad Ischl on 16th August 1853, where Duchess Ludovika and her older daughter, Helene were invited by Emperor Franz Joseph’s mother, Archduchess Sophie, who was Ludovika’s elder sister. Sophie intended to reintroduce Helene (Nene), Sisi’s older sister and Franz Joseph to each other. When meeting Franz Joseph, Ludovika, Helene and Sisi were wearing mourning dresses because of the death of an aunt, and they had not had time to change dresses before the tea party organized by Archduchess Sophie. The simple, highly closed black dress fitted Sisi perfectly but Helene seemed to be too strict in her one. According to many, it played a role in the Emperor’s choice and that was why his marriage proposal was made so quickly: On the very next day following their meeting, Franz Joseph made his decision and told his mother with a delighted face that he found Sisi fascinating. He revealed his intention in front of the court in that very evening on a ball, where, when it was the time for the cotillion (a social dance, popular in 18th-century Europe and America), to the guests’ greatest astonishment, the confident Emperor walked straight towards Sisi and handed a bouquet to her, who did not know that it meant a wedding proposal. When she was asked later whether she realised the Emperor's attention towards her, she simply said, "No. It only made me embarrassed”. (Articles suggested: A Wedding Proposal; The Cotillion)

Franz Joseph and Elisabeth (porcelain miniature) © Austrian Library, No.: Pg III/8/23


Elisabeth as a young wife - The Emperor in love

As a fiancée, Elisabeth was scared of her future new life, the representations and the duties it involved. She did not like being highlighted and did not value the far too much expensive pieces of jewellery from Vienna sent by the Emperor and her future mother-in-law, however, she was mad about the parrot sent by Franz Joseph. Ludovika was worried: How would Sisi bear the representation duties? Would she be able to meet the requirements? The wedding of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth took place on 24th April 1854. Sisi and Franz were first cousins so a permission was needed from the Pope prior to the wedding. Their marriage started as a fairy tale but turned to be quite a nightmare for the young and inexperienced girl, who had not been educated well to become an empress. She could not adapt to the rigid Viennese court ruled by the strict etiquette and Archduchess Sophie. After their wedding and during Elisabeth’s lifetime Franz Joseph tried to do everything to make his beloved Sisi happy, however, he rarely confronted his mom so as to protect his wife or help her. Sophie had educated and raised Franz to be a ruler, and now she wanted to create a perfect empress from the young and inexperienced Elisabeth. She wanted to form a beautiful and representative puppet from her niece.

In less than four years, Elisabeth gave birth to three children. Archduchess Sophie was born on 5th March in 1855, Archduchess Gisela was born a year later on 12th July 1856. Unfortunately, Sophie had a tragic death at the age of two, she died of dysentery on 29th May 1857, neither Sisi, nor Franz could fully recover the death of their first child. Another year later, she gave a birth to her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf on 21st August 1858. The first three children were departed from Sisi by her mother-in-law. Sisi became terribly desperate after Sophie had taken away her children. She cried a lot. Her fourth child, Marie Valerie, born several years later in Buda (Hungary) on 22nd April 1868, was kept away by her. Giving birth to her fourth child in Buda was her deliberate choice: her mother-in-law hated everything and everybody that is Hungarian, so she never came to Hungary. That time Sisi was strong enough to not let anybody interfere in the matter of the upbringing of her last child, whom she called “the only one”. (Article suggested: Elisabeth as a young wife and mother; The Gift of Reconciliation)

Elisabeth and Franz Joseph in the park of Schönbrunn Palace (idealized scene) © Austrian Library, No.: Pf 19000 E 310


Travels: The mysterious "life-threatening" illness of Elisabeth

Elisabeth had been suffering from different illnesses from her childhood. From today's perspective, we can say that a significant part of them was psychosomatic. Just in a few weeks after Sisi arrived at the Viennese Imperial court in 1854, she fell into depression and started coughing, which increased over the years. Sisi’s health was weakening very shortly after she had started her representative role as an empress. Elisabeth had disagreements with her mother-in-law and also had quarrels with Franz Joseph, who did not support her against Archduchess Sophie. Furthermore, she overdid sport: she was exercising a lot and riding a horse for hours while eating little or not eating anything at all. Sisi often had coughing attacks. In October 1860, the court started worrying about her deteriorating health. The court physicians could not do much about Sisi’s illness, they could not even diagnose that properly in an age when the psychosomatic factor was not taken into consideration. They suggested that the Empress should have an immediate climate change and travel to a Mediterranean country. Madeira was chosen (probably by Sisi herself – since it was far from both Franz and Archduchess Sophie), where she got better very quickly. After half a year, she returned to Vienna. However, only four days after returning, she fell ill again. She got depressed and refused to eat. Travelling was suggested again, and Sisi chose Corfu, which had a life-long impact on her life. Later she had a palace built there, the Achilleion. Sisi’s second leaving from Vienna was heartbreaking. A huge crowd came to the railway station while the train was leaving with Sisi and Franz Joseph, who escorted his wife to Miramar near Trieste. People felt as if a funeral procession was riding past. However, as soon as Sisi was on the way, she began to feel better again. Elisabeth spent altogether two years in the Mediterranean, far from her husband, mother-in-law and the Viennese Imperial court. The truth is, that farther away Sisi was from Vienna, the better she felt herself. Since her health was usually worsening, she went on long journeys on the Mediterranean, or had bath cures. When ageing, she spent more and more time travelling. She liked to be constantly on the move. She felt the infinite ocean irresistible. She never suffered from seasickness as her companions. In the stormy weather, when everybody feared for their own lives, Elisabeth asked the crew to tie her to the ship mast. However, for her companions, these journeys were demanding both physically and mentally. To express how much she loved the sea, in 1888, on a journey leads to Greece and Small Asia, she had an anchor tattooed on her shoulder. Franz Joseph was shocked when getting to know it. But their fourth child, Marie Valerie found it very original and not shocking at all.

Elisabeth and Franz Joseph with their children, Gisela and Rudolf in 1860

The photo montage made using a Sisi’s picture of the photo session during the time of the Empress’ illness – one of the “official photos” of “the ill Sisi” © Austrian Library, No.: Pf 19000 E 310


Elisabeth’s Beauty Cult

Elisabeth’s legendary beauty grew very slowly. The common people noticed her real beauty first, and not the court aristocracy. Whenever she went to the city or riding to the Prater (a place next to the Imperial official residence, Hofburg), where people could see her, bigger and bigger crowds were gathering to admire her. This time Sisi was not aware of her beauty due to her low self-esteem, which was partly the result of the behaviour of the aristocratic ladies of the Viennese court, who were terribly jealous of the former Bavarian duchess. They were criticizing every fault in the appearance, clothes or behaviour of the shy and insecure Sisi. In the solitude in Madeira and later in Corfu, she began to recognize her growing beauty and its impact on people. Her self-confidence and self-esteem started to grow. In a few years, the Empress was regarded to be one of the most beautiful women of her time. Those who knew her personally were convinced that the photos and paintings were not able to recall her true beauty. However, there were some artists who, according to the contemporaries, managed to do so, such as Franz Xaver Winterhalter. One of the most remarkable features of her beauty was her thick, ankle-length hair, which she was very proud of. Her haircare sessions were very time-consuming – they took about two or three hours a day. Elisabeth’s personal hairdresser, Fanny Feifalik (maiden name: Fanny Angerer), who had previously worked for the Court Theatre, was given a high salary so as to be responsible for the Empress’ hairdo. Fanny created the famous braided coiffures from Elisabeth’s thick hair. Women made several attempts to copy these hairstyles, however, they usually failed since only a few had something like the same volume of hair as Sisi had. Elisabeth used the time of these hairdresser sessions to learn languages. First Hungarian, then in her later years, mostly Greek. (Articles suggested: Sisi's Beautifying Baths)

Elisabeth by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1864 © Austrian Library, No.: L 4145 D


Fitness, diet and horse riding

Elisabeth gave birth to three children, which also affected her body but in a positive way: her figure became more rounded, however, due to her demanding physical activity (mostly horse riding) and her constant diets (often called "starvation diets"), she managed to preserve her slim figure and grace. During her whole life, her weight was between 45 and 47 maximum 50 kilogrammes, which was pretty low regarding her tall figure. It is surprising that after birth giving, she still kept growing, and became considerably tall, that is, 172 centimetres. (Actually, she was even taller than the Emperor but, of course, it was not depicted in the paintings.) As regards her waist, it was between 47 and 55 centimetres during her whole life. However, one must remember that the women that time wore tightly laced corsets, which changed the natural body shape. Elisabeth took exercises every day. Beside horse riding, she liked fencing, swimming and hiking. Her big passion had been riding a horse since her childhood. She was a courageous rider, loved challenges and became one of the best riders of the monarchy, which is remarkable if we consider that she was riding in a sidesaddle – female saddle (according to the etiquette, women were not allowed to ride a horse in male saddle). She was also one of the greatest women riders of Britain, where she took part in hunting and steeplechases (which means – here – hunting on a field with demanding natural obstacles). For her daily exercises, she had a gymnastic apparatus installed in her room at each residence and also at the places she stayed during her travels: wall bars, horizontal bars and rings attached between the doors. She trained there at least one hour a day. When ageing, more and more excessive diets were introduced to keep her weight, which was monitored daily. There were days when she did not eat anything, or when she drank only milk or had only oranges or meat broth. A question could emerge: How could Sisi be riding a horse all day long when eating little or nothing at all? The question may be straightforward: she consumed a so-called “restorative soup” before demanding physical exercises. This was made from different kinds of meat such as beef, chicken, venison (meat from a deer) or partridge (a bird). Elisabeth drank this meat juice (either raw or cooked), which was not unusual that time to improve strength and performance at sport. She also needed strength for her demanding exercises. However, it is also possible that drinking the restorative soup row might be a rumour, which came from the fact that raw legs of veal were delivered to Sisi’s court kitchen daily. But there are sources that after being cut into pieces, they were pressed with a duck press and an extract was boiled for Elisabeth to drink. (A recipe of a soup made like that is written in the court cookbook.) So she might have drunk the soup cooked and not raw. Elisabeth avoided eating after six p.m. It was also one of the reasons she liked to stay away from court dinners or usual family dinners. At formal evening court events (where fatty, rich food was served), she ate very little, which also contributed to the rumour that the Empress did not eat anything and had starving diets to stay slim.

Barbara Káli-Rozmis, Researcher and lecturer of Empress Elisabeth of Austria


To be continued… Second Part: “Elisabeth and the Hungarians

Elisabeth on Facebook

Elisabeth on the horse back © Austrian Library, No.: Pg III/3/104

Sources and further readings in English:
Brigitte Hamann: The Reluctant Empress: Elisabeth of Austria. 1988
Egon Caesar Conte Corti: Elizabeth, Empress of Austria, 1935
Olivia Lichtscheidl - Michael Wohlfart: Elisabeth. Empress and Queen. 2016
Katrin Unterreiner - Verlag Christian Brandstatter. Myth and Truth. 2006

Cover photo of the article (photo below): Austrian Library – No.: Photo 1 - PORT_00052013_01Pg Photo 2 – III/3/76 Eduard Kaiser, Photo 3 - PORT_00052061_01. All the photos in the article have been modified (in colours).

Thank the Austrian Library for the photos.

The Love of a Mother: Empress Elisabeth’s first child, Archduchess Sophie - subtitled video