Looking at portraits of historical figures, it’s hard to imagine them as actual people. It’s easy to look at a painting of a beautiful, wealthy woman and not be able to picture her going through the mundane day-to-day. Those gorgeous dresses (and corsets!) weren’t meant for sitting around & binge-watching Netflix, am I right?
Actually, I’m am completely wrong (well, no Netflix, obviously).
I recently read a historical novel about Empress Sisi, married to the Emperor of Austria (and later the King of Hungary). The mid 1800s were a time of political unrest (when isn’t there unrest, though?) but there was certainly no slacking on scandal and drama. There were many limiting expectations of these prominent European women: they had to look pretty to find a husband, get married and have children ASAP. The men, of course, were less under scrutiny. Particularly if said man was wealthy.
Let’s talk about Sisi. She grew up in an eclectic family on a remote estate. She had a wild, romantic countryside upbringing with little discipline from either of her parents. She had tons of “unladylike” interests, including riding adventures and (of course) an infatuation with poetry. Take this girl, at age 16, and introduce her to the Emperor of Austria (aged 18 and also her cousin, which was totally not weird back then). Naturally, as any love story would unfold, Franz fell in love with this pretty, stubborn teenager and, despite the fact he was engaged to Sisi’s sister Helen, they were married.
Sisi, transplanted from her home and dropped into the middle of the stuffy Court, was completely out of her element. Her aunt (now mother-in-law) had interest only in the traditions of the Austrian aristocracy and fought against anything that went against the grain.
This is a bad situation for both parties. An ex-Empress fighting to preserve her beloved traditions and a willful girl finding adulthood, discovering who she is as a person and dealing with her husbands (eventual) infidelity.
Without trivializing Sisi’s plight (as she’s certainly a sympathetic figure), she gained an impressive amount of strength through the years. (Allegedly) when her husband contracted and then gave her syphilis, she left. This is one her “it simply isn’t done” moments. Upon her return to Austria, she was an important instrument in the negotiations between Hungary and Austria. She loved Hungary (and allegedly their leader Gyula Andrássy) and fought restlessly for a peaceful contract between the two countries. She was famous for her equestrianship and
Her story doesn’t end here. There’s a few killer historical novels about her life (I’m partial to Allison Pataki’s The Accidental Empress) which I definitely recommend.
But there’s an underlying message that I couldn’t help but notice by the end of book. For years Sisi was plagued by her second-class place as a woman, self-doubt, uncertainty and depression. She fought all of those things and appeared at the end of it stronger and knowing her own mind. And that, my lovelies, is certainly something that I would like to accomplish my own lifetime.
Wanna know more?! Here are a few resources I dug up for you lovelies:
- Jezabel‘s fascinating exposé on Sisi’s life.
- The Accidental Empress; a killer historical drama written by Allison Pataki.
- The Reluctant Empress; a biography by