Empress Sissi

As promised, I am writing the second half of the "Hapsburg-Lorraine Family and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad . . . Life", this time focusing on Empress Sissi of Austria (most sources I've found have spell her name "Sissi" instead of "Sisi", so I'm officially changing my spelling). Yesterday, of course, we read about her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, and how he was the only person who could keep Europe from devolving into Game of Thrones, and so he upped and killed himself (allegedly), and that led to World War I. Wow, my supervisor would kick me out of grad school if she heard that oversimplification.

Guys, if this family had a house sigil, it would be 13 black cats underneath a ladder, smashing mirrors and covering them with spilled salt. And it all starts way back with his mom. Sissi grew up as a royal duchess in Bavaria and had a rather bohemian childhood (which is funny, because she went on to become the Queen of Bohemia). She was thought of as a free spirit and disliked the pomp of court life. Here she is with her brother, looking sufficiently bucolic:
Meanwhile, Sissi's aunt, Princess Sophie of Bavaria, was chilling out over in Vienna and grooming her eldest son, Franz Joseph, to be Emperor. Here he is. I guess the painter told him, "Okay, Franz, I want you to stand like a total pimp."
I'm also guessing, based on this portrait and the one above, that there was only one style of outfit royal boys could wear at this time. It's very "Little Lord Fauntleroy goes to the Hamptons".

Anyway, Franz Joseph's mother was thinking about his eventual marriage. She thought, "I don't want some impudent hussy coming up in here and usurping me. Maybe I should marry him to one of my nieces, so the power stays in the family." So her first thought was that Sissi's eldest sister, Helene, would make a good and pliable wife; she was extremely pious and obedient. Helene, Sissi, and their mother made the trip to Vienna for the formal marriage proposal, but Helene totally got Lady Sarah Spencer-ed by her younger sister, who, let's face it, was fifteen and slam-bang rockin' hot:
PRINCESS SOPHIE: Franz Joseph, honey, come say hi to your new fiancee, Helene.
SOPHIE: Oh, by the way, here is her younger sister, Sissi.
FRANZ: Bow chicka wow wow!
HELENE: Franz, I promise to be a good wife to you and–
FRANZ: Yeah, that's great, dollface. So, Sissi . . . do you come here often?
SISSI: Not really. Only when my sister gets engaged to you.
FRANZ: Yeaaaaah, about that . . . um, Mummy? May I have the other one please?
SOPHIE: Well, that wasn't really the–
SOPHIE: Look, okay, fine, I can tell this post is going to run long, let's just move on with it.

So they got married. (Don't feel bad for Helene, by the way. She did okay for herself and in the end probably got a much better deal).

So, of course, one of the only royal girls who was raised in a totally care-free way joined one of the stiffest and most formal courts in Europe. Their styles did not jive, and it rapidly gave her a lot of anxiety and complexes. Sissi would have panic attacks, possibly suffered from psychosomatic vertigo, and quickly developed an eating disorder. It probably also didn't help that she got pregnant pretty much instantly, and had to spend her first year in this new place with homesickness, morning sickness, getting larger, being under constant scrutiny, and still being only fifteen. It's a lot for a teenager to deal with.

SISSI: *goes into labor*
SOPHIE: Oooh, a baby! *YOINK* I'll call her Sophie!
SISSI: Uhhh, could I name my own baby, please?
SOPHIE: HAHAHA, NO. You're probably too silly to be a mother, so no breastfeeding, no looking after the child, no thinking about the child. Just forget you had a baby. I'll take care of her.
SISSI: Oh, crap, I'm pregnant again.
SOPHIE: *YOINK* TWOOOOO BAAAABIIIEEEES! Hurray! I'll take this girl, too, and I shall name her Gisela.
SISSI: What, you don't want to name this one 'Sophie', as well?
SOPHIE: Shut up, queenie, you're not allowed to talk until you pop out a son.

Actually Sophie was really horrible to Sissi and after Gisela was born, Sophie (in all likelihood) was the one to leave the pamphelet on Sissi's desk that read:

"The natural destiny of a Queen is to give an heir to the throne. If the Queen is so fortunate as to provide the State with a Crown-Prince this should be the end of her ambition – she should by no means meddle with the government of an Empire, the care of which is not a task for women… If the Queen bears no sons, she is merely a foreigner in the State, and a very dangerous foreigner, too. For as she can never hope to be looked on kindly here, and must always expect to be sent back whence she came, so will she always seek to win the King by other than natural means; she will struggle for position and power by intrigue and the sowing of discord, to the mischief of the King, the nation, and the Empire"

So, the universe took a Bad-Luck-O-Meter reading and said, "A beautiful young girl forced into marriage to a man she does not love even a little bit, who has to live in a court where she doesn't fit in, with a mother-in-law who makes Endora look reasonable, who has the single duty to give a son, but has two girls in a row. Hmmm. Not horrible enough. Let's make it worse." So her daughter, Archduchess Sophie, died at age three of what was likely typhus, and her husband began having affairs. This would lead to Sissi's continued depression for the rest of her life.

For better or worse, Sissi got pregnant again, this time with a boy, the ill-fated Crown Prince Rudolf. She was done having children, since, as she wrote "Children are the curse of a woman, for when they come, they drive away Beauty, which is the best gift of the gods". She used any excuse she could to avoid Vienna, her husband, and the prospect of another baby–though, as we've seen and as Franz Joseph knew, there really should be a second son to keep Europe from exploding safeguard the line to the throne.

Sissi took up traveling, and became quite the modern little globe-trotter. Mostly, though, it was because she got sick at the very prospect of being near her family. Whenever she'd return home, she'd vomit, have migraines, cough and stop eating. As soon as she left, she would get better. At first Franz Joseph was all, "BABY BABY PLEASE COME BACK" but eventually he just tried to be supportive of her habits, because he loved her (despite his affairs). However, she sparked a lot of controversy for not being as wifely as an Empress should be. I imagine Franz being like, "Why can't you be like Victoria? She manages to spend all day Empressing the WORLD and still makes it home in time to rear her nine children and give Albert a foot massage!" And I imagine Sissi being like, "Dude, if you were half as interesting as Albert, I'd give you a foot massage too." And then Franz shakes his fist at the sky.

Anyway, despite the flack she got for not being June Cleaver, the attention wasn't necessarily all bad. As an extremely beautiful woman, she became a fashion idol of her day. We still actually turn to her for inspiriation, as some Phantom of the Opera fans may already know:

She became increasingly concerned with her appearance. Despite being 5'8", she kept her weight rigidly at just over 100lbs. It was all very Austria's Next Top Model, but if there was only one contestant, and no one ever wins. NO ONE. She'd lace her corset incredibly tight, which was a huge health concern at the time. If you've ever seen pictures of women who have over-laced themselves, you'll understand how messed up it made people:

"Liver? Who needs a liver? We'll just smoosh all those things down here nice and compact. Uterus? Well, I won't be needing that again, so who cares if it has to bunk in my lower intestine? It can keep my left lung company down there."

A lot of this had to do with her mother-in-law, who expected Sissi to be constantly pregnant, but would continually take the children away. "Oh, what's that? You want me to have another baby? Well, I guess I'll lace myself an extra inch thinner. OH, I'M SORRY. DOES MY TERMINAL THINNESS BOTHER YOU? LOOK. LOOK AT THIS LACK OF BABY RIGHT HERE." Sissi had a gymnasium built in her castle and spent all of her time there, or out riding on her horse. She had steam baths and forced her court to go on hikes, and would sometimes eat nothing for days on end. She liked to look so skinny that she often had herself sewn into her overly-tight clothes, which meant that she didn't change outfits as often as court protocol dictated.

SISSI: Look at me, mother-in-law. Just chillin'. In my riding clothes. Being skinny.
SOPHIE: Omg, eff you and the horse you rode in on.
SISSI: Thanks for reminding me! I have to go ride my horse again, instead of having another baby. Seeeee yaaaaaaaaa!

She was also obsessed with her hair, and its care took several hours every day. Her servant had to wear white gloves whevener she touched the precious curls, like it was some treasure at the Smithsonian. Actually, considering that Sissi saved every hair that ever fell out of her head, that probably would make a good display at the Smithsonian. She also rigorously plucked all of the grey hair out as she got older.

"I can tie my hair in knots. What can your hair do? Oh, nothing? I thought so."

Once she hit her 30s, she refused to sit for portraits, since she wanted the public only to remember her by her youthful beauty. Nothing should tamper with that image. Her last and most famous portrait was of her at age 30, still incredibly beautiful, even by today's standards:

Finally, even though her doctor was like, "Sissi, you should never, ever have another baby. You will DIE, you are too thin and unhealthy," Sissi decided to have another son in order to solidify the double-monarchy of Austria and Hungary. She had a girl, Valerie, instead. This time, though, she was determined to raise the child on her own, and boy did she ever. "WE WANTS IT, THE PRECIOUSSSSSSSS".

So, the universe checks in an says, "How's she doing? Well, her children have been taken away, she has so many neuroses that Woody Allen would be like, 'I'm tapping out!'. The political son she decided to have turned out to be another girl, who she's totally going to suffocate with affection while ignoring her two older children. Hmmm. Let's do her one worse."

Then her husband gave her syphilis. Because she didn't have enough health problems. While this is in no way verified as truth, it's pretty likely. She suddenly became concerned by the treatment of the mentally ill after the birth of Valerie. She was so fascinated by it that she asked her husband for a mental asylum for a birthday present. Her neuroses grew worse and worse, leading her almost to full-fledged mental illness at times, and many have speculated that her husband's repeated affairs made syphilis the likely culprit. Guys, syphilis is always the culprit. It's all fun and games til someone gets V.D.

Then, as if it weren't bad enough, her husband finally gave up on her ever loving him, and instead got a full-time floozy, Katharina Schratt, who many regarded as the "uncrowned Empress of Austria". Well, there's some gratitude for ya, Sissi. Their affair lasted 34 years.

So, okay, time to check in. Is she happy? No. How is her health? Fantine-level. How is her marriage: Poxy and broken. Her family: Fine. Wait, her family is fine? LET'S KILL THEM ALL! In one year, she lost her mother, father, sister and son.

Rudolf killed himself in the Mayerling incident we talked about yesterday, and since there is no other son, ALL OF THIS CRAPPY, CRAPPY LIFE HAD BEEN FOR NOTHING. The crown would pass to someone else, and the whole shambles of a marriage might as well have never happened.

For the next ten years, she traveled incessantly, very much running away from her emotions. The universe said, "Ten years of depression isn't enough. More! More!" So she went to Geneva, Switzerland. The Duke of Orleans was supposed to be visiting there as well, but he left early. His presence had attracted a young, Italian anarchist named Luigi Lucheni, who wanted to assassinate the Duke. Upon discovering that the Duke had left early, he sat down and had a good sulk. But then a newspaper revealed that the woman traveling under the name 'Countess of Hohenembs' was actually the Empress of Austria. Then the universe went, "Let us wave our wand of unlikeliness and misfortune over Sissi once more! *ting-a-ling-a-ling*" (that's the noise a wand makes).

So Lucheni walked up to Sissi as she attempted to board her ship and stabbed her with a needle file.

So, here's the crazy bit: after he stabbed her, Sissi continued to walk. She walked a hundred yards and actually boarded her ship before she collapsed. Her lady-in-waiting didn't immediately know what had happened, and when they called the doctor, he noticed a small brown stain under her left breast. She revived and when the doctor asked her if she was in any pain, she said, "No. What has happened?" And then fell unconsious again. It wasn't until the doctor took off her corset that she started bleeding profusely and died.

At the autopsy, it was discovered that the needle file had not only fractured a rib, it had pierced her thorax, her lung, and went right through her heart. Not in it, through it. Because she laced her corset so tightly, it worked as a torniquet and stopped her from hemorrhaging.

When he was caught, Lucheni said, "I am an anarchist by conviction…I came to Geneva to kill a sovereign, with object of giving an example to those who suffer and those who do nothing to improve their social position; it did not matter to me who the sovereign was whom I should kill…It was not a woman I struck, but an Empress; it was a crown that I had in view." Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If the Duke of Orleans hadn't left early, or if Sissi had left at a different time, or if she'd never gone to Geneva in the first place, or if the paper hadn't revealed her identity, or if Lucheni hadn't read that specific paper . . . and this is why Sissi must have been born under a dark star.

So, I guess the moral of the story is: corsets make you unhappy, but invincible.

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One Response to Empress Sissi

  1. Anonymous says:


    Ghandi said.
    “Renounce and enjoy”


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