Sunday, September 05, 2010

Death by Fame: A Life of Elisabeth, Empress of Austria by Andrew Sinclair

After my trip to Vienna this summer, I became somewhat enamoured of the enigmatic and ridiculously fascinating Elisabeth or "Sisi", wife of Franz Josef.

The Austrians adore her in the same way that the Brits adore Princess Diana and, like Eva Peron, she remains a figure of conflict: to some an emblem of quiet charity, to others an over-spender who fell victim to a life of excess.

Elisabeth is anything but a slight princess of rigid occupation who settled quietly into the string of the seemingly unending Hapsburg Rule. Sisi was a thinker, a modern woman, an athlete and a sportswoman who, in many ways, forged the path for modern femininity.

A victim to the structure of her marriage ( at 15 ) to Emperor Franz Josef and all too in love with yet fearful of the public eye, Elisabeth was a martyr to the cult of her beauty.

She enjoyed her foot-long tresses ( it took several hours to braid them in regal crown ); her 20 inch waist and her strict physical regime.

Elisabeth's diet ( one of the earliest recorded of anorexia) often saw the Empress undergoing monstrous control: from two glasses of goat's milk a day; to beef broth and a single biscuit: all while strenuously hiking, riding and performing acrobatics in her personal gym.

I was fortunate enough to trace the steps of Elisabeth in two cities: Innsbruck and Vienna.

At the Sisi museum in Vienna, you are walked through the Empress's life and her keen, glorious sense of fashion. You are also led through the Royal Apartments at the Hofburg Palace: which have been kept in the same resplendent fashion which welcomed Elisabeth, her husband and her children. Though she did not occupy as much time at Schonnbrun Palace, there are still traces of her there.

At the Hofburg in Innsbruck, rooms set for the traveling Elisabeth are kept in pristine order.

Elisabeth was a poet who yearned to emulate the style of the great classicists ( and even learned Greek in her latter years); a nomad who couldn't bear the refines of Court life so fled all over the continent; a master hunter ( Sinclair's book notes her riding and hunting skills and even excursions which put her in the path of the great English hunters and even Queen Victoria; and a tortured woman succumbing to melancholia.

Though she spent herself in the case of beauty and precision; she abhorred the feeling that everyone was staring at her.

Several events which catapulted the near end of the Hapsburg Reign ( from the execution of Maximilian to the infamous double-suicide of her son Rudolf and his mistress Marie ) are explored in depth in this expressly readable biography.

The climactic scenes of Elisabeth murdered in Geneva at the complacent hands of an Italian assassin who merely wanted to kill a Royal, not caring which one, are moving.

I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting the life of this fascinating monarch.

Sinclair argues that in Sisi's case, like Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco and Diana, Princess of Wales, Fame becomes a harrowing catalyst and while the after-death popularity of each of the aforementioned strains to the point of near-cannonization; the lives of each lived are tumultuous, fascinating and a supreme example of the many contours of human life.

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