The Austrian Riveter: Sisi-Mania by Alexandra Roesch

Was she an unrecognised 19th-century feminist icon or an utter narcissist who revelled in the fevered devotion of her public? Either way, on the 125th anniversary of her death, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary (1854–1898), is back in the spotlight.

The saccharine image of Sisi, as she was known, was largely shaped by the 1950s German television
trilogy in which Romy Schneider played the Empress. The production, one of the most successful in the
history of German film, firmly placed both the actress and the Empress in the collective memory as the epitome of kitsch. Presenting lavish costumes, stunning Austrian locations and elaborate Habsburg court life, the films became delightful historical and romantic classics, shown at Christmas for decades to come.

Now two new films, two television series and a novel are doing their best to debunk this romantic image of Elisabeth as nothing more than a pretty figurehead. In 2022, Austrian director Marie Kreutzer’s film
Corsage was awarded Best Film by the British Film Institute and was also a standout at Cannes. Vicky
Krieps as Sisi is as lonely in her luxury and glamour as Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana in the biopic Spencer, which came out six months earlier. Netflix Germany’s historical romance series The Empress, starring two lesser-known actors, has also been a huge hit. In contrast to Karen Duve’s novel Sisi, and Corsage, which both focus on the years around Elisabeth’s 40th birthday, the Netflix production depicts the early years of the Empress’s marriage. Another film release planned for spring 2023, from German director and writer Frauke Finsterwalder and Swiss author Christian Kracht, portrays Elisabeth in her later years from the perspective of her last lady-inwaiting, Countess Irma Sztáray.

Comparisons between the late Princess Diana and Empress Elisabeth are inevitable, particularly in the light of the Netflix series The Crown. Both Diana and Elisabeth were icons of their time, with Elisabeth setting the scene as the first celebrity royal in Europe. They were both adored by their devoted public, resisted the restrictive formalities of the monarchy, struggled to raise their children in a royal household, experienced an eating disorder and were idolised by society and media alike. And yet over time, both women created their own paths, fighting for the causes they believed in, and pursuing their own interests. 

Karen Duve’s German novel, Sisi (Galiani Verlag, 2022), turns the saccharine image of the Empress firmly on its head. Apart from a few flashbacks, Duve’s novel captures individual days in the Empress’s life over a two-year period. She is in her late thirties, supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world, undoubtedly the best and most reckless horsewoman of her time and afflicted with numerous foibles. Based on extensive historical sources and actual quotes (court life was meticulously documented at the time), Duve’s profound and clever novel is full of humour, showing the contradictory and fascinating person that Elisabeth was. Elisabeth’s fear of losing her beauty, her restrictive diet, her obsessive exercising and her mental health problems are issues that, unfortunately, are still relevant today and will therefore resonate with a modern-day audience.

Hopefully this current ‘Sisi-mania’, as it has been called, will play some part in rehabilitating Elisabeth’s image, from Bavarian ingénue to the cultured, caring and influential personality she became. Not many people know that she spoke several languages, including ancient and modern Greek, wrote poetry, revered Heinrich Heine and Homer, studied Schopenhauer and Goethe, and changed the course of history by arranging and influencing negotiations between Austria and Hungary, culminating in the double monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There was much sadness in her life – her first daughter died at the age of two, her only son committed suicide at the age of thirty. She battled depression, anorexia and related health issues, and constantly struggled with the severe restrictions of court life and the limitations placed on her as a mother. And yet she managed, for the most part, to shape her own life. When, at the age of sixty, she was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist, she had come a long way from the gauche sixteen-year-old who married the Austrian Emperor to a disciplined, fearless and strong woman. 

Alexandra Roesch

Read The Austrian Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

Buy books from The Austrian Riveter through the European Literature Network’s The Austrian Riveter page.

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