Death by Fame

A Life of Elisabeth Empress of Austria

by Andrew Sinclair

Review by Cathleen Myers

If you’re going to the Mayerling Ball, you may want to pick up Sinclair’s book - a readable, gossipy account of the life of one of the most remarkable women of the 19th century. It’s easy to see what inspired the book: The Centennial of Elisabeth’s death almost coincided with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and Sinclair makes great capital out of the similarities in their lives and careers: Like Diana, Elisabeth was remarkably beautiful, stylish, and unconventional, sympathetic to liberal causes, heedless of public opinion, and impatient of Court ritual. Both suffered from eating disorders (Elisabeth was anorexic, causing both the Emperor and her physician to lament that scales were ever invented), though Eisabeth’s ideas on health and fitness, including her daily gymnastics routine, were very advanced for her time. Like Diana, Elisabeth also suffered the public breakdown of a fairy-tale marriage and both eventually became victims of their own fame.

There are times when Sinclair’s comparisons between Elisabeth and Diana are rather forced. It’s an interesting coincidence, for instance, that the Empress spent a lot of time visiting and hunting with the Earl of Spencer at Althorpe (Diana’s ancestral home) but it’s only a coincidence. Sinclair’s final chapter - focusing on the parallels between Elisabeth, Diana, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe (!) - is dreadfully sentimental and over-written. However much we may sympathize with both the Empress Elisabeth and the late Princess of Wales, the parallels are not really that exact. Elisabeth was certainly harassed by photographers and fans but she was in one sense more fortunate than Diana: At least the Empress’ privacy was protected by the police state her husband governed which made no pretence of protecting journalists’ rights. Diana suffered at the hands of a free press.

What makes Sinclair’s book especially useful is his interweaving of Elisabeth’s story against the complex background of international politics which led eventually to the First World War and the Fall of the Hapsburgs. Sinclair even has some new information to add from his British sources, which offer some very fresh insights into Elisabeth’s life and career since she spent much of her time in England, where she won over the local gentry simply by her amazing courage and skill as a horsewoman.

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