Empress of Austria

By Brigitte Hamann

Review by Cathleen Myers

If you adore the Empress Elisabeth - or "Sissi" as she is still called in Austria - as much as we do, you’ll enjoy this softcover trilingual reissue of Hamann’s standard biography, lavishly illustrated with portraits and photos of the impossibly beautiful Empress, her family and friends (There’s even a weird photo of her smiling assassin!). This is both a beautiful coffee table book and a costumers’ dream since we get to see examples of Sissi’s wardrobe from 1852 to 1897, from her days as an obscure teenage Bavarian princess to her long reign as Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, world-class horsewoman, and tragic heroine.

So pretty is Hamann’s book that it is surprising to find that she has very little sympathy for her legendary subject. Hamann describes the collapse of Sissi’s fairy tale marriage to Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph, "the greatest catch in Europe," with some compassion, but the second half of the bio bristles with disapproval of the Empress’ self-absorption, restless wandering, and dereliction of duty, even suggesting that she might have been able to prevent her son Rudolph’s suicide if she had spent more time at court and been more sensitive to his needs!

But since Elisabeth never had a modern woman’s option of divorce or separation, this judgement hardly seems fair. As Elisabeth herself observed: "Marriage is a preposterous institution. You are sold as a child of fifteen, you swear vows you don’t understand, and you regret them for thirty years or more, but you can never break them." Sissi’s problem – as her most recent biographer suggests – is that she was simply born a century too early!

Return to Book Reviews

PEERS Home Page.