Elizabeth the Empress of Austria was a woman haunted by the ghost of her son and the breakdown of her marriage. It is believed that her husband the Emperor Franz Josef gave her syphilis. Sisi[i], as she was known, was prone to periods of black despair that first became evident after the death of her eldest child Sophie. In January 1889 the suicide of her son Rudolf, following the murder of his lover, cannot have aided Sisi’s mental stability.
An outdoors woman Sisi loved horse riding and hunting and hated the formality of the Hapsburg court. She was totally unsuited to be the spouse of the ruler of a large empire, being introverted and hyperactive. But Franz Josef was besotted with Sisi and had insisted on marrying the 16 year old daughter of Duke Maximilian of Bavaria. Sisi was unused to the rigid formality of the court in Vienna and never became reconciled to court ceremonial.
Sisi was obsessed by her own beauty and her weight; she followed a rigid health regimen and routinely dieted. Sisi had gym apparatus set up in her private rooms so that she could exercise frequently. As her beauty faded Sisi forbade photographs to be taken of herself and hid the lines on her face with a fan.
Sisi spent a lot of time away from home; spending time in England hunting, or sunning herself on the island of Corfu, or sailing around the Greek islands and north Africa. The winters in Vienna accentuated her rheumatism, but even bad weather could find her;
‘Walking along [the Prater] in the thickest of boots and the shortest of green ulsters, with a billycock hat and a large buff fan spread out before her face, and a breathless lady-in-waiting tearing after her.’[ii]
As she grew older her entourage dwindled, but she was still adored by them despite her trying habits and insistence on continually travelling. Sisi was assisted by Frederick Barker, a member of a well-known Anglo-Levantine family. Barker helped Sisi translate Shakespeare into Greek and encouraged her to read the works of popular English novelists.
The death of Sisi’s sister Sophie in May 1897, in a fire at a charity bazaar in Paris, further added to Sisi’s mental instability. She was crushed by the news of her sister’s death and by the spring of 1898 was so ill that she could barely walk from room to room. Sisi spent the summer at a spa at Bad Neuheim and refreshed by her stay travelled to Caux in late August.
It was here that her killer started stalking her; 25 year old Italian anarchist Luigi Luccheni followed Sisi on a trip to Geneva and on the 10th September was in wait for his prey. Sisi was due to take the boat back to Caux when Luccheni collided with Sisi, who was walking to the landing stage with her lady-in-waiting Countess Sztáray.
Sisi was carried onto the boat, as no-one realised that Luccheni had stabbed the Empress. Countess Sztáray w
anted to get Elizabeth back to where her entourage
were staying. When the countess realised that Sisi was mortally wounded, the
boat returned to Geneva. Upon being told the news Franz Josef wept and said;
‘No one will ever know how much I loved her.’[iii]
The Lonely Empress – Joan Haslip, Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1987