Life for this Bavarian princess was no fairy tale

Married at 16 to the emperor of Austria, Elisabeth—nicknamed Sisi—was a reluctant empress, struggling with royal life and sympathetic to the democratic struggles of the people in her new nation.

Franz Winterhalter’s iconic 1865 portrait of Elisabeth (Sisi) depicts her at age 27, with a coquettish smile and bejeweled hair.
Photograph by Bridgeman/Age Fotostock

The life of Elisabeth of Austria sounds like a romantic novel: A vivacious Bavarian princess captures the heart of the Austrian emperor. They marry and return to his palace in Vienna, where she confronts not only the stifling, iron-clad rules of court but also her domineering mother-in-law.

While the overarching themes may sound like fiction, they were very much the realities of Elisabeth’s life. Struggling to fit into court life, she clashed with Archduchess Sophie, her aunt and mother-in-law. Her husband’s civic duties kept the couple apart, which further isolated the young empress. She turned to many interests and pastimes to fill the hours. She read and wrote poetry, she traveled, and she studied the culture of her people, especially Hungary.

Elisabeth’s life played out against the dramatic upheavals of 19th-century Europe. Elisabeth entered the Austrian court as Prussia and Germany were gaining power, and the Habsburg monarchy sought to maintain control of Austria and Hungary in the face of popular opposition. Unsure of her role in a world where old certainties were being upended, the empress embarked on a lifelong search for a larger purpose outside of the roles traditionally ascribed to women. Her search brought her both great joy and sorrow, until it ended, with an assassin’s knife, in 1898.

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