When Brigitte Hamann died in October 2016, the German-speaking world lost one of its greatest historians. While she is best known for her book ‘Hitler’s Vienna’ she is also the author of ‘The Reluctant Empress’. This highly acclaimed biography of Elisabeth of Austria was first published in 1982 and has quickly become the standard reference among all the works written about the woman that is worldwide known as Sisi. Countless rumours surround this striking figure of Austrian and European history, of which all find their way into Hamann’s biography to get discussed.
Of all biographies about Empress Elisabeth, this one is especially extensive. It goes beyond the usual descriptions of her engagement – getting chosen by Emperor Franz Joseph instead of her older sister Helene –, the unhappy relationship between Elisabeth and her mother-in-law, or the fact that she is one of the most famous examples of the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. Instead of merely listing the different chapters of Elisabeth’s life, this biography puts not only the empress herself into the spotlight but also takes a closer look at the historical and cultural changes that occurred before, during, and after Elisabeth’s time as Empress of Austria. Instead of merely listing the rumours and facts that surround the apparently most beautiful woman of her time, the biography goes far further into detail. It deals with the difficult relationship Elisabeth had with her children and also gives the reader an idea of what a stressful life her ladies in waiting were leading at her side. Brigitte Hamann shows in an amazingly easy to understand writing style the countless nuances of Elisabeth’s character and how the events in her life shaped her that she became the woman everyone later referred to as Mater Dolorosa (Lady of Sorrows).
Compared to other biographies that have been written about Elisabeth of Austria this one is by far the most extensive one – and yet it does not go too much into detail about the topics that people usually connect with Empress Elisabeth. While other books about her tend to not keep to the point and instead wander from one scandalous story to another, this biography gives an excellent overview and description of Elisabeth’s life and of the people closest to her. It is definitely a book for everyone who wants to know more about the infamous reluctant empress and does deserve to be called the standard reference for private and academic research about Elisabeth.