Oh, had I but never left the path
That would have led me to freedom
Oh, that on the broad avenues
Of vanity I had never strayed!
I have awakened in a dungeon
With chains on my hands
And my longing ever stronger
And freedom! You turned from me!
I have awakened from a rapture
Which held my spirit captive
And vainly do I curse this exchange
In which I gambled you – freedom – away. – Sisi
The newlyweds ended the day with a coucher, a bedding ceremony. Sophie later wrote, “Ludovika and I led the young bride to her rooms. I left her with her mother and stayed in the small room next to the bedroom until she was in bed. Then I fetched my son and led him to his young wife, whom I saw once more, to wish her a good night. She hid her pretty face, surrounded by the masses of her beautiful hair, in her pillow, as a frightened bird hides in its nest.” Due to the lack of privacy, we know that the couple did not actually sleep together until the third night.
Even the following morning, Sophie was there as the young couple had breakfast. She wrote, “We found the young couple at breakfast in the pretty writing room, my son beaming and all over the picture of sweet happiness (praise be to God!), Sisi emotional as she embraced her mother. At first, we intended leaving them again, but the Emperor held us back with a touching eagerness.”
During these early days, Elisabeth found most of her support in her family. She was especially close to her sister Helene, with whom she could talk freely. The two spoke English, a language that neither the Emperor nor Sophie spoke. Elisabeth’s health suffered too, and she had anxiety attacks whenever she had to go down deep stairs. For her, all the pomp was an extra burden. She could only wear shoes once but she refused to give them away, and the beautiful dresses meant that she was constantly changing. She often quarrelled with Sophie over trivial things, though in later years she recognised that Sophie had meant well, “but that the paths were arduous and the manner harsh.”
Then a few weeks after the wedding there were signs that Elisabeth was pregnant. She was forbidden from going riding and sat alone with her parrots until those too were taken away. Elisabeth grew more and more depressed as she felt terrible but was forced to go out in public. Months before the birth of the child, it had been decided that the nursery would be next to Sophie’s apartments. On 5 March 1855, Elisabeth’s labour began, and Franz Joseph and Sophie were there when their daughter, also named Sophie, was born. Just over a year later, another daughter named Gisela was born to the couple. Despite the fact that there was no heir as of yet, Elisabeth’s popularity with the people grew.
In 1857, the couple and their two daughters visited Hungary and Elisabeth was known for her sentiments towards Hungary. Just before their departure, little Sophie had come down with a fever and a slight case of diarrhoea. Gisela fell ill as well, but just as she began to recover, Sophie became worse. After an 11-hour-long struggle, little Sophie passed away. Franz Joseph telegraphed his mother, “Our little one is an angel in heaven. After a long struggle, she finally passed away at nine thirty. We are devastated.” They returned to Vienna with the body. Elisabeth withdrew from the world, wept for weeks and refused to eat. The already frosty relationship with her mother-in-law grew even worse; it was after all Elisabeth who had insisted on taking the children with them. Her surviving daughter Gisela was completely forgotten, and Elisabeth left her to Sophie. The arrival of Elisabeth’s new sister-in-law Charlotte of Belgium, who – according to Sophie – was from a far better family, made the situation even worse.
At the end of 1857, it appeared that Elisabeth was pregnant again. On 21 August 1858, Elisabeth was delivered of a son, named Rudolf. Elisabeth received a triple strand of pearls from her husband, while her newborn son was made a colonel. The birth had been difficult, and Elisabeth recovered slowly. She suffered from fevers and milk congestion, as she wasn’t allowed to feed her own child. By the winter, she was still not the same, and her mother was summoned, which always made her feel better. Franz Joseph tried to reassure his wife, “I beg you, my angel, if you love me, do not grieve so much, take care of yourself, distract yourself as much as you can, go riding, drive with caution and care, and preserve for me your dear precious health, so that when I come back, I will find you quite well and we can be quite happy.” Elisabeth went on a starvation diet, rode for hours every day and smoked.
Elisabeth’s fighting with her mother-in-law increased during this time, and the first rumours of Franz Joseph’s infidelity began to appear. Elisabeth spiralled out of control and began to provoke those around her. She normally refused to attend court balls but gave private balls in her own apartments. Elisabeth had seen the unhappiness in her parents’ marriage – her father had a whole string of illegitimate children – and she could now see her own marriage headed the same way. Then in July 1860, Elisabeth took Gisela and headed to her childhood home of Possenhofen. She was forced to return for her husband’s birthday in August, but she took two of her siblings with her.
Her health had remained fragile since the birth of Rudolf and had become so precarious that her doctor prescribed a warmer climate. The exact nature of her disease is still obscure and was probably a combination of things. Despite the diagnosis, Franz Joseph went hunting and did not return until early November. Elisabeth chose to go to Madeira and Sophie wrote, “She will be separated from her husband for five months, and from her children, on whom she has such a beneficial influence and whom she really raises so well. I was devastated at the news.”
For Elisabeth, this trip was to be the first of many without her husband.1