In my great loneliness
I make tiny songs
My heart, filled with grief and sadness
Weighs down my spirit
Once I was so young and rich
In love of life and hope
I thought nothing could match my strength
The whole world was open to me
I love, I lived
I wandered through the world
But never reached what I strove for
I deceived and was deceived. – Sisi
At the beginning of 1867 news arrived that Elisabeth’s brother-in-law Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico had been executed and Archduchess Sophie was inconsolable. He had always been her favourite son. Her spirit was broken and although she would live for another five years – she gave up fighting with Elisabeth. This did not mean that Elisabeth took up her place in the court life. She preferred to remain away from Vienna and even if she did accept an invitation, she sometimes cancelled at the last possible moment.
She did visit orphanages, hospitals and poorhouses, though she usually arrived unannounced. This led to friction with the court, but the people themselves appreciated this more personal approach. She also enjoyed visiting the more off the grid charities, such as the Negro Education Institution – a missionary school which trained slaves whose freedom had been bought and then sent them on missions – and cholera hospitals. On one occasion, she held the hand of a man who died only hours later and commented, “He is dying, and one day he will happily welcome me there.” She also visited insane asylums, although those were considered to be strictly private. She was interested in therapeutic experiments and was present when a patient was hypnotised. This behaviour was frequently ridiculed. From 1867, she also tended to stay away from politics.
From October 1870 to June 1871, Elisabeth was in Merano, with one short interruption in March when she went to Vienna following the death of her sister-in-law, Princess Maria Annunciata of Bourbon-Two Sicilies. She spent the summer of 1871 largely in Bavaria and Bad Ischl. She returned to Merano in October 1871 and remained there until May 1872, with a short break for Gisela’s engagement. Her sisters would take turns staying with her. Elisabeth arranged for Gisela’s marriage, despite her young age, to Prince Leopold of Bavaria, who was already almost married to Princess Amalie of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Amalie would later marry one of Elisabeth’s brothers. Shortly after the engagement, Archduchess Sophie died. Surprisingly, Elisabeth was by her mother-in-law’s bedside. “She has brought her heart along from her forests – that is why no one understands her here, where the germ cell of all feeling must smother in the customary formality.” The Emperor was devastated by his mother’s death.
Shortly after Sophie’s funeral, Countess Festetics wrote in her diary about Elisabeth, “All this is also nourishment to her bent to idleness. What is painful today will be comfortable in a while, and she will do less and less, and people will go into battle more and more and she? – She will grow poorer and poorer for all her riches, and no one will remember that she was driven into isolation.” Elisabeth had become afraid of social activities and large crowds, making her participation in court life even more unlikely. In April 1873, Gisela married, and one year later Elisabeth became a grandmother for the first time. Her granddaughter was named for her. When her second granddaughter Auguste was born, Elisabeth wrote, “Gisela’ child is of a rare ugliness, but very lively, it looks exactly like Gisela.”
Elisabeth spent a lot of time at Gödöllő in Hungary, and she often invited her niece Baroness Marie Wallersee, the daughter of her brother Ludwig and the actress Henriette Mendel. This was, of course, quite socially unacceptable but Elisabeth turned Marie into her little plaything. In 1874, Elisabeth visited England and could not avoid paying a courtesy call to Queen Victoria. Victoria later wrote, “The Empress insisted on seeing me today. All of us are disappointed. I cannot call her a great beauty.” She visited several stud farms but purchased no horses. She would visit England several times over the next few years.
In April 1879, the Emperor and Empress celebrated their silver wedding anniversary, which Elisabeth thought was nothing but a bother and a burden. She walked out of the great soiree after just 15 minutes. The following year, her son Crown Prince Rudolf became engaged to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, and they married the following year.
From around the mid-1880s, Elisabeth began to speak of suicide often. Her daughter Marie Valerie was concerned for her, and she wrote in her diary, “Much worse than the ailment is Mama’s indescribable despair and hopelessness. She says that it is a torment to be alive, and she indicated that she wants to kill herself.”1