Franz Joseph & Sisi – “If only he were not the Emperor!” (Part two)

(public domain)

Read part one here.

In the early years of their marriage, Franz Joseph was deeply in love with his wife and Elisabeth no doubt returned those feelings. Three children followed in quick succession: Sophie (born 1855 – died young), Gisela (born 1856) and Crown Prince Rudolf (born 1858). However, it soon became clear that Elisabeth was not suited to the role of Empress. The pregnancies had exhausted her body, and she recovered very slowly from Rudolf’s difficult birth. She also showed signs of postpartum depression and nervous exhaustion.1 Her coughing fits became more frequent, and she also became severely anaemic after refusing to eat. She often fell into crying fits that would not stop, and to calm her nerves, she took physical exercise to the extreme. She rode and walked for hours, jumped obstacles to the point of exhaustion and did gymnastics.

The death of her eldest daughter made Elisabeth withdraw from the world. She wept for weeks, refused all food and became utterly despondent. She paid no attention to Gisela, and her mother and sisters were summoned to Vienna to help cheer her up. In 1859, Dr Seeburger wrote that Elisabeth “did not meet her obligations either as an empress or as a woman; though she was essentially idle, her contacts with her children were casual, and though she sorrows and weeps for the absent noble Emperor, she rides horseback for hours, to the detriment of her health.”2

By 1860 she was so physically ill that she was diagnosed with pulmonary disease though this was received with much scepticism in court. Elisabeth travelled to Madeira for several months. Her mother-in-law merely wrote that she regretted that Elisabeth would be abandoning her children for so long. Her miraculous recovery as soon as she was away from her husband and the Viennese court was perhaps not surprising. Elisabeth and Sophie would always be at odds with one another, especially as Franz Joseph often discussed politics with his mother but did not include Elisabeth, who began to have dissenting opinions. Nevertheless, Franz Joseph, now fearful that Elisabeth might run off again, was being very patient with his wife.

But his patience did not get him what he wanted. Elisabeth spent as much time away from Vienna as possible. The birth of their fourth child Marie Valerie in 1868 only brought the couple closer together for a short period of time. The inevitable quarrels often sent Elisabeth packing, and she knew how to dominate Franz Joseph. He continued to adore her and was afraid to make demands on her. As they grew older, their lives became completely different, and the love from their youth was definitely over. Elisabeth often complained of his lack of sensitivity.

The death of Crown Prince Rudolf made Elisabeth even more desolate. Marie Valerie wrote, “She says Papa is over it and her ever-increasing sorrow was becoming a burden to him, he does not understand her and rues the day when she first saw him, to his misfortune.”3 Franz Joseph had more easily come to terms with his son’s death, and he had found support in his mistress Katharina Schratt – a relationship that had been encouraged by Elisabeth. Her niece Amalie wrote, “As so often in earlier times, I had occasion to notice once again that, without intending to, Aunt Sisi and Franz Joseph hurt each other so easily. He cannot understand her extraordinary, fiery nature, while she lacks all understanding for his simple character and practical turn of mind. And yet he loves her so much.”4 Marie Valerie suffered from her parents’ unhappiness and wrote, “I tell myself in the deepest sorrow that this heavy suffering instead of bringing… my parents closer together, has separated them even more (because neither understands the pain of the other).”5

Franz Joseph was deeply concerned for his wife’s health as she repeatedly went on starvation diets and exercised to the extreme. He wrote to Katharina Schratt, “Should you be frightened at her quite bad appearance, I beg you not to let it show, not to speak very much with the Empress about her health, but if that is unavoidable, to cheer her up, but especially not recommended to her any new cure and new system. You will find the Empress very dull, very sickly, and in an especially depressed mood. You can imagine how worried I am.”6

The assassination of his wife hit Franz Joseph hard, but he did not lose his composure. Marie Valerie wrote, “But even then, he did not lose his composure, and he quickly regained the calm he had shown after Rudolf’s death.” He later told her, “You do not know how much I loved this woman.”7 There weren’t many letters in Elisabeth’s papers, but she had saved Franz Joseph’s letter from about 1891. Marie Valerie wrote that seeing “how the relationship between my parents became better, increasingly intimate, how in the final years, there were no more instances of even passing ill feelings.”8

Franz Joseph survived his wife for 18 years. He died on 21 November 1916 at the age of 86. He had outlived several heirs and was succeeded by his grandnephew, who became Emperor Charles I. He would be the last Emperor of Austria.

Photo by Moniek Bloks

Franz Joseph, Elisabeth and Rudolf are buried side by side in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna.

  1. Vienna’s Most Fashionable Neurasthenic: Empress Sisi and the Cult of Size Zero in Journeys into Madness: Mapping Mental Illness in the Austro-Hungarian Empire p.95
  2. Vienna’s Most Fashionable Neurasthenic: Empress Sisi and the Cult of Size Zero in Journeys into Madness: Mapping Mental Illness in the Austro-Hungarian Empire p.95
  3. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.347
  4. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.347
  5. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.347
  6. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.364
  7. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.370
  8. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.372

About Moniek Bloks 2732 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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