Sisi and the etiquette

Sisi (2021)(Screenshot/Fair Use)

As a newly married Empress, Elisabeth reluctantly began to follow court protocol while lamenting the loss of her former “carefree, innocent existence of Possenhofen.”1 Shortly before her wedding, she had been given an intense course of study, which had included protocol and formalities. But Elisabeth had little interest in the formalities that raised her new family above the “ordinary mortals.”2

Elisabeth and her mother-in-law Sophie soon came into conflict over the smallest things. For example, Elisabeth refused to give away her shoes after only wearing them once, and she did not want the unfamiliar waiting women dressing her.3 Elisabeth’s new household was headed by the 56-year-old Countess Sophie Esterházy, who was a stickler for etiquette and also a close confidante of Elisabeth’s mother-in-law. The Countess always reminded her of her position and the right of precedence of her visitors. Elisabeth wrote, “It was so boring having to remember who was the most important, and rationing one’s words accordingly.”4 Elisabeth had taken an immediate dislike towards the Countess.

Even at her own wedding, Elisabeth was scrutinised. She had been too timid to make conversation, but according to protocol, no one was allowed to speak to the Empress unless they were responding to questions. The Countess finally intervened and requested the ladies to say a few words to Elisabeth. Then Elisabeth spotted her cousin Adelgunde and Hildegard of Bavaria in the crowd and went in to hug them. It was her mother-in-law who sternly reminded her that the protocol – the kiss on the hand of the Empress – was to be observed. Elisabeth tried to protest, saying, “but we are cousins!”5 For her new husband and mother-in-law, the formalities were already a way of life and were seen as a way to showcase their power. Elisabeth would need to learn to adapt herself. The Countess was never far away to correct her.

Just a few months after the wedding, the novelty of the Empress had worn off. Criticism began to grow about her lack of accomplishments. She had not yet learned the protocol, and she didn’t dance well enough. During Elisabeth’s first pregnancy, she was quite depressed as her mother-in-law made her appear in public over and over. Sophie claimed that it was her duty to show off her stomach so that people could see that she was really pregnant. Elisabeth wrote, “It was awful. Instead, it seemed to me a blessing to be alone and able to weep.”6 However, as Elisabeth grew into mother- and womanhood, the number of critics grew. Even the imperial physician 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.”7

Another criticised “the Empress’s bearing, because she smoked as she was being driven about, so that I grew truly uneasy at having to hear such things.”8 Even her husband had to remind her of her obligations. He wrote to her, “I beg you, for the love you bear me, pull yourself together, show yourself in the city sometimes, visit institutions.”9 After Elisabeth was diagnosed with “affected lungs” and ordered to Madeira, Elisabeth insisted that the Countess stay behind in Vienna. Archduchess Therese wrote, “Countess Esterházy is being pushed aside strangely. Instead of her, young Mathilde Windisch-Graetz is travelling to Madeira; it is also strange of the latter to leave her little child.”10

However, Elisabeth also began to use the protocol and etiquette to her advantage. When it came to herself, she insisted that the rules governing behaviour to an imperial majesty be observed.11 At the Hungarian palace of Gödöllő, Elisabeth was more herself, and she laid down the law – disregarding rank and protocol, and visitors were selected according to their riding skills.

Her lady-in-waiting wrote, “It cannot be denied that protocol is a very clever invention. Without it, Olympus would have toppled long ago. As soon as the gods show human frailties, they stop standing on their altars, and people stop bending the knee to them. The same is true for the world. But it does not have the happy effect on the images of the deities, and once idolatry no longer serves them, everything goes awry. For they will want to have both.”12

  1. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.51
  2. The reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p.35
  3. The reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p.51
  4. The lonely Empress by Joan Haslip p.84
  5. The reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p.45
  6. The reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p.61
  7. 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
  8. The reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p.88
  9. The reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p.88
  10. The reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p.101
  11. The reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p.202
  12. The reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p.202

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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