After the birth of Crown Prince Rudolf in 1858, Elisabeth recovered slowly. She had not been allowed to nurse her son, so she suffered from milk congestion and fevers. Her fever remained for weeks after the birth, and Elisabeth became terribly weak. Her mother, Ludovika, was summoned to Vienna, and she arrived with several of Elisabeth’s sisters and the family physician Dr Fischer. Her health only seemed to improve when her family was with her.
As her health went up and down, Elisabeth turned to starvation diets. In October 1860, she was so ill that Dr Josef Skoda, a lung specialist, decided that she would need to seek out a warmer climate. He advised Madeira, although it is unclear why he was this specific. It was quite out of the way, and perhaps Elisabeth wanted to prevent impromptu visits by her husband. The exact diagnosis was also unclear. Elisabeth certainly endured three pregnancies in four years and often suffered from coughing attacks. These increased in the winter of 1860 and led to the diagnosis of pulmonary disease. Her refusal to eat led to anaemia and exhaustion. The diagnosis of a life-threatening pulmonary disease was met with much scepticism.
Her mother-in-law did not comment on the nature of Elisabeth’s illness in her diaries, but Sophie only lamented that she would be leaving her children behind. She 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.”1 Archduchess Therese wrote, “In Vienna, no one has any compassion for the Empress. I am sorry that she could not win the love of the people.”2
Queen Victoria offered Elisabeth her private yacht for the trip to Madeira as no other suitable vessel could be found. Elisabeth boarded the Victoria & Albert in Antwerp while her luggage and servants followed in the Osborne. Around this time, rumours arose that Elisabeth was actually afflicted with a venereal disease passed to her by her husband. However, judging by the reports of her family members, she was hardly ill, and few even believed the pulmonary disease story. Her illnesses were possibly psychosomatic.
Once on Madeira, Elisabeth lived a quiet life in a rented villa by the sea. Occasionally Franz Joseph would send a courier with letters, who was also to inquire after her health. He returned with details of her “quiet existence and the very calm, sensible suitable life she leads.”3 Elisabeth spent most of her days with her animals, such as ponies and parrots but also dogs. She also enjoyed playing cards. A photograph showing Elisabeth playing the mandolin, her sister sitting on the ground in front of her and her ladies standing – all in sailors’ blouses and hats – caused outrage in Vienna.
Meanwhile, Elisabeth postponed returning to Vienna until May, when the weather would be milder. She thrived in Madeira, her lungs healed, and she learned to stand up for herself. She confined to Grünne, “to confess to you quite openly, if I didn’t have the children, the thought of having to resume the life I have led until now would be quite unendurable. Of A [Archduchess Sophie], I think only with a shudder, and the distance only makes me detest her all the more.”4
After a separation of six months, Elisabeth met Franz Joseph again in Trieste in May 1861. Unfortunately, just four days after her return to Vienna, the coughing attacks started again.