Empress Elisabeth of Austria – “A miserable, languishing creature” (Part one)

(public domain)

Shortly after marrying her first cousin Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, Elisabeth reluctantly began to follow court protocol while lamenting the loss of her former “carefree, innocent existence of Possenhofen.”1 In Vienna, her health quickly deteriorated, and she suffered from coughing fits and anxiety attacks. These ailments were possibly psychosomatic.

In those early years of marriage, Elisabeth was often horribly homesick. When pregnancy robbed her of her favourite pastime of riding, she often spent hours alone with the animals she had brought from Possenhofen. She grew more depressed as her mother-in-law pressed her to continue her public appearances. She had no support from her husband, who was constantly absent. Elisabeth cried privately and composed melancholy verses.

Elisabeth gave birth to three children in quick succession – Sophie (born 1855 – died 1857), Gisela (born 1856) and Rudolf (born 1858). 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.2 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.”3

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.

Just four days after her return to Vienna, her coughing fits began again, and she was in near-constant tears. Count Louis Rechberg wrote, “Since her return, the Empress has the deepest aversion to any kind of nourishment. She no longer eats anything at all, and her energies are exhausted all the more as the cough persists and severe pain robs her of the sleep that might still be able to keep up her energies.”4 Shortly after, she was diagnosed with galloping consumption and was sent to stay in Corfu. According to her mother, Elisabeth felt that she was “nothing but a burden on the Emperor and the country, never again able to be of use to the children, yes, she may even think that if she were no longer alive, the Emperor could marry again and that, as a miserable, languishing creature, she can no longer make him happy!”5

From Corfu, her mother later reported that Elisabeth “eats a lot of meat, drinks a lot of beer, is invariably cheerful, coughs little, especially since the weather, as Helene finds, has turned so very hot again, and they make very beautiful outings by water and by land.”6 Elisabeth’s happiness on Corfu led to the comment in Vienna that she was “ill with her nerves rather than with her chest.”7 While on Corfu, Elisabeth’s feet sometimes became so swollen, which could be due to acute oedema from undernourishment.

The following year, she travelled to Bad Kissingen to take the cure for dropsy. The doctor in charge of her treatment was an acquaintance of her father, and he was well aware of the eccentricities that ran in the family. Elisabeth’s condition quickly improved. However, she was not in a hurry to return to Vienna. When the family finally reunited in Schönbrunn, Elisabeth had vomited four times during the journey and also had a severe migraine. Her eyes were nearly swollen shut from crying. However, her long absence from Vienna had given her self-confidence and the courage to stand up for herself.

She returned to her favourite pastimes of hiking and riding. She was mocked for her “eternal promenades in the evenings alone in the little garden.”8 She became obsessed with her beauty and did everything she could to remain youthful. She began to live entirely for beauty and health. Everywhere she lived, exercise rooms were installed with dumbbells, a barre and rings. Beauty became her power and her burden.

Read part two here.

  1. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.51
  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. 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
  4. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.106
  5. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.107
  6. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.109
  7. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.109
  8. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.117

About Moniek Bloks 2551 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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