Allison Pataki’s Sisi: Empress on Her Own is an affecting and engrossing historical novel of the beautiful and melancholy Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Married to Franz Joseph, the last of the Hapsburg emperors of Austria-Hungary at the age of fifteen, she was never made for the life of an empress.
Sisi would have been happiest if she had been one of the British landed gentry, part of the horsey set that did not have to stand on ceremony, whose lives were private and whose manners and customs were more relaxed than those of the aristocracy. But that is not her role, she was married to perhaps the most rigid and stolid of the royals, a man disciplined since birth to be a ruler and lived in a society where even the napkin-folds were state secrets.
She had an effusive and loving nature and was denied that, her oldest children’s care wrested from her by a domineering mother-in-law. This had tragic consequences for her son, Rudolph, whose life has been memorialized several times for its tragic end. I have read a few historical biographies of Empress Elizabeth and this novel keeps very much to the historical record. Many of the letters and conversations are direct from primary sources. However, it is a novel and Elizabeth’s thoughts and conversations are from Pataki’s imagination–grounded as they may be in historical record.
Overall, I enjoyed Sisi: Empress on Her Own. I appreciate that it did not wander too far astray from the facts. I also could identify, at times, with Sisi’s frustration and need for escape. I found the language a bit florid and melodramatic at time, more like a historical romance than a historical fiction novel. I also very much disliked the interstices that imagined her assassin’s scheming and preparation. He was mad and he wanted fame. I guess I don’t like giving murderers fame, even more than a hundred years later.
It is historically accurate and I think historical fiction plays a role in drawing people into history to learn more. Her life was consequential and Pataki suggests that history may have evolved differently if Sisi had been a different person. For example, except for her singular innovation to put a halt to the sadistic tutoring her son Rudolph was subjected to as a child, she was a very distant mother figure to her older chidren. Her mother-in-law Sophie has elbowed her out from their birth, but even when Sophie died, she did not try to assert herself in their upbringing. She worried about him, knew he was displaying tendencies we would now identify as sociopathic such as killing animals and she knew he was depressive, though that term was only coming into use then. And she did nothing.
However, her son was a liberal, a reformer, who perhaps if he had felt loved as a child, might have mitigated his father’s conservatism, might have drawn her father toward England and reform rather than toward Russia and Germany and rigidity – and then might have avoided the alliances that led to World War I and, inevitably, to World War II. History is full of “for want of a nail” events, and Rudolph’s story is a tragic, not just on the personal level, but also in the scales of history.
If you like historical fiction and are interested in the personal lives of the dynastic rulers whose lives and decisions had profound effect on our world, you will probably enjoy Sisi: Empress on Her Own. I enjoyed it and it was a fast and pleasurable read, other than moments when the dramatic prose got too rich for me, but then Sisi was a dramatic woman.