Thursday, October 27, 2016

Sisi: Empress on Her Own by Allison Pataki

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: October 27, 2016

In this sweeping and powerful novel, New York Times bestselling author Allison Pataki tells the little-known story of Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, the Princess Diana of her time. An enthralling work of historical fiction set during the Golden Age of the Habsburg court, Sisi is a gripping page-turner for readers of Philippa Gregory, Paula McLain, and Daisy Goodwin. Married to Emperor Franz Joseph, Elisabeth - fondly known as Sisi - captures the hearts of her people as their "fairy queen," but beneath that dazzling perception lives a far more complex figure. In mid-nineteenth-century Vienna, the halls of the Hofburg Palace buzz not only with imperial waltzes and champagne but also with temptations, rivals, and cutthroat intrigue. Sisi grows restless, feeling stifled by strict protocols and a turbulent marriage. A free-spirited wanderer, she finds solace at her estate outside Budapest, where she enjoys visits from the striking Hungarian statesman Count Andrássy, the man with whom she’s unwittingly fallen in love. But tragic news brings Sisi out of seclusion, forcing her to return to her capital and a world of gossip, envy, and sorrow where a dangerous fate lurks in the shadows. Through love affairs and loss, Sisi struggles against the conflicting desires to keep her family together or to flee amid the collapse of her suffocating marriage and the gathering tumult of the First World War. In an age of crumbling monarchies, Sisi fights to assert her right to the throne beside her husband, to win the love of her people and the world, and to save an empire. But in the end, can she save herself?

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Empress Elisabeth
*** NOTE: This review contains spoilers. Please take heed and proceed at your own risk. 

I love the Hapsburgs. Their history fascinates me and I was understandably intrigued when I learned that Allison Pataki had chosen to feature Empress Elisabeth as a fictional heroine. I was overjoyed to get an ARC of The Accidental Empress, but the reality of the novel didn’t live up to my expectations. That said, my two year experience with the first book proved I was too addicted to the subject matter to walk away from the series and challenged me to approach the sequel, Sisi: Empress on Her Own, with a more open mind. Resolved to give the author the benefit of the doubt, I jumped straight into the latter and did my best to remain objective. Did the effort pay off? Sort of. The novel incorporated a number of references and I enjoyed the game I made of picking out historically relevant cameos, but I fell into old habits and quickly found myself wrestling to rectify the fiction against my own inner dialogue and understanding of the royal family. Fair warning folks, what follows is a soapbox series of complaints by an exceedingly nitpicky reader. I’m bias and make no apologies for it, but please keep in mind my ‘enthusiasm’ relates to my passion for the material and is not necessarily even-keeled. Spoilers abound in the following paragraphs. Consider yourself warned.

I feel the strongest moments of the narrative were the scenes relayed from Luigi’s point of view, but I am frustrated to report that these passages couldn’t have played out as presented in the book. Pataki’s illustration of Sisi’s assassination includes an evening of premeditation that contradicts the timeline. Luigi’s intended target was Philippe, Duke of Orleans, but a change of plans meant the Duke was elsewhere. Frustrated, Luigi looked for a new mark and settled on Sisi after finding her name in the local paper. The paper was published on September 10th, the same day Sisi was assassinated which means Luigi could not have meditated on her death the night before and while that observation means little in the grand scheme of things, I couldn’t help feeling the dramatic shift in context minimized the tragedy of the Empress’ death. She was selected as a target only hours before the attack which made it a crime of opportunity and I am not comfortable with the liberty taken in white washing that fact as it gave Sisi’s assassin far more credit than he is due.


I also struggled with the lack of complexity between Elisabeth and Franz. Pataki’s interpretation is very black and white, but I have reason to believe the marriage was in fact much more complicated. In a letter to his mistress, Franz Joseph wrote the following: “We are quite well physically. The Empress has taken up her lessons again... and she devotes herself to the study of modern Greek with her usual zeal, in her room and in her walks in the garden. It is a necessary distraction for her, and Valerie reads to her in the evenings before we retire, while I fall off to sleep in a very comfortable reclining chair. Otherwise, the Empress is composed, and occupied only with her concern for my welfare and for cheering me, but still I notice how utterly the deep, secret grief fills her. She is a great, rare woman!” Their history is convoluted and while their union did not have the hallmarks of a passionate romance, the Emperor’s correspondence appears to indicate that despite their difficulties, the two were companionable, warm, and mutually supportive of one another. 


Those familiar with my comments on Daisy Goodwin’s The Fortune Hunter understand that I was a not a fan of the novel. The idea of Sisi doning her famed star jewels for an informal evening tryst in the stables of an English country estate still makes me laugh, but the fact remains that  Goodwin spent a lot of time researching Sisi’s beauty regime and the details she worked into her novel earned her a degree of admiration from yours truly (Details on Goodwin’s firsthand research can be found here). Pataki, by contrast, makes no mention of Sisi’s extreme dedication to her physical appearance and I couldn’t help asking myself why. Sisi’s features and fashion choices made her a legend in her own lifetime and I found it difficult to understand how such an intense routine could be so completely omitted from a story centered on the ‘most beautiful woman in the world,’ especially when said rituals are referenced in the historic notes at the end of the novel in question.

Mayerling makes its first appearance as the setting for a meeting between Elisabeth and Andrassy just after the World Fair in 1873. Pataki paints it as a royal property, but here again I found myself nitpicking. The notorious locale was acquired by Rudolf in 1887 from the Abbey of Heiligenkreuz which had owned it since 1550. This understanding being firmly rooted in my mind, I couldn't see the fictional scene as plausible and consequently assume it was invented to draw a tragic parallel between mother and son. I'll grant it's a creative idea, but I personally found it distasteful. After the incident, Franz Joseph ordered the property be converted to a convent and the Empress commissioned a striking and oddly prophetic Madonna for the chapel. In my eyes, the existence of this memorial is evidence of the deep and unrelenting pain Sisi associated with Mayerling and I don’t think the fiction recognizes those emotions.

Politically speaking, Sisi character shows significant inconsistencies. There are discussions with Franz, Andrassy, Ludwig that show her as possessing a great deal of political acumen. I personally agreed with this interpretation, but my opinion on that point is entirely irrelevant. I’d have been just as happy if Sisi had been painted as an independent, self-indulgent, social butterfly, but the fact that she flits back and forth between the two was difficult to swallow. Sisi couldn’t have been fiercely passionate about her role as Empress and repelled by execution of her imperial duties at the same time and as a reader, I found the inherent contradiction disorienting.

I understand Sisi to have been a complicated and deeply troubled soul with a host of personal demons, but Pataki’s Sisi was largely preoccupied with and defined by her love life. I struggled with that, but at the end of the day I don't hold it against the author. Pataki's understanding differs from my own, but I'd vowed to let go of my own preconceptions and at least try appreciate the character as Pataki envisioned her. I made a point of examining the contrasts Pataki created in Sisi's relationships with Franz, Andrassy, and Bay and ultimately appreciated those themes a great deal. On a similar note, I was also deeply impressed with Pataki's illustration of the Emperor's relationship with Katharina Schratt.

Chapter Fifteen was not my favorite as it omits much and peddles a number of anachronisms, but this review is long enough and I think I've illustrated my feelings well enough. When all is said and done, Sisi: Empress on Her Own is stronger than its predecessor and I'm glad to have  read it, but that said, I found the completed work both unconvincing and inconsistent and would have difficulty recommending it forward. 

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“Death is to be my constant companion until it becomes my master… “
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