This is a story of Empress ‘Sisi’ Elisabeth of Austria. The tale starts in the mid-1850s in Bavaria where Sisi and her older sister, Helene, reside with their parents and younger siblings. The Emperor Franz Joseph and his mother Sophie are seeking a bride for Franz and Sophie at least would prefer the bride to be a cousin. She selects Helene and she, her sister, and their mother (Ludovika) travel to the summer residence of Emperor Franz Joseph.
Not everything goes as planned. Franz seems to only have eyes for the younger sister, Sisi, instead of his mother’s intended, Helene. Sisi is a little outspoken, for her time, loves riding, and is a decent conversationalist. Meanwhile, Helene is much more the scholar preferring to stay indoors with her books. She is painfully shy around strangers. Pretty soon, Franz makes his intentions clear and he has chosen Sisi. There’s a bit of a dust up but he won’t be swayed out of it. Eventually, there is a wedding.
From there, we follow Sisi closely as her power ebbs and wains as she carries on a mostly silent battle with her mother-in-law. This book is a great behind-the-scenes look at the early years of Empress Elisabeth’s reign. We see the difficulties she has not only with Sophie but also with her husband and, later on, her children. She married Franz, who was 22, when she was 16 and was pregnant shortly thereafter. She left all she new behind at Possenhofen in Bavaria, a rural duchy. Indeed, she had so much to get use to on her own at the royal court. Her mother had her own little brood to raise and her sister was too shy to attend her at court as a Lady in Waiting. She had to rely on herself. It took her some time to figure that out.
Franz is the Austrian Emperor at a tumultuous time. He was born into a large Austrian empire that stretched much of the European continent, over to Russia, down into Germany and Italy. However, during his life he will see this change drastically. Of course, he insists on keeping Sisi out of politics for much of their marriage. Yet she goes the extra mile and educates herself on at least one political front, the Hungarians. She learns about their food and culture, and even becomes fluent in the Hungarian language. It takes many years before Franz acknowledges Sisi’s political savviness. The book leaves us in the late 1860s with the situation between Austria and Hungary in a stable place. I am hoping we get a sequel that explores the latter half of Empress Elisabeth’s life.
I really enjoyed much of this book because it educated me on a subject I knew little about – the massive Austrian empire of the 1800s. I was amazed at the decadence of the royalty and over all prosperity of Austria at the time. While women in general had some rights (education, riding horses) they still lacked in over all equality with men. Indeed, there is a theme of a husband’s marital rights throughout the book. Sisi was a character I easily connected with. She has her flaws, made some bad choices here and there, but she persevered. Several times, she had to pick herself up and come up with a new plan.
For me, the book slowed down in the last quarter. The romantic side story became the main plot and I felt it was all a little dramatic. Yet, aside from that one complaint, I was entertained and educated by this novel. As an added bonus, the publisher included a short interview with the author at the end talking specifically about this book. I always enjoy it when an author comments on where and why they chose to deviate from the known facts.
I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
The Narration: Madeleine Maby did an excellent job. She had a great voice for Sisi and she portrayed the emotions of the character well. Her male voices were believable. There were several times when Austrian-German and Hungarian phrases were used in the book and Maby also did a great job of making these believable. I especially liked her voice for the over-bearing mother-in-law, Sophie.