“Every ship I see sailing away fills me with the greatest desire to be on it.”

Empress Elisabeth of Austria

“If you and I, Sisi, had not been princely born, we could have performed in a circus,” said Duke Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria to his fifteen-year-old daughter. In another life, like that he described, Elisabeth of Bavaria, Sisi to loved ones, would have been happy traveling, riding horses, going on long walks through the forest with her beloved father. Like him, she craved a freedom, a simplicity she was not destined to have. At sixteen, Sisi became the Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, and Croatia.

Photo credit: Flamingone.com

Her story began where fairytales end: marrying a charming, lovestruck prince. Her cousin, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, was meant to marry her sister.

The twenty-three-year-old, however, fell madly for Sisi’s beauty, which would become legendary across Europe, and for her passion for living. Thus, on the 25th of April 1854, Sisi joined the Hapsburg dynasty and moved into a golden palace in Vienna.

She was expected to smile in public demurely by her husband’s side, attend official functions, banquets, and balls, and give the empire a son. Above all, she was to abide by the strict protocol of the Hapsburg court. But Sisi refused to stifle the free spirit from Bavaria she still was.

She championed social justice, individual identity, and freedom of determination. She believed, radically in those days, in progressive democratic ideals and pacifism. It was, for example, her deep conviction of the rights of Hungarians for self-determination that brought about the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867.

The Hungarians, in gratitude, named her queen. She learned their language and history. In her own Austria, she visited schools, hospitals, and charity wards, often unannounced and unescorted.

She spoke to patients and held their hands. She truly was the people’s princess.

Under her reign as well, culture and art flourished. The nineteenth century became known as Vienna’s golden age: Johann Strauss, Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, and Gustav Klimt were only some of the composers and artists under her patronage.

“I loved, I lived, I wandered through the world, but never reached what I strove for.”

Beyond appearances, however, Sisi’s life was far from charmed. She suffered from loneliness and low self-esteem, trapped in a gilded but real cage, the demands of her position, invasion of her privacy, and a then unknown illness: anorexia.

At a time when mental illness was misunderstood and dismissed, when across the street from the palace, Freud was still fumbling in the darkness, the Empress of Austria took control of the only aspect of her life that was solely hers: her body. She developed a severe eating disorder.

She followed an extremely strict diet to keep her weight low and waist thin, for a period surviving on broth only, for another on milk, oranges, and eggs. She exercised obsessively for hours every day, riding, fencing, hiking, lifting weights. Insecurity, misconstrued as vanity, led to punishing beauty routines as well.

Her sadness worsened as tribulations piled on: the loss of two infant children, estrangement from the Viennese court and her husband, the suicide of her son. The princess, envied and loved by all yet alone, wrote poetry, starved herself, and traveled. She died assassinated in Geneva by an Italian anarchist.

“Oh, had I but never left the path

That would have led me to freedom.”

In another life and in another era, she could have sought help and maybe, just maybe, found happiness. Instead, she fought for that of others, and freedom. A true fairytale princess.

Queen Sisi’s Summer Residence at the Schoenbrunn Palace

Yara Zgheib

Yara Zgheib

Yara is a writer, policy researcher and analyst, and lover of culture, travel, nature, art. She is the author of The Girls at 17 Swann Street and blogger behind Aristotle at Afternoon Tea. She has written for The Huffington Post, The Four Seasons Magazine, The Idea List, A Woman’s Paris, and Holiday Magazine.

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