Never underestimate the power of a woman to change the hearts of a country and the course of history. Women have been doing this for centuries.
In yesterday’s Empress Elisabeth of Austria article, we met a fairy tale princess whose beauty and concern for social justice made her a celebrated princess of the people. Elisabeth’s marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph in 1954 drew attention to her unusual beauty and her role as a queen who cared for the suffering of others despite her unhappy life in Austria’s royal family.
But Elisabeth’s life set the stage for a defining moment in Hungary and Austria’s history. Undoubtedly, it forever changed the course of her own. Here’s a bit of history to understand how.
In 1948, Hungary and Italy rebelled against the Hapsburg dynasty – which was ruled by Austria, aka Franz’s royal family, for more than 200 years. Hungary demanded their independence and challenged Austria’s rule of law, hoping to reinstate their old constitution and become a nation-state with rights to their own national army and legislative freedoms.
A year after the uprising, Franz Joseph took the throne and joined forces with Russia to suppress Hungary’s demands. They succeeded but a long period of passive resistance by Hungary followed. During this time, Franz married Elisabeth who joined him on a political trip in 1857 to Hungary.
When Elizabeth arrived, Hungarians were overwhelmed by her beauty and she impressed Hungary’s royal court.
Count Gyula Andrassy, a persuasive and powerful Hungarian politician, was impressed by Elisabeth’s deep sense of compassion for their political prisoners, culture, and traditions.
Franz’s controlling mother, Princess Sophie of Bavaria, was enraged but Elisabeth’s pleas for peace and reform. Thankfully they didn’t fall on deaf ears. Franz agreed political reforms were necessary and Count Gyula Andrássy, who later became the First Prime Minister of Hungary, made Elisabeth and Franz the royal Queen and King of Hungary.
Union and constitutional changes helped marry the different cultures living in Hungary and Elisabeth opened the door to greater economic development and industrialization. The city of Budapest was formed endearing Elisabeth, who learned to speak Hungarian, to Hungary.
There’s a book The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki, that describes the Empress Elisabeth’s introduction to the Hungarian court and her first encounter with Count Andrassy. Rumors suggest there may have been more to their relationship but there is no evidence of this; it is something Pataki picks up in her sweeping story about Elisabeth and a second book, Sisi: Empress on Her Own.
What is certain is Elisabeth’s lasting favor among the people and her influence on Hungary’s peace and reformation. In many ways, Elisabeth was like Lady Diana Spencer, the Princess of Wales who married Prince Charles. Lady Diana was also very beautiful but extremely unhappy in the royal family. Both Elisabeth and Diana were obsessive over their weight, with Lady Diana admitting she had an eating disorder.
There are many signs that Elisabeth also suffered from similar challenges after the death of her two-year-old daughter. She had increasing states of melancholy and depression before her death in 1898 and was obsessive about remaining slim.
By 1894, she weighed just 95 pounds and had a waist size of 16 inches. Other extreme habits included frequent fasting, sleeping on a metal bed without a pillow to keep a stiff back, and wrapping her body all night with cloths soaked in apple cider vinegar to help preserve her skin and waistline.
Like Lady Diana whose death was mourned around the world and brought a monarch to her knees, Empress Elisabeth’s casket was followed by “82 sovereigns and high-ranking nobles followed her funeral cortege on the morning of September 17th to the tomb in the Capuchin Church.”
Tomorrow, we connect this princess story to writer Yara Zgheib and her new book, The Girls at 17 Swann Street. The story is about a young woman named Anna who struggles with an eating disorder. We’ve written this feature as an ode to Yara’s beautiful writing and a serious piece about a global epidemic.