The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki


“The Accidental Empress” of the title is “Sisi”, Elisabeth of Bavaria, who married Emperor Franz Josef and became Empress of Austria, and, later, Queen of Hungary. She’s an interesting figure who, like Diana, Princess of Wales, attracted quite a cult-like following both during her lifetime and after her tragic early death.  However, this book – which goes as far as the Ausgleich of 1867, with a sequel now available – doesn’t really do her story justice.

It starts off quite well, with an account of Sisi’s childhood, and how it was her elder sister who was supposed to marry Franz Josef, until he fell in love with Sisi instead. It’s interesting reading a historical novel about Franz Josef as a young man: he reigned for so long that you tend to forget that he wasn’t always the elderly man that he was by the time of the Great War!   And the clashes between Sisi and her domineering mother-in-law come across quite well.  But the really interesting period of her life, her sad struggles with anxiety and depression, just doesn’t come across well at all.  The time she spent away from Austria is skipped over, and, whilst her eating disorders and obsession with exercise are mentioned, the reader doesn’t really get any sense of how she’s feeling and why she’s having these issues.  I don’t know if maybe the author doesn’t feel comfortable writing about mental health issues, but she doesn’t convey them well at all.

Also, a lot of important characters are missed out. The author does explain that she didn’t want to over-complicate things, but I’ll be interested to see how, in the sequel, she explains how the succession works after Rudolf’s suicide, having given the impression that Franz Josef was an only child! One major character who does figure prominently is Count Andrassy, Hungarian politician and Sisi’s alleged lover, but the book gives the impression that Sisi and Andrassy were responsible for the Ausgleich, whereas it was really Ferenc Deak (the politician, not the footballer of the same name!) who played the most important role in bringing it about.  And I’m not sure that people would have referred to Buda and Pest as “Budapest” in the 1850s.

It’s not a bad book, and it isn’t meant to be a textbook, but it could have been so much better, with a bit of effort.  That’s really frustrating!

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