"The Accidental Empress" by Allison Pataki is an intriguing visit to the Hapsburg Court of the mid-19th century.
Although I toddled around the castles of Vienna and Budapest when I was 20, I had never heard the story of "Sisi," (Elisabeth, Empress of Austria). Yet again, I was surprised by the twists and turns of actual history in the course of reading historical fiction.
After spending several weeks inside the dank, tense world of Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" it was a delight to be on horseback with Sisi, trysting around the hills during the sunset of the Austria-Hungarian empire.
Pataki did what I consider to be an excellent job combining historical facts with dashes of fiction drawn from rumors that circulated during Sisi's lifetime. The story is compelling enough: A young Bavarian princess, Helene, is summoned to marry her first cousin, Franz, the Austrian Emperor, and when she arrives at his court, the emperor's eyes are immediately drawn to her little sister, Sisi, instead. Franz insists on marrying her instead and chaos ensues.
|This is a real portrait of the real Sisi.|
I TOLD you she was interesting!
(Side note: I'm utterly obsessed with Sisi's other cousin, Ludwig II of Bavaria. After our August in Bavarian, Chebbles shares my fascination with the handsome man who built Neuschwanstein and his enigmatic mind. His cousin Sisi was a dear friend of Ludwig's, they looked like brother and sister, and they seemingly shared the same bright, depressive mindset. And Sisi's younger sister was briefly engaged to marry Ludwig II. The juiciness knows now bounds.)
If I learned anything from the world of Henry VIII as depicted in Wolf Hall, noble marriage is a complicated beast, as any small fissure in the relationship between people can become massive when living under palace scrutiny. It's agonizing to watch appealing characters enter into the emotional blender of royal life -- but that's what makes these stories so fascinating. How will they negotiate their way to happiness, if it's even possible within their circumstances?
This tension is why Sisi's true story has been resonant for many generations, and Alison Pataki's representation of it in "The Accidental Empress" is a very appealing version of that tale.
Note 1: Pataki has an unfortunate "tic" within her story, that I dearly wish had been edited out. She repeatedly references hearts thumping inside of chests. Several of her characters experiences a heart beating against a breastbone or a chest thumping wildly, to the point that this reference became slightly maddening to me. I wish her otherwise deft editor had identified and varied this affectation.
Note 2: After finishing Pataki's book, I was thrilled to find this Austrian gem of a movie trilogy, which starts with (the misspelled) "Sissi".... Enjoy!