F Heritage History | Elizabeth - Empress of Austria by George Upton

Elizabeth - Empress of Austria - George Upton




First Troubles

At the time of her marriage Elizabeth was said to be not only the youngest but also the most beautiful Empress that had ever sat on the throne of the Hapsburgs. Her figure was tall and slender, her hands and feet small and well shaped, her features regular and delicate. She had a charming smile, wonderfully expressive dark blue eyes, a beautiful complexion, and a mass of waving chestnut hair that fell about her, when loosened, like a veil, and which she wore either hanging in eight heavy braids or wound like a coronet around her head. With no experience of the world and full of the confidence of youth, she looked forward to her married life as one long holiday. Crowned with love, all hearts should bow before her and she would be the good genius of her people.

But disappointment followed close upon the heels of the first intoxication. If the lower classes were charmed with their Empress, this was far from being the case with an aristocracy that claims to be the most exclusive in Europe, and there were many at court who felt that neither by age nor rank was this daughter of a non-royal Duke fitted to be their sovereign. Instead of being welcomed with open arms, therefore, she encountered only a wall of opposition and intrigue. Far from being the brilliant centre of homage and admiration, as she had dreamed, she was grieved and mortified to find those about her anxious only to deprive her of the honors and influence that were her due. It was most unfortunate that she should have been placed so early in a position requiring the utmost tact and knowledge without having had any training to fit her for it,—a poor bird that had left the home nest before it had learned to fly! In Bavaria she had been a happy, care-free child, beloved by every one and so full of the joy of life that she seemed to carry with her wherever she went a breath of those woods and mountains she so dearly loved. A Wittelsbach by both lines of descent, she had inherited the characteristics of the race, their pride and independence, honesty and courage, to a striking degree. Even these virtues, however, were but so many dangers, since they made it difficult for her to adapt herself to the rules laid down by court life. Her very youth and freshness were out of place at Schonbrunn and the Hofburg. Her ignorance and inexperience, which were well known in Vienna, made it seem probable that she would prove an easy tool at court, provided she were only amused and flattered sufficiently. But this error was soon discovered. With the peculiarities of her race she had also inherited their marked mental gifts, and young as she was, her mind was quick to grasp whatever interested her and to choose or reject with certainty.

Such a nature could not but rebel against the restraint and monotony of court life. Its pomps and ceremonies wearied her from the first, and little as she resembled Marie Antoinette in other ways, she hated etiquette even more than did that unfortunate Queen. The court of Vienna, which had lived by its conventional usages from time immemorial, regarded as natural and necessary the forms that Elizabeth considered ridiculous and childish. She once aroused a storm of indignation by refusing to appear at the customary state breakfast, which consisted of various hot dishes, and ordering some bread and sausage and a glass of Munich beer to be brought to her in her own apartments. On another occasion, when presiding at one of her first court ceremonials, she took off her gloves, contrary to all custom and tradition. An elderly court dame hastened to remind her of her mistake.

"Why should I not?" inquired the Empress.

"Because it is against the rules of etiquette," was the answer.

"Then in future let it be proper to break the rule!" she declared.

No young husband could have been more devoted than Franz Joseph was to the bride he had found for himself without the aid of ambassador or envoy. "I am beloved as if I were a lieutenant, and as happy as a god!" he wrote to a friend just after the wedding.

And Elizabeth did truly love him, but not as he did her. In spite of the intensity of feeling that showed itself in after life, there was a certain inborn coldness in her nature that made it impossible for her to share his ardor or to understand him always. But it often taxed his devotion and patience to reconcile this freedom-loving child of nature to the restraints and obligations of her new position, and he was many times called upon to make peace between the older court ladies and their young mistress. He would gladly have loosened her bonds somewhat, but dared not introduce new ways and customs.

The Archduchess Sophie had hitherto reigned supreme at court. She was a remarkably clever woman, and all through the first difficult years of her son's reign had proved a valuable support to him, and acquired an influence which she had no intention of surrendering into the hands of her seventeen-year-old niece. Two women, though of the same blood, could scarcely have been more different. The Archduchess was ambitious and worldly; the Empress cared nothing for place or power. Sophie was completely under the influence of the priesthood; Elizabeth worshipped God in nature, but avoided all religious ceremonies and hated priests. The older woman expected to find it easy to govern this child who had so unexpectedly received the imperial crown, through her vanity and inexperience, but finding herself mistaken, she resorted to other means. Elizabeth, as we have seen, had come to Vienna full of hopes and dreams, expecting naturally to occupy the first place in her husband's life and court; but every attempt to assert her right as Empress was deliberately set aside by the Archduchess, who crushed her hopes and dispelled her dreams with a cruel hand, regardless of her feelings.

As for the court, "Madame Mere," as she was called, was a power whose friendship it was prudent to possess. It was believed, moreover, that Franz Joseph, whose fickleness and susceptibility in matters of the heart were well known, would soon tire of his young wife. Elizabeth's inexperience made it impossible for her to battle successfully with court intrigues, and it was plain that the mother-in-law would be victorious in the struggle between them. The Emperor always treated his wife with the greatest care and consideration, but misunderstandings gradually arose between them, fostered by wounded pride on her side and on his by the Archduchess Sophie's constant efforts to lower her in the eyes of her son. Dearly as she loved Franz Joseph, Elizabeth held herself more and more aloof from him for fear of seeming the troublesome child her mother-in-law called her, and an expression of quiet sadness grew upon her. But there were moments, too, of hot revolt against the cold, selfish world in which she lived, and these did not mend matters for her. Rash and thoughtless, she struggled against this unceasing persecution. She treated the Archduchess' followers with marked disdain and gave her confidence to others who deceived and betrayed her.