AUTHORLINK: Ms. Pataki thank you for your time today. We are so pleased to discuss The Accidental Empress with you!
PATAKI: It’s my pleasure! Thank you so much for having me.
AUTHORLINK: From the moment Empress Sisi married the emperor in defiance of his mother, Princess Sophie, she had very little control over her life or even her children. However, one thing she did have control over was her weight and beauty – and aimed to be at most 50 kilos (at a height of 172 cm) for the rest of her life. It seems her physical appearance was the only quality about which she felt herself appreciated. Do you think it cultivated her primary source of her self-esteem?
PATAKI: It’s an incredibly complicated, interesting aspect of her persona and her personality, certainly. One of the legacies for which she is most remembered, still to this day, is her incredible beauty and that she was this fashion icon. Women wanted to wear their hair a-la-Sisi and, certainly, the emperor fell madly in love with her (when he wasn’t intended to be betrothed to her but in fact to her big sister), in large part because of her physical beauty. So it’s certainly a large piece of her persona. And yet, we, in the year 2015, have to be careful looking back to the 1850’s and the decades following that because, certainly, medicine, psychology and cultural norms were in a completely different place at that point. And I will be the first to say that, as someone who is not a medical doctor or a psychologist, I cannot diagnose 150 years later what exactly was going on with Sisi with her compulsion and sort of obsession with her physical looks – her weight and her beauty.
But what I will say is, you touched on an interesting point, which is that, from the time Empress Sisi arrived at court as a sixteen-year-old bride she felt disenfranchised in so many areas of her life: her ability to bring up her children, her ability to have time and respect from her husband, and her very contentious relationship with her mother-in-law, who was a much more powerful female figure at court. And the very blue-blooded Hapsburg Court found many flaws with the young empress. From the very beginning, she was criticised for not speaking in a high-enough style, not dressing well enough, not being sophisticated enough, not having nice enough teeth. And yet the one thing that was always sort of undisputed, that she had as a strength going for her, was her physical beauty. The emperor was enamoured with her because of it and the people were mesmerised and fascinated by her almost the way they were with a Princess Diana or a Jackie Kennedy. She was a leading lady who captured the collective imagination in large part because she was so aesthetically charismatic. And so she really did lean on her beauty and her weight and it became a fixation, it became a compulsion. When you go to her palaces in Vienna to the Hofburg or to Schonnbrunn and you see the dresses that she wore, and they are made now to scale, filled out with her actual body dimensions, it’s staggering how petite her waist was. When you see the human hair wigs that are done to scale exactly how she would have worn her hair – which was another fixation of hers in terms of her physical beauty – you can’t believe it! How beautiful, and thick and luxurious and elaborate her hair was.
So yes, it’s an element of her personality that still to this day captures the imagination – it makes her very interesting. It makes her very complex and yet, we have to acknowledge that there was much more to this woman. She was an intellectual woman, she was a traveller, and she was a lifelong student. She at times had an incredible passion for various political causes in her kingdom. Her cult of beauty I would say was a piece of her persona, but certainly not the entire picture.
AUTHORLINK: Later, she met Count Andrássy. He valued her input and sought her involvement in his political and personal affairs. Would you say she felt her self-worth reinforced?
PATAKI: Absolutely, their relationship was very much a meeting of the minds, the meeting of equals. He recognized that in Empress Elisabeth, in Sisi, he had probably the Hungarians’ staunchest defender within the Hapsburg court. Really, there had not been another Hapsburg ruler, except for Maria Theresa, who had stood up for Hungarian rights the way Sisi did. So Andrássy recognised that she would be a very powerful ally.
They also had a very deep friendship. Andrássy wrote later in life that he thought she was the pinnacle of all womanhood and that he was one of the only few people in the world who knew the real Sisi and that he wished the rest of the world would know Sisi the way he did, because then they would love her the way he did. It was very much their working together for Austrio-Hungarian compromise, for the Hungarian autonomy that came in 1867. That in many ways was Sisi’s crowning moment as an empress. That’s when she came into her own as a wife, as a mother, as a queen, as a politician. And that was when she was at the height of her physical strength and beauty, and personal power and confidence. He certainly played a very significant role in her life as a result of that and he believed theirs was a close, kindred intimate friendship that was special and unique for Sisi until her final days.
AUTHORLINK: One of the epithets of the novel is a poem written by Sisi:-
Like thine own sea birds,
I’ll circle without rest.
For me earth holds no corner
To build a lasting nest.
This poem suggests her loneliness and sorrow at the inability to raise her children. What did you understand about her feelings of entrapment in your research?
PATAKI: Yeah, that line absolutely captured my interest from the very first time I saw it because it’s so tragic! I think it so beautifully captures her restlessness. Her restlessness in her soul, but also her inability in her life as queen/wife/mother to find roots in this new life into which she was so unceremoniously and abruptly thrust at the age of 15. So, for Sisi, a lot of her time and energy went into finding forms of diversion or you might even say escapism because she was so unhappy at the court, so unhappy in her marriage, so unhappy being under the thumb of her domineering mother-in-law, and she was so unhappy that her children were taken from her.
So a huge part of what she did was tried to escape all of that. And unsuccessfully so I think, as this poetry indicates. She never really found peace, she never really found a feeling of rootedness, but I think some of her methods of escapism were travel (compulsive travel), again a cult of beauty to which we referred earlier, her obsessive care with her physical beauty and her health and her exercise and her weight. And then there were her studies: she was an obsessive student of anything from Ancient Greek to German philosophy and then through her different relationships. And so inevitably all of these avenues and all these routes of diversion, proved to be somewhat disappointing, proved to be somewhat illusory in the end. And yet, hers was definitely a life-long quest to find these diversions through which she might escape from what she considered a very miserable and unhappy life at the Viennese Court.
AUTHORLINK: Speaking of travelling, in preparation for writing The Accidental Empress you went to places like Budapest and Madeira for research. Had you also visited Sisi’s palace called ‘The Archilleion’ in Corfu, Greece?
PATAKI: I’ve been to Greece, but I did not ever visit The Archilleion, her most sprawling, most lavish home that she built pretty much at the end of her life. And again, going back to her escapism and attempts at diversion, these building projects became a form of escapism for her as well, because she did everything exactly to her liking; from the light fixtures, to the China off of which she ate, to the garden, to the statues that were in the garden. Everything was exactly how she wanted. Franz Joseph indulged her every whim. Franz Joseph even negotiated with the Greek government to make sure that Sisi could build on this land and could build to the scale that she wanted. That she could have a power-generator so that it could support the huge estate.
And then much to his chagrin, Sisi decided, as she so often did because of her restless spirit, once the house was done and the work was done – the quest, the striving was done – she became bored with it! And she didn’t want to be there anymore. And so she sold it! That’s kind of an interesting example of Sisi’s character and restlessness. I’ve read extensively about it and looked at photos, but no, I’ve never been to Corfu. Have you been there?
AUTHORLINK: No, I haven’t but it has always been one of the places I’ve wanted to visit.