She was the Princess Diana of her time, a storied beauty who longed for more than the trappings of royalty. So why has Sisi been largely lost to history?
Allison Pataki’s new novel, Sisi: Empress on Her Own covers the turbulent later life of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, known to her subjects as Sisi. While her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph, struggles to maintain the power of his monarchy, Sisi seeks refuge from the stifling halls of the royal court in late 19th-century Vienna, where her every move is watched and analyzed.
Sisi travels around Europe, often accompanied by her youngest daughter, Valerie, the only one of her three children she was allowed to raise without the interference of her mother-in-law, the Archduchess Sophie. Whispers start at Sisi’s frequent trips away from the Hofburg Palace and her close relationships with other men—namely the darkly handsome Count Andrássy, a key advisor to her husband.
Pataki, whose own family roots trace to Hungary, the Czech Republic and Austria, became intrigued with the empress during a trip to Austria a decade ago.
“Everywhere I went, I saw images of this striking woman,” Pataki says during a call to her home in Chicago, where she lives with her husband—a resident in ortho-pedic surgery—and their newborn daughter.
“Her smile looked a little mysterious, a little sad, like there was more behind it. I thought, this is a really intriguing woman. Why don’t I know more about her?”
Pataki began researching and soon realized she had struck literary gold—enough for two books. (The first, The Accidental Empress, was published in 2015.)
“I didn’t know how much I could rely on the historical record, but the more I looked into it, the blueprint for the story was right there in the facts,” she says. “You have the stunning settings of the Alps and palaces and courts. You have the characters of the most powerful man in Europe [Franz Joseph] and Mad King Ludwig [Sisi’s cousin, the King of Bavaria].”
And, of course, you have Sisi, a woman Pataki calls “larger than life even in her own life. She inspired mythology the way a Princess Diana or a Jackie Kennedy did.”
Pataki, the daughter of former New York Gov. George Pataki, grew up in New York and moved to Chicago for her husband’s residency. The lifelong New Yorker is acclimating to her new home.
“What I love about New York is the layer upon layer upon layer of history,” she says. “Chicago is so wonderful because it’s so livable and friendly. You get all the wonderful aspects of New York—great restaurants, great museums—but a slower pace. I consider them both home.”
Pataki began her career in journalism, mostly working for cable news. It was not for her.
"I love getting to the bottom of people’s stories."
“I love history. I love writing. I love narrative. I love getting to the bottom of people’s stories. I thought that meant I should be a journalist,” she says. “But it was get in, get out, boil the story down to 15 seconds or less. I was told, use less big words, be more snarky.
“I was going home at the end of the day and writing fiction. It was writing therapy. It was so much fun I thought it couldn’t actually be a job. It was everything I thought I would love about journalism. I decided I would give myself a short window to see if I could make this a career.”
Pataki quickly learned that historical fiction was her niche. “My whole bookshelf is historical fiction,” she says. “Historical fiction makes history accessible and entertaining.”
While Pataki does meticulous research before diving into a novel, she wants readers to understand the difference between historical fiction and biographies.
“I’m not intending to write dry, historical text,” she says. “I’m not a historian, I’m a novelist. Don’t take my version as the Bible. This is a novel.”
Still, Pataki shows deep reverence for and understanding of her subject, and draws a sympathetic portrait that shows the empress was more than her beauty. Where The Accidental Empress focused on Sisi as a young, naive woman—she was married in 1854 at only 16—Sisi portrays a woman at midlife who very much understands her place in the world, even as she resists it. Though she was disappointed in her marriage and disconnected from her older children, Sisi found happiness in travel and horse riding.
“Sisi was never one to derive her greatest joy from her husband and children,” Pataki says. “She was such a wandering, restless spirit.”
After spending so much time reading and writing about Sisi, Pataki struggled to write about the empress’ 1898 death in Geneva at the early age of 60, at the hands of an assassin. The Italian anarchist had another target in mind, and stabbed Sisi only after his initial plan failed.
“It was incredibly different at times to write about the tragedy of it all,” she says. “It was a split-second decision . . . just the dumb bad luck of that really struck me.”
Still, Pataki believes that, for a woman so defined by her legendary beauty, dying before she became an old woman might have been Sisi’s wish. Conscious of the public’s scrutiny, the empress maintained her legendary slender waistline through exercise, fasting and tight corset lacing, and she spent hours grooming her famously long and thick hair.
“Sisi wrote very often to family and in journals that she wanted death to take her quickly and young,” Pataki says. “In some ways, it was eerie that she almost prophesied her death.”
Sisi is a deeply moving book about a complex character.