AN EMPRESS ON HOLIDAY

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 12:44

The State Apartments at Osborne House were doing good business. Virtually halted by the queue, I had time to reflect on the “good old days” (a decade before my birth) when at the turn of the century several of my relatives were employed on the Royal Estate. My father, I recalled, was taken into the Durbar Room to see preparations for a State banquet. He sometimes told of surreptitious seconds in the Queen’s chair, which had, he noted, remarkably short legs. I was particularly interested in the many portraits of Indians, for two of them once were guests at a Christmas party given by my grandparents.

The table against which I had stopped displayed various photographs, mainly of Queen Victoria’s children, and I was about to move forward when my attention was held by the features of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, concerning whom I had recently done some superficial research.

It would be no exaggeration to say that the wife of Francis Joseph was one of the most beautiful and interesting women of her day. From reproductions of Winterhalter’s portrait it is easy to imagine the almost ethereal loveliness of the sixteen year old girl (the Rose of Bavaria) who in 1854 disembarked from a steamer on the Danube en-route for Vienna and her marriage to the Emperor of Austria, by whom she was chosen in preference to her elder sister, Hellene. The scene at Nussdorf, when Elizabeth and her mother drove off in a golden coach drawn by eight white horses, was of unforgettable splendour. The coachmen, outriders, and footmen wore white wigs that matched the plumes on the horses.

In character the Empress was full of contradictions. Simplicity in some aspects of daily life contrasted with fantastic extravagance in others. At an official banquet she was known to have taken only two slices of bread, a cup of soup, and a little fruit. She drank no wine. On the other hand, her gifts were invariably lavish, and she spent vast sums on new buildings.

She was an accomplished linguist, fluent in six languages including modern Greek, into which she translated Schopenauer. From her father she inherited a love of music. The Duke Max Joseph played the zither, and composed under the pseudonym “Phantasus”. Her favourite composers were Rubenstein, Chopin, and Wagner. There seems to be little doubt that she was legatee also to some of “Good” Duke Max’s eccentricity.

The happiness of Elizabeth’s marriage was brief. Two important factors conspired against it: one in the person of her mother-in-law, the Archduchess Sophie; the other in the extreme exclusiveness of the Austrian aristocracy. The Archduchess, a highly intelligent woman of the world, thirsted for power, and in a short time it became evident that her inexperienced daughter-in-law was destined to be politically out-manoeuvred.

In the eyes of the Austrian élite the young Empress was a Bavarian interloper. Her strong will soon brought her into conflict with petty-minded traditionalists. Her hasty temper, combined with an intense dislike for etiquette, made matters worse. Behaviour that might have been tolerated in a Hapsburg was, in a princess of a side branch of the Royal House of Bavaria, instantly condemned.

At the outset of her reign the Viennese had been eager to take their Emperor’s lovely wife to their hearts, but with the passing years and Elizabeth’s growing tendency to isolate herself from them, her popularity waned. Her charity, her visits to the sick, were forgotten. Throughout the city there were rumours of her temper, her coldness, and her indiscretions; and not infrequently whispers of the Wittelsbach taint spread insidious poison.

From girlhood the Empress was a fearless horsewoman. Even when learning at the Riding School she demanded to be given the most intractable animals. Frustrated in attempts to participate with her husband in ruling the country, thwarted by Madame Mére in the upbringing of her children, and contemptuously indifferent to the vipers’ nest of intrigue at Court, she sought and found consolation in the hunting-field, where her exploits became legendary. During one of her hunting holidays in Ireland, the horse she was riding bolted. Completely unperturbed, Elizabeth rode it to a standstill.

When following hounds in England or Ireland, Elizabeth usually was accompanied by an English officer. Captain George “Bay” Middleton of the 12th Lancers was 30 when first in 1876 he escorted her in the field. She was 39. When the Captain visited Austria, the Emperor welcomed him as a friend, but the Crown Prince, aware of malicious rumours concerning his mother and Middleton, treated him coldly.

Of the many stories of the Empress’s ill-advised friendships, only a few can be verified. At least one, however, has corroborative evidence in letters, and it tells of an incident that might well have formed the plot of an operetta. A detailed account of it is given in Joan Haslip’s excellent biography, The Lonely Empress.

It was carnival time – the time when an awareness of the gaiety of other circles made Elizabeth even more dissatisfied with the insipidity of her own. The Emperor was in Russia. To relieve her boredom his wife, in disguise, began to explore the city. On Shrove Tuesday, 1874, aided by her lady-in-waiting, the Countess Ida Ferenczy, she contrived to be present at the ball of the Musikverein – the most brilliant high-light of a sparkling season.

At the Musikverein only the women wore masks, and it was also their prerogative to select as a cavalier for the evening any man with whom they wished to dance or flirt. When Fritz Pacher von Theinburg was approached by a lady in a red domino, and commanded to play the gallant to her friend, he would have been blasé indeed if he had not felt somewhat excited and a little flattered. Elizabeth, her identity concealed by a brocaded yellow domino, questioned him about the Emperor’s popularity, and the attitude of the people towards herself – questions to which Herr Pacher made discreet but frank replies. The young civil servant was keen-witted. Initially recognising his interrogator as no ordinary woman, he soon realised who she was. Capriciously, Elizabeth asked him to guess her age, and by giving the correct answer, 36, Fritz revealed too much knowledge. Her ensuing displeasure practically terminated the meeting.

Fritz Pacher, however, was a man of mettle. By the Laws of Carnival Elizabeth could not send him away without first granting a favour. In claiming his privilege, he requested her to remove a glove that he might kiss her hand. His daring paid dividends. Once again the Empress felt her incognita to be secure, and with a return of high spirits she allowed him to take her down to the ballroom floor.

During the time they were together their conversation ranged over a variety of subjects. Elizabeth was an entertaining companion. Society, religion, philosophy, art, literature – all were viewed from an original angle. Heine was her favourite poet. Having learnt from Fritz about his home and career, she suggested another meeting – the next one to be in Stuttgart or Munich.

In the meantime, Ida Ferenczy was on tenterhooks. Dawn was drawing near when she signalled that it was time to return to the Hofburg, and the trio went out to the hired fiacre beside which Fritz, exhilarated by champagne and the success of his gallantry, suddenly tried to lift Elizabeth’s mask, only to be foiled in the nick of time by the vigilance of the Empress’s companion.

Rather surprisingly, this undignified departure of the ladies did not end the affair. Elizabeth, for reasons not easy to determine, decided to write. The correspondence, which she arranged to be posted in various cities, and even in foreign countries, makes curious reading. It was signed “Gabrielle”, and it continued until Fritz Pacher in one of his replies (collected from the Poste Restante, Munich) disclosed that he knew Gabrielle and his sovereign were the same person. For the second time Elizabeth was offended by his presumption. The correspondence ceased.

Unlike many members of her entourage, who suffered agonies when travelling by sea, the Empress was an exceptionally good sailor. In the roughest weather she would go on deck, completely attuned to the fury of the storm. None of the Imperial yachts, however, was suitable for an ocean crossing, and from time to time the Victoria and Albert or the Osborne was borrowed from Queen Victoria. In 1860, with the Osborne at her command, she set out on a recuperative voyage to Madeira, characteristically declining to visit England before proceeding down the Channel. Later, after her sister, the Queen of Naples, had lost her throne, the Victoria and Albert was used for a journey to Trieste, Cadiz, Malta, and Corfu – an island that was to become the site for the Achilleon Palace.

There were two occasions when Elizabeth came to the Isle of Wight, the first visit being made on account of her daughter’s health. This visit, when she stayed at Steephill Castle, is described in a separate article entitled Elizabeth Slept There and is available to read on this website. Elizabeth and Queen Victoria were not compatible, as Elizabeth was shy and she found Victoria rather awe-inspiring, repeatedly making excuses for declining invitations to dine at Osborne.

In 1884 however, at the end of another sojourn in this country, the Empress made a leave-taking call at Osborne, during which the old Queen, succumbing to an exercise of charm, graciously overlooked her past conduct and treated her with sympathy and friendliness.

On September 10th, 1898, Elizabeth, still assuming the name of Countess von Hohenembs, left the Hotel Beau-Rivage in Geneva, to embark for Territet. Her servants were already on the boat, leaving only the Countess Sytáray to escort her to the empty quay. The time was shortly after one, and most of the guests at the hotel were still at lunch. For the anarchist, Luccheni, both time and place were ideal. To break cover, stiletto in hand, and stab his victim through the heart was the work of seconds. It was an appropriate death for the talented and tormented woman, from whom tragedy never had been far removed.

T. C. Hudson
© T. C. Hudson.

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