Sisi: Empress on Her Own
Introduction: When tragic news brings Sisi out of her fragile seclusion, Sisi is forced to return to Vienna where she struggles with conflicting desires: to keep her family together, or to flee amid the collapse of her suffocating marriage and the gathering tumult of the First World War. In an age of crumbling monarchies, Sisi fights to assert her right to the throne beside her husband, to win the love of her people and the world, and to save an empire. But in the end, can she save herself?
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. The Habsburg family is perhaps most famous for being the family to start World War I when its heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo. But the world did not simply erupt into a global conflict over night. What signs do we see throughout this novel that a major international crisis is looming?
2. What is your favorite thing about seeing the Habsburg Court come to life? Is it the music? The fashion? The court rituals? Discuss the aspects of this time period and setting that you enjoyed learning about.
3. The opening quotes of this novel are Sisi explaining why she is such a compulsive traveler, and her lady-in-waiting describing Sisi’s perpetual restlessness. What significance does travel play in Sisi’s life throughout this novel? What are some other forms of escape, literal or symbolic, for the empress?
4. Discuss the three great love interests of Sisi’s life – Franz Joseph, Julius Andrassy, and Bay Middleton. How do they each treat her differently? How does Sisi behave differently with each of them? Was any one of them the one true love of Sisi’s life?
5. Were Crown Prince Rudolf’s troubled adulthood and tragic death inevitable? What impact did Sisi have on his fate? Would history have been different had Rudolf lived?
6. Sisi is still remembered to this day for her otherworldly beauty. Everyone from the Shah of Persia to the Kaiser of Germany proclaimed admiration for her. Discuss this aspect of her personality. Does Sisi’s vanity make her unlikable? Is her fixation with her looks in any way understandable?
7. Discuss the character of King Ludwig of Bavaria. What role does Ludwig play in Sisi’s life? How does Ludwig differ from some of the other monarchs we meet throughout the novel?
8. While at the Archduchess Sophie’s deathbed, Sisi comes across her mother-in-law’s diary and reads various different passages that take her back to significant moments in her life and in her problematic relationship with Sophie. Discuss this moment. Did this insight into Sophie’s feelings change your understanding of her at all? How did this revelation affect Sisi?
9. Sisi often laments the responsibilities of her royal role, fighting against the expectations placed upon her, whereas Franz Joseph is more accepting of his obligations and duties. Do you think Sisi had it difficult? How would you feel if you were thrust into her place?
10. What would have happened had Sisi not been murdered by anarchist Luigi Luccheni? Would the fate of the Habsburg Empire have been altered? Would Franz Joseph have been different? Would history have played out differently?
The Accidental Empress
Introduction:When fifteen-year-old Elisabeth, “Sisi,” Duchess of Bavaria, travels to the Habsburg Court with her older sister, she finds herself in an unexpected dilemma: she has inadvertently fallen for and won the heart of her sister’s groom. Emperor Franz Joseph reneges on his earlier proposal and declares his intention to marry Sisi instead. But being thrust onto the throne of Europe’s most treacherous imperial court presents quite a few challenges for the spirited young girl. Sisi upsets political and familial loyalties in her quest to win and keep the love of her emperor, her people, and of the world.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Though Sisi was often referred to as “The Fairy Queen,” this is not your typical fairy tale, in which a girl falls in love with a prince and the two of them live happily ever after. Could Sisi and Franz Joseph have had a happy marriage? Why or why not? How does Pataki’s novel take up the notion of “happily ever after” as it relates to the lives and marriages of the novel’s characters?
2. When Sophie learns of her son’s intention to marry Sisi, the archduchess has this to say: “She is not fit. It is as simple as that. She is too young—a child really, too giddy. Unable to fulfill the role and all of its obligations.” What was it about Sisi that made her, in Sophie’s eyes, “not fit” for the role of empress and wife? Was Sophie at all correct? Why did Sophie prefer that her son marry Helene?
3. As eager as she is to marry Franz Joseph, Sisi quickly becomes overwhelmed and intimidated by the amount of work that goes into preparing for her new role as empress. How would you feel in Sisi’s situation? Would you be excited to undergo such an extreme transformation?
4. On their wedding day, Franz Joseph turns to Sisi and says: “Repräsentazions-pflicht. Keeping up the front. That’s what this is. We play our roles today.” In what ways does Sisi resist this requirement of life at the Habsburg Court? Why does this job requirement bother Franz Joseph less? Would Sisi’s life have been easier if she had just accepted “how things are done,” as Sophie and Franz Joseph so often urge her to?
5. While Sisi bristles at many of the customs and rules of her new life at the Habsburg Court, perhaps nothing upsets her more in her first few days than when she discovers that Sophie has had her red slippers thrown away. Discuss this moment. Why do these “tattered red slippers” matter so much to Sisi? What other moments were difficult for Sisi in her adjustment to life at court?
6. Consider the character of Ludovika. What does the duchess’s presence at court mean to Sisi? Discuss the various mother figures in the novel. How does Sisi’s relationship with her mother compare to her relationships with her own daughters?
7. What is the most difficult aspect of Sisi’s life as empress?
8. Franz Joseph often finds himself in the middle of the conflicts between Sisi and Sophie. How does he do at navigating the tense dynamic? What might he have done differently? Were you in any way sympathetic to Franz Joseph, with the various pressures he shouldered in his roles as emperor, husband, son, and father?
9. Sisi feels dislike for Andrássy before she even knows him. How and why does her impression of Andrássy change over the course of the novel? Did your impression of Andrássy change throughout the book?
10. Throughout the novel, Pataki has chosen to intersperse the chapters with scenes from the Budapest coronation of 1867. Why did the author choose this final scene, in particular, to intersect the rest of the novel? What did this one moment mean for Sisi as empress? As a wife? As a mother? As an individual?
11. Compare Sisi’s relationship to Andrássy with her relationship to Franz Joseph. How are the two men different? In what ways are they similar? How does Sisi behave differently with each of them?
12. Sisi grows more and more consumed by her physical appearance as the novel progresses. Discuss this aspect of her personality. Does her beauty regimen become a true obsession, or is it more of a diversion? Does it make Sisi less sympathetic of a character to see her becoming so vain?
13. Sisi was an avid horseback rider, considered by many to be the best horsewoman in the world during her lifetime. At one point in the novel Sisi tells Andrássy: “I’ve never found a horse that could run fast enough.” Discuss what riding means to the character of Sisi throughout the novel. Through what other diversions does Sisi escape?
14. If you could pick one character from The Accidental Empress with whom to spend a day, which character would it be and why?
15. Consider the two epigraphs at the opening of the novel. Why did the author choose those two quotes? What other quotes are significant throughout the novel?
THE TRAITOR’S WIFE
Introduction: When turncoat Benedict Arnold aided the British during the Revolutionary War, he wasn’t acting alone. Orchestrating the espionage was his spouse, the beautiful socialite Peggy Shippen, whose treachery nearly cost the fledgling nation its fight for freedom. In The Traitor’s Wife, Allison Pataki brings to life an intriguing slice of American history, told from the perspective of Peggy’s lady’s maid, Clara Bell, who must decide where her own loyalties lie.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Before moving to Philadelphia, Clara spent her entire life on a farm in the Pennsylvania countryside. How does Clara’s identity evolve throughout her years of service to Peggy and Benedict Arnold? What character traits does Clara retain? Discuss which characters have the greatest impact on Clara’s growth and development.
2. Why does Clara take a nearly instant dislike to Major John André? Why is she relieved when Judge and Mrs. Shippen refuse to allow Peggy to attend the Meshianza Masque? Compare the way André treats Peggy with how Caleb treats Clara.
3. Clara is flattered at “having so quickly become her lady’s confidante and friend” (page 108). Does Peggy sincerely consider Clara a friend, or is Clara misreading her mistress? Why does Clara so desperately crave Peggy’s approval, and even friendship? At what point does this begin to shift?
4. Discuss the theme of loyalty in the novel. What drives the different characters’ allegiances? Who is the most loyal character?
5. “I hate the man, and I always will,” says Peggy of Benedict Arnold (page 135). Why then does she begin pursuing him the first time they meet? Does she truly come to care about him, or is it all an act?
6. What is your view of Benedict Arnold? Trace his evolution from ardent patriot to turncoat. Do you think he would have committed treason without Peggy’s influence? Why or why not? Discuss both his and Peggy’s motivations for aiding the British.
7. “My husband knows how to win on the battlefield. It’s all brute strength and fighting. But spy work is different—it requires poise, and self-control, and grace. It’s like a delicate dance. And if anyone knows how to dance, it’s me,” says Peggy (page 303). Which traits make Peggy better suited for espionage than Arnold? Why does the couple freely discuss their plans in front of Clara? Is it because they trust her not to reveal their secrets or, as Clara believes, because they find her invisible?
8. When Arnold’s treachery is revealed, he immediately flees and leaves Peggy behind. Given the circumstances, are his actions justifiable in any way? Why doesn’t Peggy hold it against him? Share whether or not you were surprised that Peggy was able to so easily convince George Washington and his companions of her innocence.
9. Does Clara intentionally or unintentionally help the Arnolds commit treason by cracking André’s code and translating the clandestine correspondence? Does her role make Clara partly to blame? What would you have done if you were in her position?
10. At one point in the story, Clara laments that she is not the master of her own fate. How do she and Caleb take charge of their future, both individually and as a couple? Discuss Clara’s warring emotions of impotency and desperation to intervene in the Arnolds’ plot.
11. When Clara confides in Mrs. Quigley about the Arnolds’ plotting, why is the older woman so quick to dismiss her claims? When Mrs. Quigley later understands exactly what’s happening, why does she still advise against Clara and Caleb taking action to stop the Arnolds? Explore how Mrs. Quigley’s response to the news differs from Caleb’s response to the news. Does either of them understand Clara’s position and perspective?
12. Examine the character of George Washington. Why does the novel open on the morning of his visit? What does George Washington mean to Benedict Arnold? To Peggy Arnold? To the servants like Hannah, Caleb, Clara, or the Quigleys? Discuss whether George Washington’s disapproval was the impetus for Arnold to agree to treason.
13. How does Clara use tactics she learned from observing her mistress to achieve her freedom from Peggy? What gives Clara the strength and courage to stand up to the imposing Peggy? Would Clara actually have reported Peggy’s guilt, or was it a bluff?
14. When news comes that Arnold successfully escaped, why is Clara relieved he won’t hang for his crimes? Why does she promise to keep quiet about Peggy’s role in the plot?
15. In what ways did The Traitor’s Wife give you new insights into the Revolutionary War? What, if anything, did you learn that surprised you?