This novel of historical fiction is packed with intrigue and temptation about one of the most remarkable women in the history of the 19th century. It debuted at #7 on the New York Times Best-Seller List.
By Columnist Anna Roins
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.
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