Book Review: "The Reluctant Empress" by Brigitte Hamann

Rating: 5/5 stars

Blurb:
“Empress Elisabeth of Austria, known to her family as Sisi, belongs to a famous love story of European royalty. In 1853, the Emperor Franz Josef, the most eligible bachelor in Europe, fell in love with her at first sight when she was fifteen; they were married the next year. On the surface, it was a fairytale marriage, all the more poignant, with hindsight, because her death signalled the twilight years of the Habsburg Empire.
At the time of its first publication in 1988, Brigitte Hamann’s biography, which tells Elisabeth’s story from her birth as a member of the Bavarian nobility to her assassination at the hands of an Italian anarchist, led to a revised and deeper understanding of Elisabeth. During her lifetime she was idolised solely for her grace and beauty; now, for the first time, the Empress was portrayed as a stronger character, bitter at her marriage, seeking independence, and struggling against the powerful influence of her mother-in-law, the Archduchess Sophie. Researched by a respected historian, this is the definitive account of Elisabeth’s life, death and legacy.”
Review:
There are some people in history, and indeed in modern life, whose stories beg to be told, and to be read. They led such interesting lives, had such trials and tribulations that their lives could almost be a work of fiction. Elisabeth, Sisi, is probably one of those people.
Married to an Emperor at a young age, famous for her beauty, notorious for her whims, it would be easy to turn Elisabeth into a real life Disney princess. Indeed, when Sisi’s own poetry, one of the only surviving sources into the Empress’ real mind, compares her world to mythology and fantasy it’s not easy to construct a ‘real’ view of the woman.
Brigitte Hamann attempts to do just this, however. I say “attempts” because I question how possible it is for any person to give a full account of another rather than because Hamann falls short. Indeed, Hamann is quite clearly a skilled historian and biographer, balancing sources from various people, times, and political leanings, combining this with Elisabeth’s own poetry to try and form a picture of the Empress’ life, how she preserved her life, and her mental state generally. Hamann herself does not romanticise the story and nor does she emphasise the tragedy of the Empress’ life but she does include quotes from those close to Elisabeth that do just that. Indeed, the inclusion of such quotes strengthen the biography greatly as they are often highly emotive and add a human aspect as well as helping to provide a more rounded view.
The structure of this book also worked well for me. It’s split into themed sections around different aspects of her life. These sections are arranged as to be vaguely chronological but this order is not strict by any stretch of the imagination. I do feel that the ‘sectioning’ approach works well as it means that one can get a deeper insight into themes within the Empress’ life without losing track. However, it is quite easy to get lost as to when things are happening which can lead to some confusion, if you’re not careful. This layout could also mean that there are possible difficulties in forming a causal view of Sisi’s life as one cannot easily look at it as a developing sequence of events. This is the only possible complaint I have of the novel, personally, and it is very minor.
As for the writing style itself, I read this book in the English translation by Ruth Hein. Although I haven’t read the original German (choosing to take the easy route for once!), and therefore am unable to compare for exact accuracy and for tone, it is clear that this is a fantastic translation. There are no awkward moments where language jars and there are no moments where it’s obvious that the concept has been lost between English and German, something that can often happen with translations. Hein’s translation is clear and enjoyable therefore I feel she deserves as much praise for the work as its original author!
Overall, I think that this biography could be enjoyed by almost anyone due to the unusual nature of Sisi’s life and temperament making it an interesting read even if one had no real prior interest in the Empress. This, combined with the easy to read style, makes it a highly accessible biography which can serve as an introduction to the woman or as a more in depth study, depending upon the reader’s interests and knowledge.

To buy a physical copy of this novel from the official ‘Sisi shop’, which is cheaper than elsewhere even with shipping, click here and for the kindle version on amazon here.
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