This column book is supposed to be about famous Hungarians who we are proud of, regardless of how well known they are internationally. no matter whether the rest of the world knows about them or not. But then there are “honorary” Hungarians as well. Although Franz Joseph’s spouse Elisabeth von Wittelsbach had no Hungarian blood, she still deserves a place in the national pantheon as the Guardian Angel of the Hungarians. Wherever you read “Erzsébet” in a place name, it must be named after “Sisi”, as she is otherwise known. In Budapest alone we have Erzsébetváros (7th District), Pesterzsébet, and of course, the Erzsébet Bridge: on the Buda side you’ll find a statue of her in a romanticized pose. The myth of her role in appeasing Emperor Franz Joseph is unshakable in the minds of Hungarians. No matter what historians might add, we have always been sentimental towards her, and she is considered as “Patrona Hungariae”.
However, my schoolboy knowledge of the saintly empress was shattered by a very good friend of mine, Simon Corrigan, who after publishing two novels decided to write a book about Sisi. He even moved from London to Budapest to research her life. In his book, which he never completed due to his untimely passing, he planned to portray her as a neurotic who suffered from manic depression. After endless discussions and bottles of wine we could never agree on Sisi’s real character. These conversations still haunt me. Simon was adamant in proving his point by telling me how she went on six-to-eight hour walks, neglected her children, and lived on cold beef broth just to maintain a slim figure. He even thought her open attachment to the Hungarians was an act inspired by selfishness. Of course he had a point, but he could not fathom what lay behind the Hungarians’ adulation of Sisi.
It is true that today’s psychiatrists would probably treat her for bipolar depression – with lithium instead of cocaine. But then she had every reason to be depressed. She became Franz Joseph’s wife as an unbridled teenager aged at the age of 16 (the Emperor’s mother, Sophie, had originally intended her elder sister Helene Wittelsbach to be his spouse). Sisi was then locked away in the Hofburg under the watchful eye of her mother-in-law and her entourage – torture for a young girl who showed a predilection for manly sports. You’ll understand a lot more about the perverted protocol of the Habsburgs if you visit the Hofburg in Vienna, and you’ll probably end up sympathizing with Sisi’s minor rebellions, like demanding her own bathroom and gymnastics rings. Maybe it was the golden cage of regal misery that caused her psychosomatic illnesses. She balanced the claustrophobia with a maniacal passion for travelling, which provided a good opportunity for escape.
It must have been her yearning for freedom and her defiance of the court that drove her to support the Hungarian cause. She learnt Hungarian, and spent a lot of time in Hungary. She irritated the court by surrounding herself with Magyars, and became a life-long friend of Count Gyula Andrássy, “the handsome hanged man,” as he was called after seventy-five exiled leaders were hanged in effigy following the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-49. But times change, and so 18 years later Franz Joseph had a change of heart, and appointed Andrássy as Prime Minister of Hungary. The political compromise or “Ausgleich” of 1867 was of course a turning point in Hungarian history: Franz Joseph was crowned as King, and Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary. The Dual Monarchy was created. From then on Sisi formed the emotional tie between the rebellious Hungarians and imperial Austria. But Sisi needed the Hungarians as much as they needed her. It was a fortunate quirk of history. A less fortunate coincidence was her encounter with a young anarchist named Luigi Lucheni, who stabbed her in the heart in 1898. His original target, the French Duke d’Orleans, had travelled elsewhere, and so he turned on Elisabeth instead. The Hungarian nation mourned her loss. Even today, you can often see freshly cut flowers by her statue at Erzsébet Bridge.
Simon Corrigan (1964-2006)