Guten tag von Wien,
I suppose we perceive castles and palaces of long-gone royalty as a curiosity; our visits as tourists a pause for relief (relieved that we no longer govern ourselves like that) or a nod to the decadence, and a determination not to let it happen again.
On the other hand, some of the tourists are almost certainly envious of the lotus-eating lifestyle, wishing it was them who’d been born into this opulence.
I would argue that in an era when we consider everyone to have the right to self-actualisation, we sub-consciously also feel sympathy for those who are caught in the trap.
Elizabeth, wife of Franz Josef of the Hapsburg empire was definitely caught in a trap.
The Hapsburg Empire ruled a huge slab of fertile Europe for 640 years before World War 1 brought democracy to the new nation states. Of the largely forgettable dynasty, Elizabeth (Sisi) is the one who excites the most enduring interest (three feature films and a museum all to herself in the winter palace).
Sisi married Franz Josef at the age of 16 in the middle of the 19th century. Like some other women before and since, she regretted the decision from Day One. She famously ran from the room on being introduced to the court on the wedding day. She wrote a lot during her time in the family.
“I stand alone, as on a star.”
She spent the next 45 years suffering a very lonely existence. For her, there were often spent long periods away from Vienna (reliable estimates say she spent more time abroad than here during her marriage) and rode horses at dangerous speeds, exposing herself to considerable risk. (She recovered from two serious falls early in that period.)
After Sisi’s son Rudolf suicided in about 1879, she took to wearing only black and became increasingly reclusive.
“O, had I but never left the path. That would have led me to freedom,
O, That on the broad avenues of vanity I had never strayed.”
When she was home at either the winter palace or the summer palace (both shockingly decadent dwellings) it took a full day for her servants to wash her ankle-length hair (using a mixture of egg yolk and cognac). She wrote poetry and read Heinrich Heiner, a German poet who was persona non grata at the Habsburg court (too radical).
Sisi’s lonely life shows us that the constraints of royalty can be dehumanising for the individual. For all of the inequity ingrained in the system, the individual who is entrapped also has a story to tell. Sisi felt stifled by the inability to express herself as she wanted. She couldn’t even raise her own children (one also died at two years).
As a tourist a hundred years later, Linda drew on her strong anti-royal sentiments and showed no sympathy: “spoilt brat” and “her fault” came gushing forth. “They have a duty to behave in such a way,” she argued. This is admittedly a strong argument but don’t we feel sorry for Sisi and Lady Di and others because they show their frailties, make bad decisions in their youth and become trapped in a system most of us truly would not want to be part of. Aren’t we glad that occasionally one of them shows themselves to be human, after all? I think we secretly feel glad we ourselves didn’t land in such a lonely existence.
“The soul was never born that understood me,” wrote Sisi.
When Sisi was assassinated in 1898 she must have been relieved herself after such a tortuous life. It’s alright to feel sorry for the trapped individual whilst simultaneously wanting the system to change.
Auf weidersehen from Vienna