The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki
The year 2016 was, for me, one of many discoveries. I explored beyond my literary comfort zone and pushed past my mental block that modern and local books are not as good as the classics. It was worth it because I found many new treasures to add to my bookshelf. There were also some books that I loved way more than others. As part of our 2016 Year in Review I’m going to share with you what was, in my opinion, the best read of that year: “The Accidental Empress”.
The nineteenth century holds a peculiar magic for me, and any literature set in it especially captivates me. It’s also magical when a modern writer can capture the essence of a time period so entirely that the reader does not feel like a mere on-looker who cannot relate to the issues of a great monarchy. That is exactly what Pataki has achieved.
“The Accidental Empress” is written from the view-point of Empress “Sisi” Elisabeth of Austria. According to most historical accounts about the empress, she was the epitome of fashion and beauty, maybe even more than Marie-Antoinette. Her regimens took hours a day and comprised many lotions, treatments and concoctions. However, Allison Pataki’s brilliant fictional biography of Sisi paints a full character whose wits matched her beauty.
Empress Sisi was born and raised as a princess in Bavaria in a lackadaisical, wild manner compared to the children of the imperial court in Vienna. It is arranged by Sisi’s mother and her Aunt Sophie, Archduchess of Austria, for Sisi’s sister and the emperor to get married. Upon arrival at the imperial court Emperor Franz Joseph blatantly falls in love with Sisi instead, and she reciprocates. Despite Sophie’s unapologetic disapproval of Sisi because of her lack of training and her ignorance, the emperor gets his wish. At just sixteen years old Sisi marries into the Habsburg-Lorraine Empire, with utter regal unpreparedness, in the name of love, and with her deeply romantic, hopeful and adventurous dreams.
Sisi is delighted with the presents, attention, and her new husband but she immediately realises that her new life is not all that she hoped it would be. Although Franz proclaims a lifelong dedication to her, he spends even the earliest days of their marriage distant in the political affairs of the Austrian Empire. Sisi also learns quickly that she and Sophie will never see eye-to-eye, and duty is more important than affairs of happiness. This encourages more rebellion from Sisi and she constantly challenges Franz about things that are no business of an empress, her sole role being to produce an heir to the throne. Empress Sisi does perform her duties with her extreme fertility, while still fighting against the complex rules of the Viennese court and for the attention of her beloved husband. Sisi also manages to have an influence in the decisions leading up to the Austro-Prussian war and the duality of the Austria-Hungary monarchy. After suffering from depression, frustration and constant heartbreak, the empress eventually finds happiness and hope at the end of the novel, as well as becoming Queen of Hungary, the one place where she feels at home.
The story in “The Accidental Empress” remains very close to the known facts of the life of Elisabeth and the people surrounding her. However, Pataki manages to personify the characters and setting in such a way that the details of scenery, clothing, food and art accentuate the events, weaving all the magic of nineteenth century Austria and Hungary. Also, every theme is emphasised just enough to create the perfect balance and, although I did some reading on Empress Elisabeth and Emperor Franz beforehand, I was still continuously captured by the element of surprise.
The intended audience for this novel spans widely. It is an easy yet intense read because Sisi’s life is filled with melodrama. It is also a lengthy book but one of the few romance novels I would recommend to a young adult, and I am not a romance fan! The historical information is rich, making it an even higher recommendation in terms of historical fiction. Lastly, I would not advise it as a bedtime read because you would not want to put it down. Happy reading!