Review: _The Accidental Empress:_ I liked the subject, but as to the rest...
I get very fussy about books, especially when it comes to what I think of as 'historical biography,' where an author takes an actual person who lived, and then crafts a novel around their lives. Sometimes they can be a great success, such as those penned by Elizabeth Chadwick and Sharon Kay Penman. Then there are those that are just, well, average. And finally there are those novels that make me want to hurl them at the wall with great force, and tend to go straight into the bag for the library donations when I am finished with them.
Such was the case with Allison Pataki's recent novel, The Accidental Empress, about the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, wife of Franz Joseph, and who was considered to be one of the great beauties of nineteenth century Europe. The novel opens as Sisi (as Elisabeth was nicknamed) and her older sister Nene (Helene) are informed that they are going to the resort town of Bad Ischl in Austria, to meet with Emperor Franz Joseph's mother, the Archduchess Sophie, with the intent of Nene becoming his wife. Nene, who is serious and seems to pretty much be heading for a nunnery, isn't that interested in leaving their rural life. She hasn't any desire to enter into the stiff formality and contrivancies of the Hapsburg court, but she's also rather intimadated by their mother. Then there's Sisi, all of fifteen, who just wants to be able to roam where she pleases and go horseback riding.
As fate would have it, it's Sisi who is chosen to become Empress, and it's pretty clear from the get-go that Franz Joseph (Franzi) is smitten with her and he woos her carefully with exactly what will please her -- horses and more than a little flattery. To Sisi, it's a bit scary and delightful -- after all, she's just a teenager -- and while she does have a bit of guilt over Nene, there's very little to stop her from saying yes. Of course, there's a snake in every paradise, and this one is the Emperor's mother, the Archduchess Sophie, who was seeing Nene as the perfect bride, and unable to raise a fuss.
Soon enough, it's mother vs. wife in a war of wills, and it's a good bet to assume that Sophie will win. Sisi becomes pregnant fairly quickly, and while she has a daughter, Gisela, the Archduchess immediately sets in with barbs and nasty romours that Sisi is a failure because the baby isn't a boy. Worst still, she takes the baby away from Sisi to raise, saying that as the Empress is just barely a child, how can she possibly raise a child herself? Franz, instead of being supportive and backing his wife from his mother's attacks, retreats into overwork, which leaves Sisi abandoned and alone. When she bears a second daughter, life starts to show its cracks...
I wanted to like this novel. I first encountered Sisi in the marvelous portraits that were created of her by Winterhalter. I found the biography by Joan Haslip and enjoyed it very much, and tended to find out as much as I could. However, there are some deep holes in this one, many of which left me feeling dissatisfied with the novel. Sisi is a bit of a twit in this one, and much of the novel is spent with her moaning internally about how dreadful everyone is treating her. Her pouting over Franz's infidelity -- he had a taste for mature women and actresses -- was very off-putting. Yes, he probably cheated on her, but the attitude at the time was that men weren't exactly faithful, and a wife was to put up with it and smile -- at least in public. Sisi starts to loathe Austria, but when she arrives in Hungary for the first time, she falls in love with the other country, along with having a mostly platonic affair with a political leader, Count Andrassy.
Along the way there are all sorts of little errors that made me grit my teeth. Sisi has all of ONE maid -- which is laughable, as anyone who has studied nineteenth century clothing knows that the more elaborate styles that someone such as Sisi would wear would require at least several attendants. We also have The Great Corset Debate -- all corsets were uncomfortable and pinching, of course. This I cry BS on, as I've worn Victorian style corsets, and if they are fitted and sewn properly, they can be comfortable. Finally, there is the never ending internal dialogue going on, and it tends to be the same ruminations over and over. Then there's the affair over Andrassy -- while there are rumours, there is nothing proved in the long run. Sisi also gets upset when Andrassy has a wife; and he in return is furious when Sisi does her primary job as Imperal broodmare and finally gives Franz the son he wants. It's more than a little projection of modern attitudes onto historical characters, and the reality was a bit different. Most women probably did not stray out of the marriage bounds what with the two great risks of unwanted pregnancy and venerial disease.
One nitpicky thing that drove me nuts was Pataki's use of royal titles -- she calls Sisi a princess, which technically she wasn't. The Bavarian house divided those born in direct liniage from the King of Bavaria as Dukes (or Duchesses) of Bavaria, and those born to various uncles and brothers as Dukes or Duchesses in Bavaria. She was certainly royal, but just not quite. Then the author goes on to describe all of Sisi's children as prince/princesses, when in reality, the Hapsburgs used the title 'Archduke/Archduchesses.' Yes, I know it's a novel, and that the author has the right to write it anyway she wants, however she wants. But this is a sticky little point, and it drove me crazy as I read the book. To compound the issue, Pataki jettisons quite a few historical figures as well, such as Franz's father, who was still alive while his son was Emperor; Franz's brother, Maximilian who had a tragic live leading to a Mexican firing squad, along with Sisi's eldest brother Wilhelm, who would become King of Bavaria. Finally, I guess that the Austrians didn't care much about interbreeding, as both Franz and Sisi are first cousins, and the Wittlesbach (the ruling family of Bavaria) were considered to be a bit unstable anyway.
In short, I disliked this novel. It's not awful, it's just well, average. The novel ends suddenly with Sisi being pregnant once again -- seems that Franz only has to sleep with her once and she gets pregnant, and a hint of the future. I don't know if there is going to be a sequel or not, but I'm probably not going to bother with it. I had a terrible time with this one, and I kept checking the page count at the bottom of my Nook display to see if the damn book was ever going to end. While there isn't anything too outre about this one, it's probably more suitable to older teens.
In addition to the narrative, there are extras such as an interview with the author and a readers' guide for groups.
I give this one three stars. It has its moments but overall, it's pretty much an average read.
The Accidental Empress
2015; Howard Books, Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Rebecca Huston asserts her rights as the sole author of this review.