This reading group guide for The Accidental Empress includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Allison Pataki. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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Topics & Questions for Discussion
1) Though Sisi was often referred to as “The Fairy Queen,” this is not your typical fairy tale, in which a girl falls in love with a prince and the two of them live happily ever after. Could Sisi and Franz Joseph have had a happy marriage? Why or why not? How does Pataki’s novel take up the notion of “happily ever after” as it relates to the lives and marriages of the novel’s characters?
2) When Sophie learns of her son’s intention to marry Sisi, the archduchess has this to say: “She is not fit. It is as simple as that. She is too young—a child really, too giddy. Unable to fulfill the role and all of its obligations.”
What was it about Sisi that made her, in Sophie’s eyes, “not fit” for the role of empress and wife? Was Sophie at all correct? Why did Sophie prefer that her son marry Helene?
3) As eager as she is to marry Franz Joseph, Sisi quickly becomes overwhelmed and intimidated by the amount of work that goes into preparing for her new role as empress. How would you feel in Sisi’s situation? Would you be excited to undergo such an extreme transformation?
4) On their wedding day, Franz Joseph turns to Sisi and says: “Repräsentazions-pflicht. Keeping up the front. That’s what this is. We play our roles today.”
In what ways does Sisi resist this requirement of life at the Habsburg Court? Why does this job requirement bother Franz Joseph less? Would Sisi’s life have been easier if she had just accepted “how things are done,” as Sophie and Franz Joseph so often urge her to?
5) While Sisi bristles at many of the customs and rules of her new life at the Habsburg Court, perhaps nothing upsets her more in her first few days than when she discovers that Sophie has had her red slippers thrown away. Discuss this moment. Why do these “tattered red slippers” matter so much to Sisi? What other moments were difficult for Sisi in her adjustment to life at court?
6) Consider the character of Ludovika. What does the duchess’s presence at court mean to Sisi? Discuss the various mother figures in the novel. How does Sisi’s relationship with her mother compare to her relationships with her own daughters?
7) What is the most difficult aspect of Sisi’s life as empress?
8) Franz Joseph often finds himself in the middle of the conflicts between Sisi and Sophie. How does he do at navigating the tense dynamic? What might he have done differently? Were you in any way sympathetic to Franz Joseph, with the various pressures he shouldered in his roles as emperor, husband, son, and father?
9) Sisi feels dislike for Andrássy before she even knows him. How and why does her impression of Andrássy change over the course of the novel? Did your impression of Andrássy change throughout the book?
10) Throughout the novel, Pataki has chosen to intersperse the chapters with scenes from the Budapest coronation of 1867. Why did the author choose this final scene, in particular, to intersect the rest of the novel? What did this one moment mean for Sisi as empress? As a wife? As a mother? As an individual?
11) Compare Sisi’s relationship to Andrássy with her relationship to Franz Joseph. How are the two men different? In what ways are they similar? How does Sisi behave differently with each of them?
12) Sisi grows more and more consumed by her physical appearance as the novel progresses. Discuss this aspect of her personality. Does her beauty regimen become a true obsession, or is it more of a diversion? Does it make Sisi less sympathetic of a character to see her becoming so vain?
13) Sisi was an avid horseback rider, considered by many to be the best horsewoman in the world during her lifetime. At one point in the novel Sisi tells Andrássy: “I’ve never found a horse that could run fast enough.”
Discuss what riding means to the character of Sisi throughout the novel. Through what other diversions does Sisi escape?
14) If you could pick one character from The Accidental Empress
with whom to spend a day, which character would it be and why?
15) Consider the two epigraphs at the opening of the novel. Why did the author choose those two quotes? What other quotes are significant throughout the novel? A Conversation with Allison Pataki The Accidental Empress is quite the dramatic story!
Yes, it certainly is full of drama. Sisi, or Empress Elisabeth, was an incredibly complex individual who lived in a fascinating moment in history. And her story—in some ways very relatable, in some ways completely foreign—played out before such an epic backdrop, with all the accompanying glitz of the Habsburg Court and the tumult of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. What in this is true, and where does the “fiction” part of the “historical fiction” genre come in?
I decided early on that I would be crazy not
to rely heavily on the historical record for plot and character development in The Accidental Empress
. The raw material itself was so good and intriguing that there were all of the fixings in there to make a compelling novel.
To begin with, Sisi was not supposed to be Empress of Austria. Hence, the title of this novel. Sisi was a free-spirited girl who left Possenhofen (and a wild, unstructured lifestyle like the one you see her living at the start of this book) at the age of fifteen. She traveled with her mother and sister to support Helene in her coming engagement to Emperor Franz Joseph.
Sisi did in fact inadvertently steal the spotlight when they arrived in Bad Ischl, and, in doing so, inadvertently stole her sister’s groom. Archduchess Sophie was not happy to see her plans derailed. Some of Sophie’s quotes in this novel lamenting the unsuitability of such a match are exact quotes.
The plot of The Accidental Empress
begins with their arrival in Bad Ischl, the women dressed in black (after getting separated on the road from their clothing trunks), and that is in fact how it occurred. Subsequent events and details such as Franz Joseph’s unanticipated attraction to Sisi, the cotillion dance for his birthday, the preparations leading up to their marriage, the births of their children, and their periods of closeness and estrangement are based on historical fact.
Descriptions of the incredibly difficult hand Franz Joseph was dealt concerning Austria’s foreign policy, and the wars that ensued in and around the Austrian Empire, are also based on the facts. Sisi did in fact accompany Franz Joseph on the trip to Hungary in 1857, much to Archduchess Sophie’s vexation. While it started out as a great trip for Sisi—one that began her lifelong love affair with Hungary and its people—it was during that time that both her little girls became sick and little Sophie died. The second trip to Hungary described in this book, at which time the dual monarchy was officially established in 1867, was also taken from history.
Many of the most deliciously awkward moments of this novel are plucked directly from the historical record. The Morgengabe
, or morning gift, was given to Sisi the day after she lost her virginity. I also discovered that Sophie would advise the pregnant Sisi to parade before the palace gates to show off her belly to the public, while she would also warn Sisi not to look at the pet parrot, lest the empress have a baby that came out looking like a bird.
Some of the most overwhelming and august moments are true as well: Sisi undergoing a complete makeover in the months before her marriage (and Sophie’s insistence that the bride whiten her teeth and improve her conversational and dancing skills); catalogues of the endless stream of gifts lavished on Sisi by Franz Joseph and Sophie (most likely in an effort to get the “provincial” girl well-dressed enough before her introduction to the highly judgmental Viennese); descriptions of the magnificent wedding ceremony and protocol-dictated reception; the moment in which Sisi flees in a panic during the Kissing of the Hand ceremony; and Sophie accompanying the newlyweds to Laxenburg on their honeymoon, where she spent entire days with a very unhappy Sisi while Franz Joseph returned to Vienna each day to work.
Descriptions of the court rituals are based largely on fact, such as the customs of wearing gloves while eating, and discarding slippers after only several uses. So too are the descriptions of the extreme lengths to which Sisi went with her beauty regimen. Putting slabs of raw meat on her face and washing her hair with egg yolk solutions are two of my favorites. Sisi was compulsively preoccupied with her legendary hair and all that went into its styling and upkeep.
Some of the most tragic and troubling moments in The Accidental Empress
are also taken directly from the historical accounts. Sophie did in fact keep Sisi’s babies in a nursery right off of her own suite, largely restricting Sisi from interacting with them on the pretext that she herself was little more than a child. Sisi was not permitted to nurse or take the lead in raising her young children.
And the pressure to have a son? That’s historically accurate as well. A pamphlet was indeed left in Sisi’s rooms presenting the urgent need to produce a male heir, though historians cannot confirm who put it there. The fight over Rudy’s education—a militaristic education like the one to which Franz had been subjected versus the more well-rounded course for which Sisi advocated—was also a source of great conflict in the Habsburg household.
And, of course, the constant tug-of-war for Franz Joseph’s attention and affection was an ongoing struggle for Sisi as a young bride and mother. Seeing all of these conflicts that Sisi faced, we can’t help but ask: Why doesn’t Sisi stand up for herself more?
Time and again we are rooting for Sisi, and we want to see her stand up for herself. And she does try, throughout. But as twenty-first-century readers, we must resist the temptation to look at Sisi through our modern lens.
The mythology of Sisi that persists today is mostly concerned with the personal tragedies she faced as well as her iconic looks. But there’s obviously much more to the character of Sisi than just the beauty for which she is still remembered. She was a human rights activist, an avid traveler, a lifelong student, a devotee of Shakespeare and poetry and philosophy and foreign languages.
But Sisi’s was a gradual process of self-realization over many difficult years. It would be anachronistic to expect Sisi, a sixteen-year-old bride with almost no formal education and no idea of what marriage and court life entailed, to adapt effortlessly to her very demanding new role.
Sisi was completely ill-prepared for the life into which she was so quickly thrust, and the consequences were as disastrous as you might expect them to be. Franz Joseph, due to both his personality and a lifetime of preparation and grooming, understood the role he was expected to play. He was dutiful and devoted to that role—to the point of coldness at times—for the entirety of his life. In his view, the happiness of the individual mattered very little when compared to one’s duties and obligations.
Sisi did not espouse that unwavering devotion to her role or to the many demands of life at the helm of the Habsburg Empire. Sisi was independent, and romantic, and sensitive, and free-spirited. In addition to her immaturity and inadequate preparation, Sisi also seems to have had precisely the wrong temperament for the job she landed.
In that way, Archduchess Sophie was, oddly enough, correct. You might even say she called that one. What do you make of the character of Sophie? How influential was the archduchess in Sisi’s life and marriage?
Other than Franz Joseph, that relationship is really the dominating one in Sisi’s early life at court. And as you can see, it was an extremely fractious one. One historian refers to Sisi’s “almost pathological dislike of the Archduchess” (Joan Haslip, The Lonely Empress: Elizabeth of Austria
It’s a dynamic as old as time itself: the overbearing mother-in-law, the resentful daughter-in-law, and the hapless husband caught in the middle, clueless as to how to negotiate between the two. Throw in the internal and external pressures that this young couple faced, and you have the recipe for a disaster of epic proportions.
Sophie was a powerful figure, looming large over both the court and over most aspects of Sisi’s private life and marriage. Sophie did in fact take the children from their mother. Sophie did install her ally, Countess Esterházy, in Sisi’s apartments. She did exert influence over her son’s conservative foreign policy.
But, like any human relationship, Sisi’s and Sophie’s was clearly a very complex one with multiple layers and perspectives. Because this novel is written from the perspective of Sisi, I took up a view that casts Sophie in a less-than-flattering light. Sisi was not complimentary of Sophie in her letters and interviews, and those documents have given history a view of the many conflicts in which the two women engaged. Sisi described her mother-in-law in the following way: “I was completely à la merci
of this completely malicious woman. Everything I did was bad. She passed disparaging judgments on anyone I loved. She found out everything because she never stopped prying.”
Sisi was much harsher in her writing than Sophie was on Sisi. In Sophie’s descriptions, you see a devoted—to the point of overbearing and meddling—mother who believes that nothing is too good for her son. What wife can’t help but fall short in those circumstances? But Sophie’s criticisms of Sisi are subtle and nuanced, what we might call passive aggressive. Perhaps that speaks to the different personalities of the two women; while Sisi did not attempt to mask her moods and emotions, Sophie was subtle and shrewd and always aware of how things appeared. And then the other colossal figure in Sisi’s life was Count Julius Andrássy. What do you make of him, both as a character of fiction, and as a real historical figure?
Ah, yes, Andrássy. He makes me swoon, as he made the ladies of his own time swoon.
Multiple biographers refer to Andrássy as the great love of Sisi’s life. Brigitte Hamann is one such example. The sense I got from their own letters and writings was that Andrássy and Sisi shared a deep connection—emotional as well as intellectual—and a profound respect for and devotion to one another. Andrássy seemed to give Sisi the validation she had always craved from Franz Joseph. Andrássy’s letters to Sisi show that he valued her input and he sought her involvement in his political and personal affairs. He actively recruited her as a partner in negotiating the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867.
It is clear that there was an intense affection between Andrássy and Sisi. Andrássy wrote, toward the end of his life, that he was one of the few people in the world who knew the true Sisi. He referred to her as “the pinnacle of all womanhood” and Hungary’s “Beautiful Providence.” Men loved Sisi as soon as they met her. Women loved Andrássy as soon as they met him. What then must the chemistry have been like between the two of them?
Rumors circulated in both Austria and Hungary that they were lovers. Sisi’s fourth child (the one she is carrying at the end of this novel) was gossiped and written about in Vienna as “the Hungarian child,” a moniker that couldn’t help but raise suspicions as to the parentage. Add in Sisi’s decampment from Vienna to Budapest, and her flagrant preference for the company of Hungarians over Austrians, and you have the fixings for scandal on an imperial scale.
The relationship with Andrássy was one that gave Sisi hope and purpose. The years in which Sisi worked closely with Andrássy for the cause of Hungarian autonomy were the years in which she came into her own—both as a woman, and also as a leader. So, in my imagining of it, Andrássy was a huge part of that. Were there places where you deliberately deviated from the historical record to veer off into fiction?
Yes. And that is probably the biggest challenge for me in writing historical fiction: first wrangling the historical record and then allowing myself the creative space to write fiction inspired by it. Each instance where I altered or interpreted the facts was the result of much thought and intentional deliberation.
The Andrássy relationship is one of the biggest instances. As this is a novel and not a biography, I had the luxury of pulling not only from the proven facts, but from the mythology and reports as well. There were rumors and reports that the relationship between Andrassy and Sisi was a romantic one, and they certainly loved one another, but biographers obviously can’t prove definitively whether they were intimate. Additionally, this is the Victorian era we are talking about, so matters as delicate as intimacy were dealt with in those days only through innuendo and gossip, veiled with the secrecy and shame necessitated by the prudery of the time. In my fiction, I chose to imagine and explore the possibilities that were enabled by the rumors, and I gave Sisi and Andrássy the full extent of a romantic relationship. It seemed like the appropriate arc for them as characters of this novel.
Additionally, Andrássy did not meet Sisi for the first time at the opera in Vienna. At that point, Andrássy was still a political opponent of Franz Joseph’s (exiled after the uprisings of 1848–49) and was not a visitor to the Austrian capital. But, knowing what a major character he was to be, both in Sisi’s real life and in my own novel, I chose to introduce the character of Andrassy to the reader and to Sisi a bit earlier than the actual dates would have allowed.
Another place where I deviated from the historical record was in the treatment of some of the tangential family members. For example, Franz Joseph’s father was still alive during the years covered in The Accidental Empress
, but he was an inconsequential player in Sisi’s life and marriage. As my fictional Franz Joseph says in this novel, it was his grandfather, the Emperor Franz, who played the primary role of father figure in his life. Franz Joseph’s father was unambitious and weak and played almost no role at court, and no role in Sisi’s life.
Franz Joseph also had three younger brothers and a younger sister. But, again, as they played only minor roles in the life of Sisi, I made the strategic decision not to expand the already large list of supporting characters.
On Sisi’s side of the family: Karl, Sisi’s brother, was not such a bullying menace as I portrayed him in my book. Sisi was actually close to all of her siblings. I needed a mechanism for some early character development for the spirited, plucky young Sisi, and so Karl became an early opponent of sorts.
The imperial trip to Salzburg during Sisi’s first winter as empress was entirely fictional. They did travel to Salzburg throughout their marriage, but not at that moment. However, having been to Salzburg at Christmastime, and having witnessed firsthand the magic of that Alpine town over the holidays, I felt that there had to be a scene with them there, in that place where “Silent Night” was composed. And I wanted it to be while they were still happy.
For the purpose of pacing, I’ve modified the timing of Sisi’s fourth pregnancy just slightly. Historians assert that Sisi brought every bit of leverage she had to the negotiating table in order to bring Franz Joseph around to the idea of the Hungarian Compromise; a temporary reconciliation in the marriage was a critical piece of that. Sisi and Franz Joseph conceived around the time of the Austro-Hungarian Compromise, but it was right after the coronation as opposed to right before it.
And finally, individuals who are well-versed in the musical history of this time period will note that there's an anachronism in my mentioning of The Skater's Waltz
. Émile Waldteufel composed that hauntingly beautiful piece several decades later than I place it here. I utilized the license granted to historical fiction to get this great piece into the story because it is so whimsical and moving and lovely, and it struck me as the perfect musical accompaniment for Franz Joseph and Sisi while falling in love. It also happens to be a piece of great personal significance to me, and if there’s one waltz that I would credit with providing me with the musical fuel and inspiration needed to write this story, it’s that one. What about the rest of the cast of characters? Are they based on the historical account?
I drew directly from the history in creating the characters for The Accidental Empress
. And I was so fortunate to have such a colorful and complex cast of individuals from which to pull. Agata, the servant, is the only major character created entirely from fiction. Everyone else is named for and plays a role inspired by the role they played in Empress Elisabeth’s life. What is the biggest challenge in writing a novel like The Accidental Empress?
Wrangling the historical record. There’s so much information out there. And it’s so fascinating that I want to use it all. I wanted to include as many facts and events and individuals as I could, until the story was bursting at the seams.
When writing a novel, the story has to flow in a manner completely different than that of a textbook or a straight biography. I can’t just list an infinite number of facts. I have to choose what I need to tell my fictionalized version of this story.
It was also difficult when I came to junctions in Sisi’s life where the historical record is mixed on what exactly happened. For example, when Sisi flees court for the first time shortly after Rudolf’s birth, some historians point to her husband giving her a venereal disease and/or being discovered in infidelity. Others say it was entirely Sisi’s depression and other mental health crises that caused her to ail. I can’t say who is correct, but, since this is historical fiction, I chose to explore one possibility and what it would mean for the arc of the characters and the plot. What went into your research?
A lot of reading. The names of the biographies and books I relied on are listed in my Acknowledgments Section. I read not only about the characters but also about the world they inhabited and what their daily lives might have looked and felt like. I’m grateful that so many historians have devoted so much time and research to these individuals, and that I get to be the beneficiary of all of that great work.
And then one of the most fun parts of the research process is traveling. It was in Vienna, years ago, that I first stumbled across the image of Sisi. She still looms large in Austria and Hungary as an almost deified figure. The Schönbrunn and Hofburg Palaces are fantastic resources in which to learn about not only Sisi, but all of the Habsburgs. Vienna today still feels so grand and imperial.
Budapest, to me, feels more whimsical and unruly. Walking around the Castle Hill and looking out over the Danube and the Chain Bridge, I could imagine why the romantic Sisi loved it there so much.
Both places were hugely important locales in her story, so I loved visiting both to learn about Sisi, Franz Joseph, and their life together. Speaking of Budapest, the scene of the Hungarian coronation is interwoven throughout the novel. Why did you pick that scene to be both the grand finale and the linking scene that we keep coming back to as readers?
That was Sisi’s moment of triumph. It was at that time that Sisi reached the height of her power, her influence, and her physical strength and beauty.
The years leading up to this moment had shown that the policies advocated by Archduchess Sophie and the conservative bloc at court were failing. The disastrous war with Prussia was a clear example of that. And meanwhile, Sisi’s power at court was in the ascendency. It was at that time that she began to make demands for herself as an individual and a mother, as well as to assert herself as an advisor in politics.
The Hungarians truly did love Sisi and embrace her as their queen in a way that they did no other Habsburg. And Sisi returned that affection. She did in fact learn Hungarian and infuriated many in Vienna by speaking in Hungarian. And she did choose to surround herself more and more with Hungarians (like her two favorite attendants, Marie and Ida). After years of unhappiness at the Viennese Court, Sisi negotiated a separate peace for herself. Hungary was a huge part of that. So the ending is kind of a cliffhanger. Is there a part two in the story of Sisi?
Well, from where I’m sitting, there’s a lot more story to be told!
Sisi has a lot more living to do, and I can tell you this much—if you think her life has been tumultuous and dramatic so far, you have to see what happens in the coming years.