I’d feel hard pressed to find a more fascinating family to follow through history than the Habsburgs. In her new novel, The Accidental Empress, Allison Pataki breathes life into one of that family’s most intriguing monarchs, the Austro-Hungarian Empress, Elisabeth.
At 23, Emperor Franz Joseph is ready for a wife. His domineering mother, the Archduchess Sophie, has a bride in mind for him– his cousin, Helene. Sophie perhaps senses she might easily control such a shy and tractable girl. Helene arrives at court with her 15-yr-old sister, Elisabeth, called “Sisi”, in tow. In a rapid turn of events that could have been plucked from any number of romance novels, Sisi effectively steals the heart of Franz Joseph. Sisi returns his affections, and Franz Joseph manages to follow his heart’s desire and marries her. His mother is none too pleased with the substitution. Thus begins a long and heart-rending power struggle between the two women, with the Emperor teetering between a great love for his wife and the mixture of guilt and duty he feels toward the Archduchess.
Fans of Carolly Erickson’s historical portrait novels will want to take note of Allison Pataki. Perhaps you are already familiar with her excellent Revolutionary War novel, The Traitor’s Wife. Like Erickson, she transported me effortlessly to another time and place, to where the beautiful, spirited Sisi came to be so deeply loved and admired by her people. The events of her life make a great story– she reigned for more than 40 years, after all. These days her lovely image is everywhere in Vienna, from palaces to souvenir shops alike. I suggest you celebrate the last weekend in Women’s History Month with this jewel of a novel.