The first two episodes of The Empress, the series based on the life of Austrian Empress Sissí and German royalty that Netflix premiered last week, focus on her courtship with Franz Joseph I. They recount a complicated engagement. Francisco José was engaged to Elena, Sissi’s older sister. But when the two families spent a weekend together, it was the younger Bavarian princess who caught the emperor’s eye. After a few stolen moments, they announce their engagement, much to Elena’s dismay. It is a fascinating and dramatic episode. But how much reality is there? Turns out a lot.
Indeed, the one destined to marry Francisco José was Elena. Princess Ludovika, Sissi’s mother, was the sister of Francis’s mother, Archduchess Sofia. The two women decided to marry off their children to ensure the stability of the Habsburg dynasty. Both considered that the eldest daughter, a pious and demure 18-year-old girl, was the ideal one to become a royal wife and adapt to the rigid demands of the Habsburg court. All in all, she seemed to have a flaw: she was always late.
The Bavarian family then traveled to the great royal house of Bad Ischl to meet with the royal family. But one of his carriages with trunks got lost on the way. Both girls were dressed in mourning for the death of a family member, and they had no choice but to keep it on during the visit. This wardrobe did not favor Elena, who contrary to what the series says was not blonde, but had dark brown hair. The mourning dress “made the tall, dark girl seem even more severe”, wrote Polly Cone in The Imperial Style: Fashions of the Habsburg Age.
For her part, Sissi, a 15-year-old girl, had dark blonde hair, so black suited her better. Later, her royal chestnut-colored chair would become one of her hallmarks. “Francisco José met his cousins at tea time. From the first moment he was interested only in little Isabel, sitting at the table without shame or suspicion,” Cone wrote. Their engagement was announced from the country house. As was said then, Sissi was shocked and a little uncomfortable with the whole thing, and Helene was devastated. It is rumored that she fell into a depression.
Sissi’s family tried to prepare her for Habsburg life. They bought her new clothes and tutored her in subjects like foreign languages and history. However, all preparation was little for the intense, strict, and isolated life that awaited her. On her wedding day, as thousands of people thronged the streets, she wept in her glass carriage, overwhelmed by her future.