With a new film about Princess Diana in cinemas, I am reminded of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, consort of Emperor Franz Josef. Elisabeth can in many ways be seen as a 19th-century Diana: both were beautiful and charismatic women, who made unhappy royal marriages and met violent deaths. Both inspired devotion and controversy in equal measure in life, and a romantic mythology has developed around both of them since their deaths.
Films have fed the mythology in both cases. Among many films featuring Elisabeth the classic, if romanticised, 1950s ‚ÄúSissi‚ÄĚ trilogy starring Romy Schneider are the best known. A fictionalised Diana reached the screen almost as soon as she appeared in the public eye: two TV movies about her ‚Äėroyal romance‚Äô with Prince Charles appeared in 1981. Her marital problems, divorce and death have all been subjected to the same treatment in the 32 years since.
So how alike were Diana and Elisabeth? Both married very young (Elisabeth was only 16) after what were seen as fairytale romances. Both marriages were unhappy and both couples‚Äô affections unequally matched, although Elisabeth‚Äôs marriage to a man whose adoration she could never fully reciprocate was the opposite of Diana‚Äôs experience. Both felt ill at ease in their husband‚Äôs families ‚Äď especially Elisabeth who found the rigid protocol of the Austrian court difficult after her informal upbringing ‚Äď and disliked many of the royal duties expected of them.
Another thing both women shared was a love of fashion and beauty. Many people who become fascinated by Elisabeth are initially captivated by one of Winterhalter‚Äôs famous portraits of her, while the media interest in the sale of Diana‚Äôs dresses earlier this year shows how central her role as fashion icon remains. Elisabeth‚Äôs extreme cult of beauty, however, had a darker side: her obsession with keeping her slim figure led to an extreme diet regime which some modern commentators have interpreted as a form of eating disorder, something of course which also affected Diana.
Winterhalter's most famous portrait of Elisabeth, in the Hofburg Palace, Vienna. (Image from Wikimedia Commons). You can see Romy Schneider recreating the picture in the 1956 film here
On a more positive note, both were passionate about the causes they espoused. Elisabeth was a powerful advocate for the rights of her Hungarian subjects, and was influential in making Hungary, where she remains a much-loved figure, an equal partner with Austria in the Hapsburg empire. Diana‚Äôs name is still strongly associated with the charities she supported, particularly the campaign to ban landmines.
Of course there are many differences between the two, due not least to the very different times they lived in. Elisabeth had a largely distant relationship with her children, in contrast to Diana‚Äôs closeness to her sons, and it was easier for her to escape the public eye in a world without paparazzi. Elisabeth‚Äôs life was marked by greater extremes of obsession and unhappiness. She also lived much longer than Diana, although her death was equally senseless: at the age of 60 she was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist who was determined to kill some representative of royalty without much caring who. Elisabeth was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Perhaps what really links the two women, more than any true likeness in character, is a public perception of them as tragic beauties and the idea of a royal fairytale gone wrong. Whatever the real similarities and differences, Elisabeth and Diana will no doubt continue to fascinate us ‚Äď and their stories will continue to be told on film.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies
Hamann, Brigitte. Elisabeth : Kaiserin wider Willen (Wien, 1982) X.809/54755. (English translation The Reluctant Empress (New York, 1986) 87/20136.)
Daimler, Renate Diana & Sisi : zwei Frauen - ein Schicksal (Wien, 1998) YA.2002.a.6564.
Sinclair, Andrew Death by fame : a life of Elisabeth, Empress of Austria (London, 1999) YC.2001.a.4952