History’s blueprint: the story behind Allison Pataki’s Sisi, Empress on her Own
The sometimes fraught question of how much fact there ought to be in historical fiction is one that engages readers and writers alike. But Allison Pataki found, tackling the life of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, that history offered up so much ‘delicious and dramatic story’ that she would be foolish not to let the facts closely guide her as she built her narrative.
Following on where she left off in The Accidental Empress, in Sisi, Empress on her Own, Pataki follows the Empress Elizabeth – known as Sisi – through her adult years, beginning in 1867 with the Hungarian Coronation and establishment of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy. Having married Emperor Franz Joseph when she was only 16 years old, Sisi has battled with her domineering mother-in-law over control of her own children and found love and freedom away from Vienna, in the Gödöllo Palace in Hungary. But she is an Empress, famous for her floor-length hair and skills as a horsewoman, and this is a time of dramatic shifts and changes for European monarchies. Sisi, now in her thirties, cannot avoid her responsibilities forever.
With a wealth of sources available about Sisi and her times, a biography of her life would almost certainly be fascinating, but Pataki always saw this project as a novel. No one, she points out, can truly know what the tumultuous events in Sisi’s life can have felt like, but fiction has allowed her to bring events to life in her imagination. Only for the purposes of plot and pacing does Pataki fictionalize historical details and it is a responsibility she takes seriously: “Determining when and how to take the liberty that the fiction label allows is probably the biggest challenge for me as a writer of historical fiction and one that I must negotiate anew with each topic and novel and scene I tackle.”
As a character, Sisi has often been compared to Princess Diana and Pataki feels the comparison is justified:
“Both Sisi and Diana loomed large in their own lifetimes… They both married young, into royal families and courts in which they both found themselves to be outsiders. They were both great beauties whose personal popularity became both a blessing and a curse. Both captured the hearts of the public because of their advocacy and empathy. Both struggled in unhappy marriages and with the constant scrutiny of the press and the public. Both of them set trends in fashion and beauty. The most tragic comparison of all, however, is how they both faced premature and grisly deaths. Deaths that were entirely avoidable.”
Pataki also describes Sisi as “a figure who inspired tales of both fact and fable” and someone whose life has provided innumerable sources and perspectives. As her ‘blueprint’ for this novel, Pataki has used letters, diaries, eyewitness accounts, newspaper reports, government documents and history books as well as travelling extensively through Europe.
“It was in Vienna, years ago,” she explains, “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.”
With both Sisi novels currently being adapted for film, those wonderful locations will soon be brought to the screen as well as the page. History lovers can also look forward to meeting Pataki’s minor characters; including the tragic story of her son, Crown Prince Rudolf, and of her cousin, ‘Mad King Ludwig’ of Bavaria, as he builds Neuschwantstein Castle and funds the work of Richard Wagner.
But above all, this is Sisi’s story and hers is a complex character – as enlivening, Pataki hopes, to read about, as she was to write about. No one was more aware of Sisi’s faults than Sisi herself and Pataki’s readers may not agree with all of the choices Sisi makes. But Pataki insisits that it is this complexity that allows Sisi to continue to capture the collective imagination: “The tragic figures – the tortured souls – are the ones who prompt us to ask questions and think and seek to understand, right?”
Sisi, Empress in her Own Right, was published by Dial Press in March 2016.
About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite writes book reviews and features for Bookbrowse and the Historical Novel Society. Her novel, Charlatan, a tale of poison and intrigue in 17th-century France, was long-listed for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the HNS Novel Prize. It will be published by Fireship Press in 2016.