The Accidental Empress

Written by Allison Pataki
Review by Jessica Brockmole

Empress Elisabeth, wife to Franz Joseph and empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was beloved in the 19th century, but her story is little-known today. Allison Pataki brings this enigmatic woman to life in this novel of finding strength and passion.

Though the daughter of a Bavarian duke, Elisabeth – known to her family as ‘Sisi’ – grew up in the wild informality of Possenhofen Castle. Married at fifteen to her cousin, the young emperor Franz Joseph, she’s unprepared for the treacherous Hapsburg court and for her overbearing new mother-in-law, the Archduchess Sophie. From the moment Sisi arrives at court, Sophie interferes with her marriage, with her children, and with her decisions as empress, undermining her at every turn. Franz is unwilling to disagree with his mother and so Sisi finds few allies at court. It is in Hungary, where the people are restless and looking for a leader, that she begins to find her strength.

Pataki’s strength lies in her unapologetic and complex characters. Sisi, Franz, and Sophie all have their faults. They are admittedly frustrating and, in turns, selfish, weak, and uncompromising. When reading fiction about real historical figures, the reader may rightly question whether those particular figures make the most compelling protagonists of a novel. There were times when this reader became exasperated at characters who continually chipped away at one another rather than let one another grow. It’s to Pataki’s credit that she chose to write such strong characters, flaws and all, without losing reader sympathy. Through them, she paints a vivid picture of the uncertainty and distrust of the Hapsburg court. A solid portrait of a little-known woman and history.