The Cult of Empress Sisi

This is a post that I wrote after visiting Vienna in 2012 but somehow never published. Enjoy!

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Empress Elisabeth of Austria had everything the world and God could offer. She was beautiful and slender. Fiery and determined and frighteningly intelligent. She was born into great money and married into even greater. Her husband was not only a prince, but a good and gallant one, who married her for love, not money. She had several healthy beautiful children. In a restricted court society, she had great freedom, and when she lacked freedom, she took it anyway.

Empress Elisabeth had absolutely everything. And was incredibly, tragically unhappy.

Many said she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

Her hair was so long she could stand on it.

She had an 18-inch waist (if that):

Picture courtesy of my iPhone

She was the queen of fashion in the Austro-Hungarian Empire:

Empress Elisabeth of Austria was the most beautiful woman in the world. And she knew it.

I would summarize Elisabeth’s personality using the following three (or four?) words: vanity, and mental instability.

A staggering proportion of her life’s energy was spent on the upkeep of her famous beauty. Her hair required an average of three hours of care and styling daily. The rest of the day was devoted to exercising vigorously, and to eating as little as possible. Like Catherine of Siena, Elisabeth was another historical figure who clearly had an eating disorder. I won’t call it anorexia, or bulimia, or exercise bulimia, because it was a combination of all these. Suffice it to say, Elisabeth had disordered eating. She would go on crash diets, eating nothing but oranges and chicken broth for weeks. She had a private exercise room in each of her palaces. Walking was a popular Victorian pastime, and Elisabeth loved walking. Except her walks sometimes lasted 8 hours. And instead of walking she practically ran. Her other favorite form of exercise was horseback riding, which she practiced daily and fiercely. She preferred eating while standing, and when forced to sit at public functions and state dinners, she never took more than 25 minutes to finish eating (a great inconvenience to the guests, because one had to stop eating when the person of highest rank set down their fork).

But her beauty was reserved only for herself.  Even though she had a handsome royal husband who worshiped and adored her, she would have none of him. She spent years at a time away from the Viennese court, and even when she was home, her husband had to petition to see her along with everyone else. But she never took a lover, either. Because Elisabeth hated sex. She was [reportedly] frigid, and wrote poems on the disgusting nature of physical passion. We are not dealing with Helen of Troy here, people. She posed for many famous portraits, as was her royal duty, but she was very reluctant to have her photograph made. She had a personal photographer who had exclusive rights to reproducing her image (and only rarely did she give him permission), and when paparazzi got too close, she thwarted their efforts with a fan she kept handy at all times.

Elisabeth’s favorite pastimes were riding, not eating, and writing volume after volume of melancholy, nihilisic poetry.

I guess what finally fascinates me about Elisabeth, is her infinite self-absorption. Okay, I get that not all people who “have it all” are happy. I understand that the pressures of the court, the pressures of her royal mother-in-law (who was super strict regarding Elisabeth’s behavior in Vienna and restricted Elisabeth’s role in the raising of her own children) can make being rich, famous, beautiful, and powerful not all that fun. But Elisabeth demonstrated that she wasn’t afraid to break the imperial mould. Contrary to the wishes of her husband, her mother-in-law, and her government, she spent the majority of her time far away from the Viennese court, traveling for years at a time all around Europe. At some point, Elisabeth learned to do what she pleased, and to hell with everyone else. And yet, somehow… she never managed to do anything to make herself happy. She was skinny and beautiful. Not happy. She traveled wherever she wanted. Not happy. She could have had any lover she chose. She didn’t want any. She spent millions and millions building fabulous palaces for herself. She used them once and then promptly sold them. She threw all her energy into helping the “plight” of the Hungarians. After being crowned Queen of Hungary, she promptly ignored their political problems.

Elisabeth had the resources and the strength of will and character to do whatever it took to make herself happy. And she tried – why else would she have built the palaces, why else would she have roamed the world? I think she was looking for something she never finally found, and never even really knew what it was.

Imperial champagne – Sisi is rosé, and Franz Josef is blanc…

Now her face and her beauty of which she was so jealous are plastered on cheap knicknacks that people covet, talismanlike, just to touch a bit of her melancholy mystique. Sissi dressup dolls and fashion figurines fly off the shelves at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna; she is every girl’s fantasy of a fairy princess. But her dark hair and shimmering gowns just keep reminding us that being beautiful is more important than being happy.

The Road to Bristol

The path I took here was unpredictable. If you’d asked me a year ago to guess where I’d be, Bristol, Rhode Island would not have made the top 5. Or the top 100.

I hope there will be more in the weeks to come about this year in the country’s tiniest state. The whole thing feels like a blip, an isolated pocket of time that was never meant to happen. But if this was a blip, it was a beautiful blip, and if it was never meant to happen, I’m still awfully glad it did.

But there I go, talking vagueness. Really, I have some interesting and highly digestible posts in the works that come directly out of this time I’ve spent among strangers in Rhode Island. But after such a long hiatus it felt odd to jump right into 18th century cheese-making, or the proper way to lace your corset, or the secret vocabulary of chickens.

So let me give a brief recap of the the past year – that is, how I unexpectedly and randomly came to be where I am now – and then we can get down to the fun stuff, like just how many strangers can you fit into an 18th century bed? It started with a boy who was working in New York. I liked him; we were dating. I had a year to kill while I applied for a Fulbright Fellowship and the world was my oyster; all options were open! So I decided to move back to New England and see if things could work between us. I’d dreamed of working at someplace like Plimoth Plantation and this seemed my time to try, before I flung myself abroad the following year (I hoped!) to Scotland. So around this time last year I sent my resume to every open-air and living history museum between Philadelphia and Boston (no really, I was working off a list), and I heard back from exactly one of them, a tiny farm in the tiniest state, Coggeshall Farm Museum in Bristol, RI. They weren’t hiring me, merely granting me an interview, but that was enough. I chucked all my eggs into that basket and my worldly possessions into the car and put a deposit on a rental house in Tiverton, RI.

I’ll tell you the ending: They DID hire me, and I’ve been working there since October. Other key facts about my life since then: A neighbor put me in the way of a troupe of Gilded Age living history actors in Newport, with whom I’ve had the joy of performing since December; The boy is long gone; I DID get the Fulbright, so I’m off to Scotland in September.

Many adventures and shenanigans to report this past year, and hopefully a few of them will make it into tidbits on this blog. Get ready for a history lesson, boys and girls.

(Oh, and just for reference, here’s an actual picture of the road to Bristol, RI. But more on that later ;)

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30-Second Book Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

My rating: 4/10

On Amazon: 4.2/5

The plot in one sentence: Young country girl Tess is seduced by Alec, gets pregnant, retires to become a milkmaid, is fallen in love with by a gentleman named Angel, is married to him but, once confessing her earlier disgrace, is abandoned on her wedding night, is seduced back into the graces of the somewhat-reformed Alec, who makes her his mistress, is taken back by Angel, murders Alec, and finally enjoys a week on the run with Angel making sweet beautiful love in meadows before being caught by the police and hanged, Angel ending up getting together with her sister.

Am I a horrible person because I didn’t like this book? Does this make me a bad English major? Shall my status as a literary intellectual be revoked? Nah.

Things Hardy does masterfully: landscape descriptions.

Things Hardy does pretty well: characterizations.

Things Hardy sucks balls at: plot and pacing.

I think the main appeal of the book must be the idyllic world he creates. Aside from the ominous wickedness of Alec and his smile, the whole piece is pervaded by this sense of grace and blithesomeness, both of Tess and Angel and also as reflected in the landscape. Tess seems always to wear white; the grass is always pale green; there is always mist sparkling in the meadow; Tess’s hair is always charmingly and alluringly escaping in tendrils down her neck; Angel is always graceful and handsome and thinking profound, uplifting thoughts; the cows are always giving milk. And so on. Of course, when Tess experiences hardship, it suddenly becomes winter and the landscape is hostile. I get it, thanks.

I’m always one for a good romance, even a super sappy one, but the anticlimax of most of the romantic scenes here turned me off, as did the lengthy time spent describing the in-between action. Tess spends a lot of time reaping while Alec lasciviously watches her. She spends a lot of time trudging around the countryside while her life deteriorates. Angel spends a long time being vaguely ill in South America. It seems as though characters spend the vast majority of their time preparing to do things, or at least doing them very gradually. Things would have been a lot more enjoyable if each piece of action or advancement of plot were given a well-drawn, dramatic scene in which to occur, instead of occurring incrementally over the course of hundreds of pages. Perhaps Hardy should have taken notes from Charlotte Bronte.

30-Second Book Review: Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes

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Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes

My rating: 6/10

On Amazon: 3.9/5

 The plot in one sentence: Decades after a violent falling out, the protagonist (unnamed), is approached by his now cancer-ridden and rapidly dying friennemy Damian Baxter to identify the mother of his child from among a list of their former female friends and acquaintances.

 The best and worst thing I can say about this baby is that it’s Julian Fellowes being Julian Fellowes, doing what Julian Fellowes does best. I have to admit, before reading this, my only experience of Julian Fellowes was Downton Abbey, a show for which the charm lies in the care and detail with which each character is drawn, making them each a protagonist of their own plot; even the bad guys, Thomas and O’Brian, are compelling and sympathetic. Then, I watched Fellowes’ Gosford Park, and was sorely disappointed. Witty, complex, and historically accurate, yes, of course. But not a single one of the characters managed simply to be likeable. Everyone is mean, everyone is manipulative, and everyone has an agenda. Gosford Park is a story written with relentless cynicism, and Past Imperfect is just the same. The narrator, whose name I only just realized we never learn, is quietly (read: Englishly) snarky, and can’t seem to offer a compliment without backhanding it. According to him, who I can’t help but picture as Julian Fellowes himself typing away at a keyboard, no one was ever worth more than their money or their looks, and no one, looking from teenagerhood to late middle-age, seems to have reached their full potential. All is disappointment. Naturally the plot, which is simple and episodic, takes backseat to the encyclopedic knowledge Fellowes demonstrates about English high society in the 1960s and 70s. The wealth of detail is staggering and, although I know the man is brilliant, I think would have been quite impossible to replicate unless, like Fellowes, one has lived the life.

I must confess that, having not been able to squeeze in the last forty pages before moving to New Haven, I never actually discovered the identity of Damian Baxter’s baby momma. I don’t know; it’s a mystery.

I was readin’ some Literature, when all of a sudden…

This, from Hardy’s Tess:

“Amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of the Var Vale, at a season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization, it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate. The ready bosoms existing there were impregnated by their surroundings” (Book 3, Chapter XXIV)

Can’t help but think of the intro to Chaucer’s prologue… #fertility

30-Second Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

My rating: 8/10

On Amazon: 3.5/10

The plot in one sentence: Nick and Amy are broke and trapped in a dysfunctional, failing marriage, when on the morning of their fifth anniversary Nick returns home to find the door wide open, a struggle in the living room, blood all over the kitchen floor, and his wife gone. Dun dun DUN.

Finally, a vindication for the murder/thriller/suspense genre, screaming “What is suspenseful need not be fast-paced, what is murder mystery need not be hokey, and what is crime drama need not have two-dimensional characters!” Because Gillian Flynn has finally brought us a story that is as absorbing as an episode of Law and Order: SVU, with characters who are as developed and believable as George R. R. Martin’s. And this means we actually care what happened to Nick’s wife Amy when she disappears from their suburban Missouri home on the morning of their fifth anniversary. We begin to experience actual sympathy for him as the evidence starts to incriminate him, and then a slowly mounting sense of suspicion and horror as we read Amy’s diary entries about their failing marriage and find ourselves begin to suspect our own protagonist of murder. But the twist. Oh, the twist is so good. I won’t spoil it for you, but all I’ll say is that Flynn writes a great psychopath. Perhaps it takes one to know one.

2013 – The Bunny is Back to Blogging!

Picture it. A New Year’s resolution for 2013:

More writing of every kind. A blog post every other week, supplemented by catchy book reviews. Novels, the big stuff, it’s great, but don’t let the long-term goals rob you of short-term productivity. Can’t bring yourself to finish writing that chapter today? No problem, just write SOMETHING.

So that’s where we’re at. The Bunny is back in the US, and not doing much traveling just now, but that doesn’t mean her life isn’t full of adventures. Even if they’re only the ones happening inside her head!

Get ready for some content in 2013!