In a Gilded Cage

Chapter 1 – June 1853

 

She had always known the hills were alive. Sometimes she could see their exhalations drift across their faces like a gauzy veil, and when she lay in the sweet summer grass she could feel the beat of their hearts, in perfect harmony with her own. Giants they were, mighty and eternal. In summer, on their backs and shoulders they wore garbs of multi-hued green, and in winter they slept under a snow-white carapace and all the creatures that made their home on breast and brow nestled with them for a long, long sleep, until spring came and woke them with her warm breath.

It was summer now and the sweet smell of crushed grass was in the air. A group of children played on a grassy plateau overlooking the blue waters of Lake Starnberg. Some of the boys were engaged in a lively game of football, while the girls wove garlands from wildflowers they had picked or tossed balls or hoops. They were noble children from the castle and peasant children from the villages that dotted the shores of the lake, and had mixed freely all their lives. Sisi lay in the grass gazing at the sky. “Stay out of the sun – it will blight your skin,” her mother warned her constantly. Her mother enjoyed the outdoors too but on sunny days she always wore a veil. Sisi thought the sun on her face was one of life’s small treasured pleasures.

She loved the mountains when they were draped with snow. She loved the hills, the forests that cloaked them and the high meadows with their tiny Alpine flowers, the smell of pine, the crunch of needles under her feet. She loved the lake, where she swam and fished, and Possenhofen Castle, her family’s summer home.

She was Her Royal Highness Princess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, Duchess in Bavaria, but known to all as Sisi. She didn’t think of herself as a royal princess, and hardly ever behaved like one. She wasn’t doing anything as she lay there, not even thinking, hardly breathing, just being. She was aware of the giants beneath her and the tiny creatures that scuttled and crawled around her, about their busy labours in the dark moist places of the earth. The grass was growing, springing up where it had been trodden down by small feet, reaching for the sun, and the distant trees hummed with pleasure.

Into these lovely sensations came the sound of her dog’s excited yapping. Bummerl wasn’t very big, but he had an annoying voice. Sitting up, she looked around and laughed. With his head and knees tucked in to form a perfect ball, one of the boys rolled down the hill, gathering speed as he went, with Bummerl yapping behind him. The watching girls shrieked and applauded. Before reaching the path beyond which the hill continued precipitously, the boy flattened himself out horizontally and after two more revolutions came to a stop. On the path Duke Maximilian and some of his friends came into view.

“Papa!” Sisi called, and skipped down the hill followed by some of the others.

“Hello, children!” the duke roared, as they swarmed around him.

Her father was Maximilian Josef von Wittelsbach, Duke in Bavaria, loud and boisterous, and determined to live life to the fullest and in his own manner. A nobleman born, but with no connection to the ruling house except through his wife, he had no function at the royal court in Munich and was able to live as a country gentleman and allow his children a degree of freedom they would not otherwise have had. Eight years earlier he had received his royal status, only because of his wife’s kinship to the king, but it hadn’t changed him or his lifestyle.

Sisi adored him in spite of his flaws. She knew if she stuck a hand into one of the capacious pockets of his tweed jacket, among other interesting items, she would be sure to find a flask of whisky. He was often so drunk he had to be carried to bed, or he would disappear and be found sleeping it off in the stable or kennels. But when he was drunk he was funny and more affectionate than usual, and Sisi loved him no less for it. What shocked her more than his drinking was that he was not a faithful husband. At noon every day he had luncheon in his rooms with his illegitimate daughters, whom he loved as much as his legitimate issue. At fifteen years-old, she understood that her parents’ marriage was not a happy one and why.

Inserting herself between the duke and the artist, Herr Bruckner, at his side, Sisi slipped her hand into her father’s.

“There’s the end of an interesting discussion,” Herr Bruckner grumbled, with a glance that seemed to suggest her manners needed improvement.

“Papa, where are you going?”

“Wherever my feet take me. Sisi, why are you not at your lessons?” Max asked but with no trace of anger.

“Baroness Wulfen was talking about geography again.” Sisi hated geography. She couldn’t sit through a lesson without fidgeting and longing to be outside. More than once, Baroness Wulfen had threatened to tie her to the chair.

“What, don’t you want to learn about the rest of the world?  It’s an interesting place.”  Herr Bruckner popped his monocle into place and peered at her as if she belonged to some new and fascinating species.

“The only place that interests me is Possi.”

“Max, you should take the child in hand. My own children could name all the capital cities of Europe by the time they were eight.”

The duke released her hand to drape an arm across her shoulders and give her a quick squeeze. “Sisi will be who she is, a child of nature, and I wouldn’t change a thing about her.”

Sisi gave him a warm smile. She knew she was her father’s favourite, although she didn’t know why. It would have been natural if Ludwig Wilhelm, his heir, was his favourite or Nené, her elder sister, who was so beautiful and accomplished. But no, Sisi was his favourite and everyone knew it.

Birds twittered and warbled under hanging boughs that blotted out the sun. The duke’s manner of walking was almost aggressive. He flung his walking stick out in front of him and gave the distinct impression that anyone or anything that got in his way would be trampled underfoot. Sisi loved to hike through the hills with her father, exploring new places or visiting old favourites; or taking out the rowing boat to fish in the lake, sometimes just the two of them, sometimes with other family members. When out walking with her father she always made a point of wearing sturdy shoes.

She walked with her mother too. The duchess enjoyed the outdoors, but she wasn’t as adventurous as the duke and preferred well-worn paths. She would never dream of clambering over rocks or lying on her stomach beside a woodland pool to see what could be seen in its shady depths. Not that walking with the duchess wasn’t fun, but her preference was to explore the wildflowers and fungi along the way. She would say: “Surely this plant has never grown in this spot before.” Or: “Look at the size of this alder. It was no taller than me last year.” She could lead anyone to the spot where the best mushrooms grew or where the wild apple trees stood and knew the names of everything that grew in the immediate area. The duke and duchess never walked together.

Eventually the village children fell away and Sisi was left with her youngest sisters Sophie Charlotte and Mathilde Ludovika, and Bummerl the dog. When old Manfred went by with his hay cart, bound for the castle, the two girls and dog hopped aboard and waved goodbye to their father, who strode purposely on. As the cart trundled onward, pulled by a donkey Ludwig Wilhelm said was as old as its owner, Manfred kept the three girls entertained by telling them far-fetched stories of his donkey’s relationships with his other animals.

Possenhofen stood on the shore of Lake Starnberg. It was not a very imposing castle as castles went, but was pretty enough with its gleaming walls pocked by many windows, red tiled roof and ivy and flowering vines clambering in rampant profusion around the portico. Gardens and terraces overlooked the lake while the stables and other utility buildings clustered to one side, enclosed within a shield of tall trees and undergrowth. The whole was contained in the protective lap of the giants.

Every morning when Sisi rose she would go to the window, throw open the shutters and look out to see what the weather was like but also just to gaze at the lake, to see its mood. Was it tranquil and smiling with diamonds scattered on its surface? Was it grey and stormy? Was it turbulent? At night, when the moon laid a silvery path across the water, the sight never failed to stir her heart to wonder.

Manfred let the younger girls off at the front before driving around to the side with Sisi and Bummerl still on board.

Sisi wanted to visit her horse and Bummerl wanted to visit his dishes of food and water, which were kept outside the kitchen door. Tethered to a post beside the stable was the Imperial rider’s horse. He had been coming to Possenhofen quite regularly for several months. He will be sorry to have missed Papa, Sisi thought. Mama won’t ply him with whisky. She might offer him a cup of tea. 

“Shall I saddle Valour up for you, Princess?” the head groom asked.

“What time is it?”

Taking the watch out of his waistcoat pocket, he studied the face for a moment. Valour nickered softly; he recognized her voice. “Half-past four, Miss.”

“Good. Then I shall have time. But don’t trouble yourself. I shall saddle him.”

Her horse greeted her with a whinny of delight and a toss of his fine head. He was ridden once a day by the grooms, but they didn’t ride him as she did, giving him his head and letting him run. Nor did they love him as she did. Sisi was convinced that in his great equine heart, Valour understood this.

Her earliest memory was of a groom handing her up to her father as he sat on his great hunter. One hand held her in place while the other shook out the reins and the horse walked out of the stable yard, down the avenue that was bordered by lawns and beds full of summer flowers. A lone cow had wandered in and was munching contentedly at the grass. Her father let her hold the reins for a short time until the horse began an erratic pace that had them both bouncing in the saddle. He said the horse didn’t know her hand, which she didn’t understand then.

“All right, Sisi?” her father asked as he increased the pace to a trot.

“Faster!” she cried. “Faster! Faster.” Bouncing in the saddle as if the rise and fall of her little bottom could move the horse to greater speed. Her father laughed his great boom of a laugh.

Up they went towards the sweep of hills that she had only seen through her bedroom window or the window of the carriage as they arrived or departed, along paths used by farm carts and shy animals. To ride through the dappled shadows of the giant firs and pines, to smell the tang of fallen needles and damp earth, to be out in the open with the wind in her face was a wonder such as she had never experienced before. Her father increased the pace to a canter so that the horizon moved in great leaps and bounds and the ground rushed by under thudding hooves. Her sister Nené, three years her senior, had been coaxed into her father’s saddle on one occasion, but she was so fearful she had not even got out of the stable yard. Then she had to take riding lessons on a tiny pony, a groom walking her slowly round and round on a leading rein. Sisi was eager to take riding lessons, but she wanted nothing to do with tiny ponies or leading reins. Clinging to the pommel, she shrieked in fearful joy, held firm and safe against her father’s solid chest.

Higher they went up winding paths, past fields already showing the tender green of crops, into deep dank woods and out again, skimming across the breasts of the giants until her father brought the hunter to a halt where the hillside, clear of trees, dropped away. Sisi had her first view of Possenhofen from on high, its mellow bricks gilded in the sunshine, the cow a black dot on the lawn. Behind the castle was the shimmering lake, with the red roofs of houses around its shores peeking out between clusters of trees. It was the most beautiful sight Sisi had ever seen.

“You own all this, Papa?” she had asked in wonder.

A laugh rumbled out of his chest. “No, not all. There is Possenhofen, the village we own.” He pointed over her shoulder. “And see there? The big building across the lake, that’s the king’s summer palace. It’s a fine place.”

“Not so fine as Possi.” Even at four years-old Sisi was quite certain there was no finer place in the world than Possi.

All the children of Possenhofen learned to ride, but none learned so quickly nor so well as Sisi, not even the boys. By the age of five she was riding her own mount – a tiny pony, to her dismay – following behind her father or one of the grooms. At the age of eight she had her own full-size horse and at ten she was allowed to ride out entirely alone. At fifteen she had two handsome riding habits and was teaching Valour to do tricks. She’d had her tumbles, sometimes accompanied by tears, but she always got back on her mount immediately and tried to hide her bumps and bruises.

……….

Sisi returned to the castle in plenty of time for supper after an exhilarating ride, and was passing the drawing room when she heard her father’s loud voice.

“Dammit, Ludovika, I have a right to know!”

And her mother’s voice in the tone she reserved for her husband, cool and impersonal, as if she was speaking to an unsatisfactory servant.  “And you shall, all in good time. I won’t have you spoiling things.”

Her mother, Ludovika, was a Wittelsbach of the royal house, one of eight daughters of King Maximilian and the only one of the seven surviving to adulthood who had not married into royalty. Sisi’s father was a Wittelsbach also, but from a merely noble branch, and Ludovika never let him forget it. Ludovika didn’t love Possi as Sisi and her father did; she deplored the threadbare carpets, cracks in the walls, worn upholstery, and scuffed floors. But to Sisi it was a warm and hospitable house where children could romp without adults getting upset about ruined finery. Ludovika also deplored the wildness of her children. There was a time when she had tried to instil some courtly refinement in her family, but with eight children and a husband who indulged them and refused to chastise them and was often away from home, she faced an uphill battle. She had long since given up, often retreating to her room with a migraine to escape the turmoil.

Ludovika despaired because none of the Bavarian aristocracy ever came to visit. She blamed it on the shabby furnishings, her ill-behaved children, her husband with his loudness and bonhomie, his bawdiness and eccentricities. She relieved her loneliness by writing letters to her many sisters, collecting clocks and walking.

Sisi continued up the stairs without pause. Arguments between her parents were nothing new. No, they weren’t arguments really, not anymore. They had got past that stage to a beleaguered tolerance of each other, punctuated by the occasional brief but passionless flare-up. In spite of appearing not to like each other and having nothing in common except a love of music, they had managed to produce ten children at regular intervals, eight of whom were still living. The eldest, Ludwig Wilhelm, was twenty-one, and the youngest, Maximilian Emmanuel, was only two, leading Sisi and Nené to giggly speculation as to why their parents kept having children when, after the birth of a second son, they really didn’t need to.

Nené, whose proper name was Helene, was in the room she and Sisi shared, dressing for dinner with the help of the maid they also shared.

“Oh, Miss Elisabeth!” the maid said in mild reproof.

“You are a mess,” Nené said frankly.

“I’ve been riding.”

“No, you’ve been galloping. You’ve been setting poor Valour at every stream and wall and hedge you could find, haven’t you? Ladies don’t ride like that, Sisi.”

At eighteen, Nené was the oldest daughter of the house. Life had changed for poor Nené in the last few months. While they were residing in Munich for the winter a bevy of dressmakers and milliners had descended and Nené found herself the recipient of lots of new clothes, while Sisi had to make do with her sister’s old gowns to replace the ones she was fast growing out of. What’s more Nené’s lessons were stepped up and included such things as dancing, deportment and manners. Sisi knew all the attention was because her sister was expected to make a grand marriage and she was being prepared for that eventuality. She had badgered her mother to tell if there was a prospect in the offing and who he might be, but Ludovika was tight-lipped.

Nené was a natural lady, refined, charming, always carefully coiffed and elegantly dressed. Her lovely face required no artifice. She was everything a mother could want in a daughter. Sisi thought her wonderful, if a little too ‘proper’.

And Sisi was a natural hoyden. She didn’t mind in the least all the attention her sister was getting, for while mother and governesses were focussing on Nené, she was free to roam the hills, to play with her friends, and to daydream about a certain handsome count who was on her father’s staff. So much in love was she that she had once hidden behind a hedge to get a glimpse of him. But they were seen holding hands and he was sent away to rejoin his regiment. Her heart was broken. Though she had known he wouldn’t be considered a suitable match, that hadn’t prevented her from daydreaming. She still thought of him occasionally with a wistful sigh.

Glancing in the dressing-table mirror, Sisi had to admit her sister was right. Her long, thick braid was windblown, little wisps of hair sticking out all over, and there was a smudge of dirt on her nose. Not that it mattered. She had plenty of time to wash and change her clothes, and there were no guests expected for dinner, only some of her father’s friends as usual and some visiting cousins.

Sisi had been growing her hair all her life. It was her pride and she would not allow scissors anywhere near it. According to her mother, she popped into the world with a head of thick golden curls. By the age of nine it had darkened to light brown and now it was a rich chestnut with golden highlights. Nené’s colour might be most people’s preference, being dark blonde, but Sisi preferred her own; it had more life. When loosened from its braid, it hung like a majestic cloak, shimmering in ripples and waves, past her buttocks. It sparked like a fire, flowed like a dark river.

Every night she and Nené stuffed their braids into a net. They had discovered while very young that if they failed to do this they would find themselves lying on each other’s hair, resulting in a sleepy tussle to get the trapped hair free. In the morning, she had the maid brush it down its long length – brush and brush until the woman complained her arm ached – and then it was braided once more. Even so confined it was lovely, thick as her forearm and gleaming with health. Also there were twice monthly rituals of washing, oiling, rinsing, drying and then more brushing.

All of this was a burden on the maid who swore she had the forearm of Hercules, and on Sisi herself. The pulling and tugging she endured, her neck muscles braced against the vigour of the brush strokes, and the patience she had to summon when she could have been outside roaming the hills, was a daily torment. Not to mention that such a vast amount of hair was a physical burden. But she wouldn’t be without it. It was her glory.

When her thirteen year-old brother Karl Theodor wanted to annoy her he would threaten to steal into her room one night and cut off all her hair until she was as bald as an egg.

Even with her hair neatly braided and her face clean, Sisi knew she wasn’t as beautiful as her sister. Her eyes were the colour of topaz, yet with a melancholic cast to them, surmounted by slender eyebrows, nose regular, mouth small but full-lipped, with shadowed indentations at each corner hinting at smiles yet to be born. Each feature was pretty enough, yet somehow the whole did not make her as beautiful as Nené.

Supper was at eight in the family dining room and a very informal affair. On the walls caribou and various species of deer that Max had hunted in Bohemia and Moravia and a lion he had shot in Egypt, looked down their lofty noses at the boisterous throng. There were often animals below too. One had to be careful not to step on a stray tortoise or a kitten.

Whether there were guests or not all the children were present and permitted to talk, which they did often at piercing levels. The servants were free to remonstrate with a child who did not eat their vegetables, or slopped food on their clothing. When Karl Theodor began to lob balls of bread at his older sisters it was one of the serving men who took his bread away. The servants only referred to family members by their royal titles in company. The duke and duchess would ask them about a sick parent or a child away at school, amid a babble of young voices and the clatter of dishes and cutlery. It was a very relaxed atmosphere. No one stood on ceremony.

When dinner was over the duchess rose. It was the sign that the children could scamper off to their evening activities before bedtime at ten o’clock. “Nené, Sisi, come with me. You too, Maximilian,” she added, and sailed out of the room, leading the chosen ones into her small and cosy sitting room, where they settled themselves on furniture made comfortably lumpy by many years of use.

The mantelpiece was lined with some of Ludovika’s collection of clocks. The centrepiece was an ornate ormolu creation in the shape of a horse-drawn chariot with a figure of Victory standing in the car and the clock face displayed in the wheel. Every hour, from so many rooms in the house that the noise was inescapable, a variety of chimes and bells would resound.

Sisi and Nené sat together on a sofa while their parents took the two chairs. Bummerl curled on the worn carpet for a nap and Ludovika’s little dog leapt into her lap.

Max took his pipe and tin of tobacco from his pocket. “Do you mind?” he asked the duchess.

“Yes,” she said with a glare, “I do. If you must smoke that smelly object do it elsewhere.”

With a resigned sigh, the duke returned his beloved pipe to his pocket. Sisi loved the smell of her father’s pipe. It lingered in a room long after he had left it, an essence of him. It was much nicer than the cigars some of his friends smoked.

“What is this about, Ludovika?”

To her everlasting – and often expressed – disappointment, Ludovika had been bound to a nobleman without a drop of royal blood and a penchant for drink and low women. The diminution of her status had hurt then and it still hurt. She also compensated for a bad marriage by collecting clocks and studying geography, but she knew nothing of politics and cared less. Her children were her life and she was very close to them.

Speaking directly to the girls, she said, “Your Aunt Sophie writes that in order to strengthen the empire’s diminishing authority over Prussia, she is keen for closer ties within the German Federation.  To achieve this end she hopes to find a bride for the emperor from among suitable German princesses.”

That rules us out, Sisi thought. We could never be thought a suitable match for the emperor.

“There have already been two proposed matches that have fallen through, with Prussia and Saxony and now… well… ” Ludovika smoothed her skirt as if she was nervous “Bavaria has always been one of the empire’s staunchest allies in the federation. Your Aunt Sophie and I have been corresponding for some time concerning the prospect of a marriage between the house of Wittelsbach and the imperial house. We are invited to Bad Ischl to join the celebrations for the emperor’s birthday and to enable him to meet our dear Nené.” She beamed at her eldest daughter.

Simultaneously and without conscious volition, the two girls’ hands crept towards each other and clung. Nené’s hand had always been there to help a little sister across a rough piece of ground, to caress her when she cried. Now it was Sisi’s turn to offer comfort or support or whatever Nené needed. She glanced at her sister, who looked stunned. Her eyes were wide and… perhaps a little frightened. Her father’s face was grim.

“So that’s what you and Sophie have been cooking up?” he growled. “And not a word to me about it!”

“Please try to remember that it is a great honour just to be considered. Even you must see that it would be a brilliant match.”

“I tell you this, Ludovika, Nené will be free to marry him or not as she chooses. She’ll not be coerced.”

“How does one refuse the emperor?” Ludovika asked with saccharine sweetness. She gave him a moment but he had no answer and she turned her gaze back to her daughters. “Sisi, you will go with us to Ischl as company for your sister, and who knows… perhaps we’ll find a husband for you while we’re there.”

Nooo! It’s too soon! I’m not ready. 

In the spring of that year, Sisi had accompanied her mother to Dresden so she could meet Prince George, the second son of the King of Saxony. Sisi had been terribly downcast during the entire time. Even Ludovika wasn’t optimistic that the visit would be productive, and she was soon proved right. Sisi had neither the blood nor the dowry to catch a prince. She couldn’t wait to get home. That visit taught her how it felt to be a commodity put on display for prospective buyers.

“I want to marry for love.”

Ludovika looked at her as if she had grown two heads. “Don’t be foolish, Sisi. That’s childish nonsense. You are a princess of Bavaria. People of our rank do not marry for love, but to refine the family’s prestige through an ideal connection. Put all thoughts of love out of your head or you’ll only break your heart.”

“When is the emperor’s birthday?” Nené whispered.

“The eighteenth of August. I know this has come as a bit of a shock. None of us had reason to expect so grand an alliance for you. But you have two full months to adjust to the idea. In the meantime, the two of you will need new ball gowns and they must be made in the latest Viennese style, not by provincial Bavarian standards.”

Max snorted. “Aye, trick ‘em out for the marriage market. Put a ribbon round their necks and parade them before those worthless monarchy-loving parasites.”

“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to!” Ludovika snapped at her husband.

“I have no intention of going. I wouldn’t want to see a daughter of mine as empress. She’ll be a showpiece. She’ll lose her individuality, her independence. She’ll become a cipher, a clockwork person. Wind her up and she’ll dance for you, going round in the same circle over and over.”

Sisi gave her sister’s hand a little squeeze. It doesn’t have to be like that.

“I’m sure we all know your views, Max,” Ludovika said. “May we be excused from hearing them again?”

Max lurched to his feet. “I need a drink. There’s a bad taste in my mouth.”

When the door had closed behind her father, Sisi rose. “May we be excused now, Mimi?”

“Yes, go along.” Ludovika looked rather baffled that neither girl had shown any excitement. “You’ll see, Nené, once you have accustomed yourself to the idea, what a glorious future awaits you.”

Their hands only separated once they got to the door. They walked upstairs at Nené’s sedate pace rather than Sisi’s headlong rush. From their father’s rooms came the sound of loud male voices. Max liked to surround himself with intellectuals. He had what he was pleased to call a round table comprised of like-minded men who enjoyed philosophical and political discussions. Among them were scholars, artists and anyone he found of interest regardless of their station in life. Erudite discussion tended to dissipate as the day wore on and the empty bottles mounted, and in the evenings their voices could often be heard in all parts of the castle, laughing uproariously and bawling out songs accompanied by Max on his zither.

The two girls didn’t speak until they were in their room and sitting side by side on the edge of the bed they shared. Nené still looked dazed, as if she’d taken a blow to the head.

“How do you feel about marrying the emperor?”

“I don’t know. How would you feel?”

“I don’t know.” They both laughed, but it was nervous laughter. A moment later Nené’s eyes flooded with tears. Sisi slipped an arm round her. “If you marry him, I shall miss you terribly.”

“But only for a little while. Mimi is sure to find you a husband at Ischl. Perhaps Karl Ludwig. Would you like to marry him?”

Sisi had met the emperor’s younger brother five years earlier and the two had got along famously and had corresponded ever since. Karl was nice enough, but she really didn’t want to marry anyone. It would mean having to leave Possi, and that thought was even more intolerable than being parted from Nené. “At least if you married the emperor and I married his brother, we would still see each other – on state occasions!”

“Of course, the emperor might not accept me,” Nené said bracingly. “And you and I will end up with nothing more than Viennese-style ball gowns with which to amaze the good people of Munich.”

Sisi couldn’t imagine why he would not love Nené and desire her for his wife. She would make a perfect empress. It was as if she was born for the role.

The news didn’t remain the province of the four in Ludovika’s sitting room for very long, and every day poor Nené had to suffer the well-meaning felicitations of friends and staff and the teasing of her younger siblings, as if the imperial crown already rested on her fair head. But day by day, she came to a quiet acceptance that a glorious future just might await her.

In bed at night, before they fell asleep, Nené confided her nervousness to Sisi, but as the days wore on, excitement began to replace the nervousness, even if a large part of that excitement was stimulated by the prospect of appearing, however briefly, at the imperial court. Ludovika wrote to family and friends in distant parts requesting their recommendations for a dressmaker who was up to date on the fashions of Vienna. A whole month had elapsed before a woman arrived, an expatriate Parisienne with two apprentices in tow, sent by the Queen of Saxony, another of Ludovika’s sisters, who designed and created four of the most sumptuous ball gowns the two girls had ever seen. It was not enough, the dressmaker insisted. If they wished to make an impression, they must have morning gowns and tea gowns and new riding habits. They must have gowns for every potential occasion, and the vital accessories to complement them: shawls, shoes, fans, gloves, parasols, hats and veils and corsets, capes and coats. Although they worked long hours, the dressmaker and her apprentices couldn’t possibly make all the clothing she deemed indispensable in time, so a three-day-long shopping spree to Munich was organized, with the Parisienne sorting despairingly through ready-made clothes and having to settle for the less-than-perfect, and Ludovika repeatedly having to reassure her that this was indeed one of Munich’s finest couturiers.

During those heady weeks Ludovika received so many invitations she couldn’t possibly accept them all. Banquets and balls, teas and musical evenings were held in Nené’s honour as if she had already been chosen as empress. Nené, who had been out in society, sailed through these events graciously and with such self-possession that her little sister was in awe. Sisi relied on her shy smile when someone engaged her in conversation and otherwise tried to efface herself as much as possible.

Between the fittings, shopping and socializing, for Sisi especially, there were crash courses in deportment, manners and imperial protocol. The latter was provided by the Archduchess Sophie from afar, her increasingly frequent letters admonishing her provincially raised nieces how they must behave if they were not to make fools of themselves. Sisi was also given lessons in recent political history so that she wouldn’t appear a complete ninny if someone struck up a conversation with her. Dancing and deportment masters were imported. For Nené there were further instructions from the archduchess about what she must do to make herself pleasing to the emperor.

During the last days of July and the first of August, the two girls forgot about the emperor and Bad Ischl. All they could talk about was their new clothes.

 

 

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