The year is 1853, and the Habsburgs are Europe’s most powerful ruling family. With his empire stretching from Austria to Russia, from Germany to Italy, Emperor Franz Joseph is young, rich, and ready to marry.
Fifteen-year-old Elisabeth, “Sisi,” Duchess of Bavaria, travels to the Habsburg court with her older sister, who is betrothed to the young emperor. But shortly after her arrival at court, Sisi finds herself in an unexpected dilemma: she has inadvertently fallen for and won the heart of her sister’s groom. Intrigued by Sisi’s guileless charm and energetic spirit, not to mention her unrivaled beauty, Franz Joseph reneges on his earlier proposal and declares his intention to marry Sisi instead.
Plucked from obscurity and thrust onto the throne of Europe’s most treacherous imperial court, Sisi has no idea what struggles and dangers—and temptations—await her. Sisi upsets political and familial loyalties in her quest to win, and keep, the love of her emperor, her people, and of the world.
With Pataki’s rich period detail and cast of complex, compelling characters, The Accidental Empress offers a captivating glimpse into the bedrooms and staterooms of one of history’s most intriguing royal families, shedding new light on the glittering Habsburg Empire and its most mesmerizing, most beloved “Fairy Queen.”
You are so correct! There has been so much ink spent in the genre of Historical Fiction on Anne Boleyn and War of the Roses the other English monarchs. And other royals, too: the French, the Russians, the Italians. But I think the Habsburgs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire are the most intriguing, most interesting family of them all, and Sisi is certainly the most enchanting leading lady! So, hopefully The Accidental Empress will shine a spotlight on this fascinating imperial court and get readers very interested in the Habsburgs.
I came across Sisi and was inspired to write her story as a result of a very personal journey—and I mean that quite literally. Years ago, I was traveling through Austria and Hungary and the Czech Republic with my family. I am Hungarian-American by descent; Pataki is an odd-sounding and, yes, Hungarian last name. The purpose of the family trip was to visit the places from where our relatives had emigrated, almost a century earlier. This took us, then, to the lands of the former Habsburg Empire—the former realm once labeled on maps as Austria-Hungary.
While on this trip, I kept seeing beautiful images of this same young woman. She had this quizzical smile, this rich chestnut hair curled in these elaborate hairdos. I saw her face at every gift shop, museum, even in restaurants and hotels.
I asked someone who she was and the response was that she was “Sisi,” the most beloved of all Habsburg Empresses. I heard just a bit about Sisi’s epic and tragic life—about the legends that she grew her hair to the floor, that she was considered the most beautiful woman in the world, that every other foreign ruler at the time was in love with her.
I read about how Sisi didn’t mean to seduce her sister’s fiancé the emperor, but did, at the age of 15. Just enough to whet my appetite! I went home and dug in, reading everything I could about Sisi’s story; what I found astounded me. Hers is a story of love triangles, love, lust, betrayal, and so much more. It’s an incredibly human story, told against a glittering and beautiful—yet dangerous and duplicitous—backdrop of the Habsburg Court.
• Did you find it difficult to mix the fact and fiction of Sisi’s and Franz’s story?
Difficult, but also highly enjoyable. I decided early on that I would be crazy not to rely heavily on the historical record for plot and character development in The Accidental Empress. The raw material itself was so good and intriguing—a love triangle! Betrayal! Imperial ballrooms chock-full of violin music and beautiful people and scandal and intrigue and scheming!—that there were all of the fixings in there to make a compelling novel. And, as this is a novel and not a biography, I had the luxury of pulling not only from the proven facts, but from the mythology and reports as well. Sisi was a figure of legendary fascination even in her own lifetime. The centuries that have passed since her death have only served to make her even larger in the collective imagination.
Wrangling the historical record was definitely the greatest challenge I had in writing The Accidental Empress. There’s so much information out there. And it’s all so fascinating that I want to use it all. I wanted to include as many facts and events and individuals as I could, until the story was bursting at the seams.
For me, the joy is in infusing the imagination and the humanity into the historical record and the historical figures. When writing a novel, the story must flow and unfold in a manner completely different than that of a textbook or a straight biography. I am not looking to list an infinite number of facts. I have to choose what I need to tell my fictionalized version of this story, and I can get a bit creative. It makes it so fun to write. And, hopefully, fun to read as well!
• How did you conduct your research? Do you look at pictures in order to help you describe the environment?
Absolutely. I look at paintings, I study old maps, I listen to their music, I taste their food, I try on the clothing…and I read everything I can about the time period and characters. There was (and is) lots and lots of reading material out there on these topics and figures. I read not only about the characters but also about the world they inhabited and what their daily lives might have looked and felt like. I’m grateful that so many historians have devoted so much time and research to these individuals, and that I get to be the beneficiary of all of that great work.
And then one of the most fun parts of the research process is traveling. It was in Vienna, years ago, 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—I loved retracing her footsteps (or carriage wheels) there.
Sisi’s other capital city, Budapest, 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. And why she saw it as her escape from Vienna.
Both places were hugely important locales in her story, so I loved visiting both to learn about Sisi, Franz Joseph, and their life together.
• You begin the story by showing glimpses of the future (after marriage) while mainly focusing on the story leading up to it. What made you decide to write the story this way?
Exactly right, I begin the story with the scene of the Hungarian coronation in Budapest in 1867. This same scene is then interwoven throughout the novel before eventually capping off the whole story as a grand finale.
Readers will see that this moment was Sisi’s moment of triumph. It was at that time that Sisi reached the height of her power, her influence, and her physical strength and beauty. It’s also the moment in which many loose threads of the novel’s plot come together—for Sisi and for the other characters. Plus, it’s just plain fun to write about a party as lavish and grand as a coronation atop the city of Budapest!
The years leading up to this moment had been grueling and depleting and difficult—not only for Sisi, but for the whole Habsburg Court. This moment signifies that Sisi, as an empress and a woman, has a new plan—both for herself and for the court and empire. Watch out, Sisi has entered the palace!
• Besides Sisi, which character did you enjoy writing the most?
It’s tough to pick one! But I suppose I have to say the other man in Sisi’s life—that dark and brooding and romantic Hungarian charmer, the Count Julius Andrássy. Ah, Andrássy. He makes me swoon, as he made the ladies of his own time swoon.
Multiple biographers refer to Andrássy as the great love of Sisi’s life. The sense I got from their own letters and writings was that Andrássy and Sisi shared a deep connection—emotional as well as intellectual—and a profound respect for and devotion to one another. Andrássy seemed to give Sisi the validation she had always craved from Franz Joseph. Andrássy’s letters to Sisi show that he valued her input and he sought her involvement in his political and personal affairs. He actively recruited her as a partner in negotiating the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867.
It is clear that there was an intense affection between Andrássy and Sisi. Andrássy wrote, toward the end of his life, that he was one of the few people in the world who knew the true Sisi. He referred to her as “the pinnacle of all womanhood” and Hungary’s “Beautiful Providence.” Men loved Sisi as soon as they met her. Women loved Andrássy as soon as they met him. What then must the chemistry have been like between the two of them?
Rumors circulated in both Austria and Hungary that they were lovers. Sisi’s fourth child (the one she is carrying at the end of this novel) was gossiped and written about in Vienna as “the Hungarian child,” a moniker that couldn’t help but raise suspicions as to the parentage. Add in Sisi’s decampment from Vienna to Budapest, and her flagrant preference for the company of Hungarians over Austrians, and you have the fixings for scandal on an imperial scale.
The relationship with Andrássy was one that gave Sisi hope and purpose. The years in which Sisi worked closely with Andrássy for the cause of Hungarian autonomy were the years in which she came into her own—both as a woman, and also as a leader. So, in my imagining of it, Andrássy was a huge part of that.
Tour Schedule The Accidental Empress
Monday, February 9th - Reader Girls - Guest Post
Tuesday, February 10th - Sassy Book Lovers - Excerpt
Wednesday, February 11th - Fine Lines - Author Interview
Thursday, February 12th - Reading Reality - Guest Post
Friday, February 13th - Fiktshun - Author Interview
Monday, February 16th - The Maiden's Court - Guest Post
Tuesday, February 17th - Bewitched Bookworms - Author Interview
Wednesday, February 18th - Fire and Ice - Guest Post
Thursday, February 19th - Bookish - Author Interview
Friday, February 20th - Curling Up With A Good Book - Author Interview
Monday, February 23rd - Books and Things - Guest Post
Tuesday, February 24th - Books Glorious Books - Excerpt
Wednesday, February 25th - Sara In Bookland - Author Interview
Thursday, February 26th - Historical Fiction Obsession - Guest Post
Friday, February 27th - Library of a Book Witch - Author Interview