The Accidental Empress

Elizabeth Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Royal Reviews, The Nineteenth Century Leave a Comment

Title: The Accidental Empress: A Novel

Author: Allison Pataki

Publisher: Howard Books

Copyright: October 13, 2015

ISBN: 978-1476794747


Format: E-Book, 513 Pages

Genres: Historical Fiction, Historical Biographical Fiction, Women’s Historical Fiction, Historical Fiction Inspired by Real Historical Figures

Price: $10.99 [Kindle], $18.49 [Audible], $10.99 [Nook], $20.87 [Barnes and Noble Audiobook], $10.99 [Google Play],  $14.95 [Google Play Audiobook], $10.99 [Apple Books], $16.99 [Apple Books Audiobook]


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. Franz Joseph reneges on his earlier proposal and declares his intention to marry Sisi instead.

Thrust onto the throne of Europe’s most treacherous imperial court, 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, bewitching characters, The Accidental Empress offers “another absolutely compelling story” (Mary Higgins Clark) with this glimpse into one of history’s most intriguing royal families, shedding new light on the glittering Hapsburg Empire and its most mesmerizing, most beloved “Fairy Queen.”


“Empress Elisabeth of Austria in Courtly Gala Dress with Diamond Stars” by Francis Xaver Winterhalter, 1865. Source: Schloss Hofburg, Vienna.

It is July 1853 and the plucky young Elisabeth (known as Sisi), Duchess of Bavaria lives happily with her family in the wild countryside. Much to the surprise of everyone in her family, Sisi’s sister, Helen (known as Néné) receives a proposal of marriage from the Imperial Austrian Court. It is proposed that Néné (the eldest daughter of Duke Maximilian Joseph in Bavaria and Ludovika, Duchess in Bavaria) wed her cousin Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria. Not only would this be the best match any duchess or princes in Europe could ever hope to make but the emperor’s own mother was her aunt, Archduchess Sophie. Upon hearing this particular news, Néné is far from overjoyed and is in fact reluctant to become the betrothed of so important a man. Despite any fears or concerns that she has, Duchess Ludovika makes it clear to her daughter that she will do what is expected of her.

In the following month, Ludovika and her two daughters, Néné and Sisi set out for the Imperial Court at Bad Ischl. While Néné is demure, introverted, and pious, Sisi is outgoing, down-to-earth, and sincere. Néné prefers reading and more cerebral pursuits while Sisi loves living in the countryside and enjoys the outdoors. Before the three women even begin to travel to Austria, Ludovika makes it clear to Sisi that she is only going to the Imperial Court to support her sister and to act as lady-in-waiting to her. While the three women are clad in black gowns, they hope to change into more impressive clothing upon their arrival at Bad Ischl. However, they lose sight of the carriage that contains all of their gowns and accessories. Unfortunately, none of the ladies are allowed to change out of their plain and drab black gowns before they are ushered into the presence of the imperious Archduchess Sophie herself.

From the outset of their relationship, Néné and Sisi soon discover that their aunt is a most unpleasant woman to deal with. Archduchess Sophie openly chastises her sister, Duchess Ludovika and complains of their dull appearance. When Ludovika makes the case that they had lost their carriage, the Archduchess hasn’t any interest in hearing excuses. Eventually, Helene is formally introduced to her aunt and, while she is known to have a pleasing countenance, she is painfully shy and it irritates Sophie exceedingly. Sisi, on the other hand, is far from timid and often speaks her mind in front of her aunt, a woman who has the ability to strike fear into the hearts of those around her. Soon enough, Sisi begins to notice a young man who is studying her carefully and she assumes that the man is some soldier in service to the Archduchess. While conversation transpires in the room, she cannot help but smile warmly at him and he warms to her instantly, smiling back. Immediately, a connection is formed.

“Princess Sophie of Bavaria (Sophie Fürstin von Bayern), with her child son, Franz Joseph, later Emperor of Austria,” by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1830s. Source: Unknown.

Within a matter of moments (and much to everyone’s surprise), Sophie introduces the young soldier to be the Emperor himself, Franz Joseph. Néné becomes far more shy than she was before and Sisi blanches somewhat, realizing that this man is her sister’s intended. In the days that follow, conditions only worsen between the tongue-tied and doe-eyed Néné and the reluctant but handsome Franz who only has eyes for the enchanting young Sisi. While Sisi and Franz cannot help but gaze adoringly at each other, Archduchess Sophie is adamant that he marry her sister. This is a major bone of contention throughout the book in the fact that it is a theme that appears constantly. Sophie is firm with his son on his choice of bride and prefers the malleable and manageable Nene to her uncontrollable force-of-nature sister, Sisi.

When Franz declares that he will marry none other but Sisi, Sophie reluctantly relents. If he had only chosen Néné as a bride, she would have done her duty and been easy to control. Sisi, on the other hand, had a mind of her own and was exceedingly willful, something that Archduchess found problematic. The royal couple soon marries in what is a fairy tale wedding and the people of Austria immediately fall in love with the beautiful but endearing Sisi. Despite having her jubilant wedding, Sisi finds that married live to Franz Joseph and being under the thumb of her mother-in-law is a suffocating experience. Although still only a teenager, she produces children in a quick succession but finds that being Empress of Austria is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

“Franz Joseph” by Johann Ranzi, 1851. Source: Unknown.

From start to finish, I could scarcely put The Accidental Empress down. I found Sisi to be a strong-willed and brave character who really faced so much adversity. In her marriage, she received very little support from her errant husband (who was always busy) and was treated cruelly by Sophie, who always asserted that she was never good enough. Although she is said to have married for love, she was a figure who suffered greatly throughout her life. If it wasn’t the tragic loss of a child, it was for her husband’s tendency to stray to other women or her mother-in-law who literally stole her children from her. The culmination of the story was when Sisi, like the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis, transformed into an even greater and attentive monarch than her husband was. Sisi felt a kinship with the Hungarian people and ultimately ended up being their champion.

Ms. Pataki wrote this story particularly well and the story line kept moving forward. There were never moments when it felt slow or stagnant. From what I recall of the history, it is apparent that she researched Sisi and her life exceedingly well. The characters she wrote were human and believable, and easy to relate to. Based on these facts, I give The Accidental Empress five stars.

Originally posted on the new defunct


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