Empress Elisabeth and the Archives of Anorexia
By Meghan RacklinOctober 20, 2023
AT 28, THE AGE when the most famous portrait of her was painted, Empress Elisabeth of Austria was the rare royal who looked in life like the fairytale version. Her portrait, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, is one half of a pair of portraits, the other depicting her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph. She is dressed in diaphanous white, her shoulders bare, her skirts voluminous; there is a fan in her hand and her famous diamond stars in her famous hair. When their portraits are hung side by side, Franz Joseph is looking at Elisabeth. Elisabeth is looking at the viewer. Empress Eugénie of France called her “the loveliest crowned head in Europe,” and Franz Liszt called her “a celestial vision.” She was little loved among the palace ladies, but even one of her harshest critics had to admit that she was “almost supernaturally lovely.” Biographies give the distinct impression that every man she met fell instantly and irrevocably in love.
Elisabeth was fanatical about her beauty, her crown jewel carefully guarded. She was famous for her waist, a tight-laced 19 inches; her hair, which reached nearly to the floor; and her weight, which, until her death, fluctuated from just under 100 pounds to just over 110, always far too slight for a woman of her height. The tight lacing of her corset took an hour, and washing her hair in raw egg and brandy took up to three hours once a month. She had a language teacher with her to occupy this time, and she counted the hairs that had fallen from her head when it was done.
Her niece, Marie Larisch-Wallersee, wrote in her memoirs that her aunt’s “life’s task was to keep young, and she was always thinking about the best methods by which she could preserve her beauty.” She slept, sometimes, in a mask lined with raw veal and her body wrapped in wet towels to keep her waist small. When they were in season, she smeared her face with strawberries. “The Empress,” Marie Wallersee wrote, “took warm baths of olive oil, which she believed helped to preserve the suppleness of her figure, but on one occasion the oil was nearly boiling and she narrowly escaped the horrible death associated with many Christian martyrs.” She was perpetually starving to maintain her famous waist. Her mother worried that starving was “becoming an obsession,” and her husband wrote to her often to express his concern about “this terrible dieting,” his worry that she was becoming “too thin.”
No one knows, now, what she looked like in middle age, or older. At 38, 10 years after her famous portrait was painted, and at 48, at 58, for all intents and purposes, she was as beautiful as ever. Beginning in her thirties, she refused to be photographed, and later portraits of her are copied from earlier ones. The last artistic rendering she sat for was a sculpture, when she was 42. She lived to age 60, but there is a strange feeling almost as if she had died earlier. She created an image of herself as forever young and forever beautiful, an image adored in Austria and enshrined on commemorative cups and celluloid.
She left behind a kind of anorexic archive. In his 2010 book So Much Wasted: Hunger, Performance, and the Morbidity of Resistance, Patrick Anderson writes that anorexia is “an archival project of undoing and becoming,” a kind of Derridian archive fever. Just as Derrida, in his 1995 book Archive Fever, asserts that “[t]he archive always works, a priori, against itself,” Anderson argues that anorexia is “[l]ikewise oriented both as and against its own preservation.” “[A]norexia,” he writes, “archives its own compulsive rejections, even as the anorexic body disappears.” The anorexic body archives its starvation even as it disappears. So much wasted, so like Elisabeth. One of her ladies-in-waiting, Marie Festetics, once wrote,
She seems to me like a child in a fairytale. The good fairies came, and each of them laid a splendid gift in her cradle, beauty, sweetness, grace … dignity, intelligence and wit. But then came the bad fairy and said “I see that everything has been given you, but I will turn these qualities against you and they shall bring you no happiness. […] Even your beauty will bring you nothing but sorrow.”
On the silver screen and the small one, Elisabeth still reigns—in a perennially popular film trilogy from the 1950s and, in the last few years alone, in two popular television shows and a much-lauded movie—always beautiful but always absent, her story more malleable for the space she left behind. Elisabeth, tied only loosely to historical memory, can be a Heimatfilm heroine or an anachronistic feminist. Count Egon Corti, one of Elisabeth’s earliest biographers, quoted another lady-in-waiting of Elisabeth’s as saying that she would “live on in legend, not in history.” She made sure of it, enshrining her image and erasing herself, leaving gaps in the archive that fiction rushed in to fill—leaving merely, to paraphrase Derrida, her lovely impression.
Elisabeth, also called Sisi, became Empress at 16. Her husband, Franz Joseph, was supposed to marry her older sister, but—the story goes—he fell in love with Elisabeth at first sight. Whether she seduced him, or unknowingly charmed him, or fell for him too but felt awful about it, varies in the many tellings. She was unpopular at court and left Vienna often, spending her time and her country’s money on many trips abroad. The kitschy Sissi trilogy of films from Ernst Marischka cast a young Romy Schneider as the idealized romantic lead. Franz Joseph, played by Karlheinz Böhm, is dressed like a Disney prince, and everything is all saturated Agfacolor. In Germany, the films play every year at Christmas—not Christmas movies, but movies with a Christmas feeling. And year-round, Sissi is everywhere in Austria; her face is on cups and postcards and chocolates.
Her beauty is the core of her legend and in the fiction built out of the remnants of her history. In life, her beauty was politically powerful, even if her own role was limited. During a visit to Italy—anti-Habsburg, a wellspring of revolutionary feeling—early in their marriage, Elisabeth was greeted with applause. The British Consul said that “Her Majesty’s exquisite beauty, her grace and affability, have all contributed to win the sympathy and welcome of the masses,” and her husband reportedly said that her beauty “conquered Italy better than his soldiers and cannons had been able to do.” The deal to create a dual monarchy with Hungary, quelling long-simmering Hungarian resentment, is thought by many historians to be Elisabeth’s doing, as her fondness for the Hungarians was well known.
This, her most significant and maybe only real political achievement, was a bargain built by her beauty: Gyula Andrássy, a central figure on the Hungarian side of the agreement long rumored to have been Elisabeth’s admirer or even lover, referred to her as “the beautiful Providence which watches over my country” and called her “the prize of all womanhood.” Franz, a reactionary who had only recently violently opposed greater autonomy for Hungary, could hardly say no to his wife’s beautiful face. Her beauty still has something of this ambassadorial quality. In nearly every place where she spent time—Madeira, Corfu, Vienna, Hungary—she is now a tourist attraction, with Sisi tours and events. In her Romy Schneider incarnation, she is immensely popular in China.
Elisabeth’s later years and legacy are marked by her efforts both to destroy and to preserve her image. She spent countless hours of her life in the struggle to be beautiful; she wanted to make something ephemeral eternal, and, in the end, she sort of got it. She wanted, it seems, to be seen and known for her beauty and to disappear, for fear of being found wanting. As she aged, she hid herself from others’ eyes, retreating behind veils and fans. A police agent assigned to her for protection on one of her many trips abroad recalled that she made “a tremendous lot of work for us” because “no one was allowed to look at her.” Marie Festetics, her lady-in-waiting, wrote that “an aide-de-camp (let alone an adjutant general) in view is enough to unsheathe all her weapons; out come the blue veil, the large parasol, the fan, and the next path that turns off the road is taken.” She sometimes wore an “impenetrable silver-gray gauze veil,” and sometimes it wasn’t even her behind it all. She once had her hairdresser, a woman of similar stature, put on her clothes and greet the gathered crowds in a foreign port, and when she went swimming off the coast of England, she had a maid, dressed in a matching bathing costume, enter the water at the same time accompanied by a guard, so the crowds that gathered on the nearby cliffs with spyglasses to their eyes could never be sure that they were seeing her. Many of her letters were destroyed, at her request, by a loyal lady-in-waiting; more were removed from official archives by her daughter after her death. Always, everywhere one looks for her, Elisabeth is slipping away.
She is ubiquitous elsewhere but has been—until, perhaps, recently—relatively unknown in the United States, where we like our beauty queens homegrown and Marilyn-miserable. I first came across her, I think—my memory fails—on a pro-ana website, pink text on a white background, pretty. I only looked, I never commented. I starved myself for years; sometimes I refused to eat and sometimes threw up everything I ate. I was obsessed with famous anorexics, starving girls and Christian mystics. “Anorexia,” Anderson writes, “compels its own archival drive, beckons us to seek the vicissitudes of its histories, stimulates a desire to encounter the ghosts of its historical presence.”
Elisabeth was an ancestor of sorts to anorexic girls on the internet, having assembled her own proto-pro-ana photo book. In 1862, she wrote to her brother, “I am creating a beauty album, and am now collecting photographs for it, only of women. Any pretty faces you can muster […] I ask you to send to me.” The same request went out, to some scandal, to Austrian diplomats in foreign countries. The albums remain, intact, in the archives.
She left behind her, too, traces of her body, flesh made text. As Maud Ellman notes in her 1993 book The Hunger Artists, anorexics have an affinity for writing, record-keeping, as if “fat is to be transubstantiated into prose.” Elisabeth always had a scale at hand, and like many an anorexic, she kept careful, compulsive track of her weight and measurements, writing them down daily. A Count Wilczek once recalled walking in on Elisabeth and Empress Eugénie of France, who, “with their backs turned to the door behind which [he] stood […] were busy with two tape measures, measuring surely the most handsome calves to be found in all of Europe at the time.”
The specifics of her diet and her exercise regimen were recorded by those who knew her, and later by her biographers, with the same painstaking attention as those details were recirculated on the anorexic internet. She often refused to come to dinner, and when she did, she ate “alarmingly little,” as one member of her entourage, Count von Rechberg, noted. “We too,” he complained, “have to suffer for this, for the whole meal, consisting of four courses, four desserts, and coffee, does not last more than twenty-five minutes.” Her diet at times consisted of milk, orange juice, beef broth, or a mixture of egg whites and salt, and she sometimes ate violet-flavored ice. Marie Festetics once wrote that “[s]he is so obsessed with the idea that she is getting stout. I believe that if I did not insist so often, she would long since have died of starvation.” For a time, she alternated “milk days” and “orange days,” on which she would eat nothing else.
Her life was a study in the constraints and freedoms available to the beautiful and wealthy; you can only escape to Madeira and Corfu if there’s someone footing the bill. Beauty is a kind of currency, and she was so beautiful that she could afford to be unreasonable. At the Hofburg, the primary residence of the royal family (though Elisabeth, whenever she could help it, was elsewhere), she had a large gymnasium installed and had gymnastic rings hanging from the ceiling in her dressing room. At her Hermesvilla, a manor in Vienna far from the crowds at court, which Franz Joseph had built for her in the vain hope that she might stay more often close to home, the gymnasium was the finest room of all. When she traveled, which was often, her exercise routine traveled with her, as did her cows, to ensure she had the highest-quality milk. She would ride for hours, as good or better than any man, and she did gymnastics and exercised with weights each morning and evening. When she went to England to participate in the hunt, she rented Combermere Abbey in Cheshire; before she arrived, she had a gym installed. When she gave up riding, she took up fencing and long walks. She would hike for hours, in any weather.
These habits were thought to make her modern—a match for her rumored insider’s anti-monarchism, her independent streak—but they mostly made her thin.
These records of her, weighed and measured, and the recollections by those who knew of her routines, replace any visual record of her body in later years, when she effaced herself, erased herself from the archives and nearly from life. (Self-starvation, Anderson writes, enacts “the continuous disappearance of the live.”)
I have my own starving archives; I still find, sometimes, in my bedroom at my parents’ house, notebooks with scribbled-down lists of calories eaten and burned, whole days when I know what I ate, what I weighed, how I moved, and what I measured. The first summer I starved myself, I ate only grapes and air-popped popcorn, women’s magazine snacks, descendants of Elisabeth’s oranges and milk. “One wonders,” Ellman writes, “what historians a hundred years from now will make of this new genre, these interminable inventories of the alimentary canal where dieters immortalize their every snack.” There is a kind of perverse pleasure in the genre, she suggests—in the way it ostensibly operationalizes writing as restraint when, at the same time, “one could also argue that they eat in order to keep writing, since every stolen morsel represents the pretext for a further composition. What is more, their words preserve their food for future delectation, deep-frozen or freeze-dried upon the page.” Anorexia, she writes, has “provoked this orgy of verbosity”—it creates an urge to archive.
Derrida asserts that the archive begins right as memory starts to disintegrate. I starved myself for years, consuming coffee and carrots; any meal I couldn’t refuse I could refuse to keep down. I remember little of it—some bad decisions, some binges, some nights on the bathroom floor with a book. Every so often, I search “eating disorder memory loss” online and turn up studies on the many memory disturbances found in those with eating disorders, including, most severely, some in which researchers have identified Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome—a rare disorder characterized by extreme memory loss—in some cases of anorexia. Anderson writes that “[w]hat some clinicians summarize as a ‘disorientation in place and time,’ this disintegration of the function of memory enacts an almost literal incarnation of Derrida’s archive fever as simultaneous destruction and preservation.”
The Sissi films, by far the most popular portrayal of Elisabeth, give her fairytale face a fairytale story. She has a husband who loves her and subjects who adore her; she is always full of hope. They end with Elisabeth in her thirties. A fourth film was planned, but Schneider—as eager to distance herself from the image of Elisabeth as Elisabeth was herself—refused to participate, lending the movies a kind of metarealism. But while Schneider’s Sissi is the prototypical portrayal of Elisabeth, it is far from the only one. She has been the subject of novels and made-for-TV movies, and, in the last few years alone, the recent Netflix series The Empress, the German television channel RTL’s show Sisi, and the movie Corsage.
The Empress and Sisi both wear history lightly: both protagonists are gorgeous girlbosses with hearts of gold. In the former, Franz Joseph is well intentioned and kind, and the plot centers on a (fictional) attempted coup by his brother; in the latter, Franz Joseph is probably evil but in a sexy way, and the plot centers around a rebel plot to kill him (fictional in the specifics, though a Hungarian nationalist did attempt to assassinate him before he married Elisabeth). In both, as in the Sissi movies, Elisabeth’s beauty is a given, a gift: her starving, if mentioned, is the brief result of her occasional grief, while her love of riding and walking are signs of her independence or her naturalness, not her obsessiveness.
Corsage, however, is a rare depiction of Elisabeth in middle age, and takes her eating disorder as a primary concern. From the moment the movie starts, Elisabeth, played by Vicky Krieps—her face cold, the skin barely concealing the contemptuous muscles of her jaw—is being weighed and measured, surrounded by dumbbells and gymnastics equipment. At her birthday party, the guests sing a song with the refrain “Beautiful may she remain” when the cake comes out. Elisabeth refuses to eat. The movie is not a historical drama so much as an archival one, its purposeful anachronisms emblematic of the gaps in history. While she is in her brocaded rooms, her husband stands waiting outside in a bare concrete hallway lined with stacks of chairs, looking less like a room in a castle than a staging area.
Krieps—who previously, in 2018’s Phantom Thread, acted out intense desire born of or enabled by unyielding hunger, exacting standards, and disturbing illness—plays Elisabeth not as frigid, exactly, despite what so many biographers want to insist. To be hungry all the time is, after all, to be constantly wanting—and what she wants is to be wanted. The Sissi movies, of course, are all romance and no sex, the recent TV shows sexy, soap-soaked, and silly. In Corsage, it seems that Elisabeth gets off on her beauty, or on the recognition of it. When she is in England, her riding companion, Bay Middleton (a man as obviously in love with her in the movie as he was rumored to be in life), comes to her, at her request. She is dressed in only a corset and riding pants. “Do you think I’m beautiful?” she asks him, with him on his knees in front of her. The camera shifts from her face to his eyes, and back. He tells her, “You’re sunshine. You’re the fucking sun.” He moves his hands up her thighs—we watch them watch each other, close—but then he realizes: “That was all you wanted, wasn’t it?” She tilts her head, nodding slightly, and replies, “I love to look at you looking at me.” When he leaves, she makes herself come in the bath.
In another scene, her husband sits on the bed, and she tells him to look at her, not to stop, while she makes herself come. What she cannot stand is any slight to her beauty. The emperor, looking at a new portrait of her, one painted from earlier portraits when she refused to sit, tells her that the painting is lovely. He means it, but he also means to hurt. “I wonder,” he muses, “how you managed to look so young.”
In the film’s final third, Elisabeth appears heavily veiled at an event, looking ever so slightly stouter. The camera shifts; Elisabeth is inside shooting up (the real-life Elisabeth’s cocaine needle is in an Austrian museum), and the woman in the veil—her lady-in-waiting, Marie—runs in, unable to breathe through the lacing of the corset she is wearing. The film’s ending is its most effusive, sweeping departure from history. Elisabeth cuts off her famous hair and has it made into a wig. She gorges on candies and instructs Marie, her nascent body double: “Three orange days a week, clear beef broth in the evening, lean meat if you want. Nothing more. No potatoes, no bread, no dumplings. And no pastry, for God’s sake.” Marie begins to be weighed while Elisabeth begins to eat cake, and at the end, like Edna Pontellier in petticoats, she jumps into the sea, effacing and replacing herself completely.
Among on-screen depictions of the empress, only Corsage’s relationship to history is more melancholic than mythic, interested in dwelling in the spaces left in the archive instead of skipping over them. Freud, for his part, considered anorexia a kind of melancholy, though the history of the disease is also bound up with the history of hysteria. Melancholics and hysterics both, in the words of Caryl Flinn, are “people who remember too much. Specialists in the past, they are consummate historians.” Anorexics, consummate historians, chroniclers of their own disappearance—which is to say, archivists, writing everything down, memory laced tight through holes.
Corsage is slow, circling; it repeats Elisabeth’s refusal to eat much at all, her compulsive exercise. It recognizes what so few accounts of anorexia do, that anorexia is less a plot than a pattern. Many narratives of anorexia follow a familiar narrative of recovery, tracing the onset of illness, the rock-bottom weight, the treatment, and finally recovery. These narratives forget that many never recover, and even those who do are recovering forever, another repetitive behavior. “[N]o repetition compulsion,” writes Derrida, “no ‘mal-de’ can arise for a person who is not already, in one way or another, en mal d’archive”—there can be no sickness that is not, in some way, an illness of the archives.
Towards the end of Elisabeth’s life, a doctor who examined her found that she was suffering from edema caused by starvation, a condition more commonly associated with soldiers in wartime than empresses at resorts by the sea, but she had been starving for so long. Hers was the diet of someone who had to die to be beautiful, and just might. In the end, though, it wasn’t the starving that killed her; it was an anarchist, concerned not with her body but with her crown (he intended to kill a different royal, but didn’t time it right). While Elisabeth was out walking in Geneva, a man named Luigi Lucheni peered under her parasol, then stabbed her in the ribs with a needle. One version of the story has it that she didn’t die on the spot because of how closely her famous corset held the knife in place, though it seems too neat a metaphor for the paradox of beauty’s privation and protection to be true.
When he was asked about his motives, Lucheni kept repeating, “Only those who work are entitled to eat.” He can’t have known that his phrasing would scan almost as a joke. She died starving and worked hard at it.
In Corsage, an early scene shows the Empress at a museum opening in Vienna. A man tells her they are fortunate that there are so many depictions of her in the city. She is absent so much that “we almost think of Majesty as a phantom,” he says, as if, even before death, she existed more as image than flesh. After she died, she was brought back to Vienna, her perpetual point of departure, to be buried. The Viennese were eager to gaze at her famous body. (At their darkest, the websites I used to read laid out the fantasy of being a beautiful corpse.)
Her subjects waited in line for hours to see her. But her coffin, of course, was closed.
Meghan Racklin is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She writes about books and culture. She has written for The Baffler, Literary Hub, and other publications.
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