The Literary Estate of Elisabeth of Austria

Sisi’s Poetic Diaries

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In 1951, a mysterious package arrived from Bavaria at the office of the President of Switzerland. The sender, Duke Ludwig of Bavaria, had been in possession of its contents since 1909 as part of the estate of his father, the respected occulist and optometrist Karl Theodor von Wittelsbach, younger brother of Elisabeth, the late Empress of Austria-Hungary.

The package contained three black leather-bound volumes with gilt edges and clasp in which were recorded chronologically dozens of poems, in the handwriting of the Empress herself. There were also several printed copies of the material in the two earliest volumes, a few printed pages of the third, and  a letter from Elisabeth addressed to posterity.

“(***) Dear future soul , I entrust these documents to you. The Master dictated them to me and also determined their purpose, that in 60 years from the year 1890 they should be published for the benefit of political prisoners and their needy dependants. For in 60 years time, just as today, there will be little enough happiness and joy, that is to say freedom, on our little star. Perhaps on another? I am not in a position to say these things to you today – maybe when you read these lines …….  With kind regards, because I feel you love me, Titania (***)”

The Master was Heinrich Heine, Elisabeth’s spiritual hero and inspiration. Titania was her Shakespearian alter ego, to Franz Josef’s Oberon.

^^^

Towards the end of 1953, the Swiss President received a second, smaller delivery of printed versions of volumes one and two, entitled Nordseelieder and Winterlieder. These came from the estate of Prince Rudolf Liechtenstein and had survived two world wars and much political wheeling and dealing to reach their intended destination.

Rumours of a literary legacy of this kind had circulated in Austria for some considerable time. That Sisi had written poetry was common knowledge, and indeed some of her work had been published in memoirs. The 1930s biography by Egon Corti had contained some examples, and Corti himself had hinted at a much greater body of work. However, most historians believed that if any such work existed it had been destroyed. Ida Ferenczy, Sisi’s friend and confidante was known to have destroyed her letters.

kais._elis._poetische_tagebuch

Elisabeth did not trust her contemporaries at the Vienna court to see that her wishes were carried out and took stringent measures to protect what she believed the world would want to read. She entrusted Ferenczy with her poetic diaries (Das Poetische Tagebuch as they are now called), protected by multiple encasement in boxes of iron and lead, and by seals of various sorts, to be delivered with her express instructions to Duke Karl Theodor after her death. On no account had they to be delivered direct to the Swiss President.

The diaries remained all but forgotten in Swiss archives until the end of the 1970s. In 1980, Sisi’s biographer Brigitte Hamann, who had inspected the archive in preparation for her book The Reluctant Empress, suggested the diary be published by the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The Academy obtained the agreement of the Swiss Parliament, who proposed that profits from the publication of a book should go to the refugee fund of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

The Poetic Diary of Empress Elisabeth was first published in 1984 and has run to five new editions since then.

I think Elisabeth would have approved.

 

(***) the English version is mine, and I hope I have done justice to the spirit of Sisi’s letter even if the translation is not exact.

 

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