I am in love with a ghost.
It’s not a superficial thing, I promise. If it was, I would’ve fallen in love with the picture of her that hung in my high school’s German classroom where I sometimes took exams. I almost did fall in love with her, then, there was something so haunting about the way her endless hair cascaded down the sheer dress, and her whistful look. I thought she was beautiful, but beautiful too look at wasn’t enough to incite me to intrude so much as to ask for her name.
It was in Vienna that I finally fell in love with her, and it happened almost instantly. I found a biography of her in the bookshop of one of the musea; I wish now that I could remember which one—it wasn’t Schönnbrunn, not yet. I saw the front cover with another of the dazzling pictures of her that I’d seen all over town the last couple of days. But what caught my eye about it this time was the title: L’impératrice anarchiste. Which means exactly what it sounds like: The Anarchist Empress.
I was smitten. I bought the book immediately and read it on the public transportation, at dinner, at the hotel. What is it about that juxtaposition, the conflict, that draws us?
She had been in love with the Emperor, it seemed, at the time, as a fifteen-year-old, she just didn’t want to marry him because she didn’t want to be the Empress. And nobody else wanted her to be Empress, either. She was too rough, too country.
She did try to please. For a while. She gave him three children pretty close together—took three tries to get the boy, but by the time she did, the firstborn was taken off by a fever. She wasn’t allowed to raise the other two after that, but several years later she had another one just for herself.
One thing occurred to me as I was reading it, though, that gave me pause, and I only became more convinced of it as I read other sources that seemed to confirm it: despite her romantic nature, I think it’s quite possible that my love, my dear, sweet Empress, had no sexual desires at all.
I mean, obviously she had had sex, there was no other way for her to have had children at the time. But the primary sources claim it took three nights after the wedding for the bedsheets to be stained, and while there are other less flattering theories for why that might have been the case, it makes a compelling case against her enthusiasm in the bedchamber.
Later on, she became somewhat more outspoken in her disdain for men and in what we must call her twilight years, she even hooked her husband up with the actress who would continue to be his mistress for the rest of his life. That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing she would encourage if she had been wanting to engage in the kinds of activities she was rumored to have engaged in, which would have been so much less acceptable for her.
It seems absurd particularly considering how revolutionary she was. Not anarchist, per se. Not explicitly. But certainly a Democrat in the last pure monarchy. A Catholic who stuck up for the Jews around the time and in the country where Hitler was born. An Austrian who liked the Hungarians so much she averted war by becoming their Queen. She was also sympathetic to the Italians, which is why it’s so tragically ironic that she should have been the one noble to fall victim to the madness of a fellow anarchist, who drove a nailfile into her aorta just because she was obviously of noble birth.
She might not have been the best role model, she had her faults. But her spirit lingers, waifish, wafer-thin, a hunger in her eyes not to be touched, but deeper, to have her story told, as she lingers at my bedside and hovers over my desk.