the heroine of gaeta

how do you solve a problem like marie?

Do you know my sister, Marie? She was barely 12 when I was whisked away from my family to become Empress, but over the years following, we grew quite close. In fact, I named my favorite child after her.

They called her the Queen of Two Sicilies, which has such a romantic sound, does it not? Ha! The marriage of Poor Marie at age 17 to feeble, asexual King Francis of Naples was anything but romantic. Francis was a religious zealot, anxiety-ridden and afraid of his own shadow. Imagine my gorgeous sister, young, hopeful, willful. Bavarian through and through! She was tossed as a teenager into a kingdom threatened by revolution and anarchy, to rule beside a skinny little weasel who garnered no respect.

My sister and her wormy and sickly husband fled war-torn Naples, and sought refuge in the fortress at Gaeta during the political confusion surrounding the establishment Italy proper, where Marie’s defense of the fortress earned her the nickname “the heroine of Gaeta.” Alas, though Marie withstood several attacks on the fortress (I believe the King was meanwhile hiding under the bed), the fortress fell, and the couple escaped to Rome.

From then on, my sister (her confidence buoyed by all the political intrigue and turmoil and near assassination),  decided to live life on her own terms. For several years thereafter, brave-hearted Marie, traveled the world, swam naked in the sea, smoked cigars in public, and took a lover (who, by the way, was an officer of the Papal Guard). I actually facilitated this tryst, I’m proud to admit, as did our other politically-betrothed sister, the Countess Mathilde Trani.

sis with francis before "the operation"

Such was the pent up passion of my dear Marie, that she spit in the face of caution and ended up with child. If ever a big Bavarian family comes in handy, it’s when one of their ilk is knocked up out of wedlock. We three sisters pleaded illness and off we tarried to our family’s summer home, our beloved Possi, where we were greeted by dear Papa.  Always one to keep composure, he calmly offered, “Well, all right, such things happen. What’s the point of cackling?”

And, as it turned out, there was more than a bit of cackling amongst us bohemians at our Possenhofen idyll when it was revealed that dearest Marie had not merely one bastard in her womb, but two!

This story has somewhat of a happy ending, however. Understanding that scandal had its price, Marie handed her illegitimate baby girls over to the father, and returned to Francis, who admitted his sexual inadequacies, and underwent surgery to correct his particular penile deformation, and dear Marie was impregnated post-haste. Though the baby (who was born on my birthday) died in infancy, my sister and her husband developed an intimacy and new bond to rival any manufactured case study that Viagra could conjure, living, from then forward, rather happily ever after.

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Occupy Vienna: why my marriage nearly wasn’t

He tried, but he couldn't do it...

Just in case you were wondering, my husband, Franzl, was quite a fetching young man. What is the parlance of the day? Hot, is it? Yes, well, not only was Franz Josef hot, he was the target of assassination–which, one must agree, made him even hotter.

Ironic that it would actually be yours truly who got the fateful knife to the heart, but we shan’t go there on this particular occasion. No, today we will talk about why the revolutionaries wished to do in the Emperor the year we were married.

It was 1853, the very year Franzl and I would fall in love in Bad Ischl, and all of Russia and Eastern Europe was in uproar. A Hungarian nationalist, one, János Libényi (who was, quite frankly, a bit hot himself), came at my future husband with a dagger. But here is where good old-fashioned Viennese overkill thwarted the assassins efforts. My Franzl wore a sturdy military collar–a sort of Kevlar of the day–and the knife only grazed him, giving him bragging rights. “Now I am wounded along with my soldiers,” he mused. “I like that.”

Rebellions abounded in mid-19th-century. The Milanese were skewering Austrian soldiers to Italian doorways, Hungarian revolutionaries were burning likenesses of Habsburgs in effigy. It was the season of Carnival, and amid the whooping it up, there was the occasional decapitation by sword.

Austria was big in 1853. Bigger than any country save Russia. The population of 40 million was made up of Germans, Slavs, Italians, Magyars, Romanians, Jews, gypsies. There were Hungarians, Czechoslovakians, Yugoslavians, Poles. And there were lots of people starving. While Vienna sat seemingly untouched by all the poverty around–with its balls, its operas, its Court life–millions of people in the surrounding countryside were jobless and homeless due to “sink or swim” policies that they had no voice in establishing.

Europe was a mess.

A simple memorial cross won't do when it comes to honoring the Kaiser

Of course, at the time I was a giddy teenager, and I found the whole assassination attempt thing terribly romantic. As in concert to my 22-year-old future mate’s “That was awesome” sort of response to nearly being stabbed to death, I took similar delight in the tale of how an Irish count stepped up and intervened on Franzl’s behalf, and then that would-be assassin was ceremoniously hauled off and hung.

As for memorializing the spot where my monarch’s near death occurred, my people did what they typically did when narrowly averting disaster. They erected a church!