Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Lonely Empress: a biography of Elizabeth of Austria

by Joan Haslip

The disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire up through World War I is a long, bizarre, twisted, sordid, unbelievably complex saga about which I wish I knew more. This book has the pre-WWI Austro-Hungarian Empire and the volatile ethno-political morass that was Europe as a shimmering backdrop, but except for a few important names and the general tenor of relations among the grossly intermarried aristocratic families, it didn't teach me much.

But that's totally OK. I knew from reading a review that this book is light on the history and very tightly focused on the personal life and personality of Elizabeth Hapsburg (née Wittelsbach), fascinating and complex all unto herself. It's written in an almost gossipy tone, and it's practically a real life fin de siècle romance novel. It really is quite exciting and fun to read, even though it could be (falsely) accused of being insubstantial. Honestly, I kept waiting for the story to start to drag, or become repetitive or stupid, somewhere in the 440 pages, but it didn't. It helps that each chapter is only 10 to 15 pages, so the reader has a say in the pace of reading, but ultimately it's all down to the enigmatic character's ability to hold one's attention. Her Majesty still has the power to enchant.

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