The book is based on real facts and the characters are all real people. It starts in July 1875. The main event is the visit of Elizabeth, the Empress of Austria.
Even though Sisi has a big part in the novel, the main characters are Charlotte Baird and Bay Middleton. Capt. William George “Bay” Middleton (16 April 1846 – 9 April 1892) was a noted British horseman of the 19th century. He was equerry to John Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland 1869-1874 and 1882-1885.
The Empress Elisabeth of Austria visited England, arriving on 2 August 1874, where she met The Earl Spencer. When she returned to England in 1876, she visited Lord Spencer at Althorp, and Bay Middleton was asked to “pilot” the Empress. She left England in February 1882 and never hunted in England or Ireland again.
He met and became engaged to Charlotte Baird in 1875. She was the daughter of a wealthy shipping family with brothers who were keen riders.
He had an 18-month affair with Lady (Henrietta) Blanche Ogilvy, while she was married to Colonel Henry Hozier. She confided in a letter (made public in August 2002 by her granddaughter, Mary Soames) to another lover that Bay Middleton was the father of her daughter, Clementine Hozier, born 1 April 1885, who was eventually to marry Sir Winston Churchill.
The third main character is Elizabeth of Austria, who comes to England to hunt. Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria (24 December 1837 – 10 September 1898) was the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I, and thus Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, and many others.
We learn that Elizabeth’s marriage was not straightforward, and she was not the woman who was chosen to marry Franz Joseph. In 1853, Princess Sophie of Bavaria, the domineering mother of 23-year-old Emperor Franz Joseph, preferring to have a niece as a daughter-in-law rather than a stranger, arranged a marriage between her son and her sister Ludovika’s eldest daughter, Helene (“Néné”). The Duchess and Helene were invited to journey to the resort of Bad Ischl, Upper Austria to receive his formal proposal of marriage. Fifteen-year-old Sisi accompanied her mother and sister and they travelled from Munich in several coaches. Helene was a pious, quiet young woman, and she and Franz Joseph felt ill at ease in each other’s company, but he was instantly infatuated with her younger sister. He did not propose to Helene, but defied his mother and informed her that if he could not have Elisabeth, he would not marry at all. Five days later their betrothal was officially announced. The couple were married eight months later.
Elizabeth cared too much about her beauty and her hair. The empress developed extremely rigorous and disciplined exercise habits. Every castle she lived in was equipped with a gymnasium, the Knights’ Hall of the Hofburg was converted into one, mats and balance beams were installed in her bedchamber so that she could practise on them each morning, and the imperial villa at Ischl was fitted with gigantic mirrors so that she could correct every movement and position.
Her hair was the object of much care as well. Daily care of her abundant and extremely long hair took at least three hours. Her hair was so long and heavy that she often complained that the weight of the elaborate double braids and pins gave her headaches. When her hair was washed with special “essences” of eggs and cognac once every two weeks, all activities and obligations were cancelled for that day.
While in England Elizabeth stayed in Easton Weston. Easton Neston is a large country house in the parish of Easton Neston near Towcester in Northamptonshire. In March 1876 Empress Elisabeth of Austria visited England and rented Easton Neston House, using its fine stables for her horses. She used Blisworth railway station for travel to London.
Althorp is where the Earl Spencer lived. Althorp is a stately home, estate and small civil parish in Daventry District, Northamptonshire. It has been held by the prominent aristocratic Spencer family for more than 500 years.
The following must be the photograph that caused all the scandal about the Empress and Bay in the book.
Charlotte owed her keenness on photography to her aunt, who was a member of the Royal Photography Society. The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, commonly known as the Royal Photographic Society, is one of the world’s oldest photographic societies. It was founded in London, England in 1853 as The Photographic Society of London with the objective of promoting the art and science of photography, and in 1854 received Royal patronage from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
Another place where the Empress hunts is the Quorn. The Quorn Hunt, usually called the Quorn, established in 1696, is one of the world’s oldest fox hunting packs and claims to be the United Kingdom‘s most famous hunt.
Elizabeth visits Queen Victoria at Windsor. Queen Victoria is a widow in 1876. The things that Elizabeth notices about the monarch is her low height, her weight, and her bulbous blue eyes.
Prince Albert died in 1861, and after that the queen became a recluse. The novel mentions that the prince died of typhus. On 9 December, one of Albert’s doctors, William Jenner, diagnosed typhoid fever. Albert died at 10:50 p.m. on 14 December 1861 in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle, in the presence of the Queen and five of their nine children.
During the visit to Queen Victoria, Elizabeth gets to see John Brown, the queen’s assistant, who at the time was told to be the queen’s lover. John Brown (8 December 1826 – 27 March 1883) was a Scottish personal servant and favourite of Queen Victoria for many years. He was appreciated by many (including the Queen) for his competence and companionship, and resented by others for his influence and informal manner. The exact nature of his relationship with Victoria was the subject of great speculation by contemporaries, and continues to be controversial today.
During the visit her daughter Beatrice was also present. Princess Beatrice of the United Kingdom, VA CI GCVO GBE RRC GCStJ (Beatrice Mary Victoria Feodore; later Princess Henry of Battenberg; 14 April 1857 – 26 October 1944) was the fifth daughter and youngest child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Beatrice’s childhood coincided with Queen Victoria’s grief following the death of her husband Albert, Prince Consort on 14 December 1861. As her elder sisters married and left their mother, Queen Victoria came to rely on the company of her youngest daughter, whom she called “Baby” for most of her childhood. Beatrice was brought up to stay with her mother always and she soon resigned herself to her fate.
Sisi mentions her daughter Valerie to Queen Victoria. Archduchess Marie Valerie of Austria (22 April 1868 – 6 September 1924) was the fourth and last child of Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria and Elisabeth of Bavaria (“Sisi”). Her given name was Marie Valerie Mathilde Amalie, but she was usually called Valerie.
We also get to see Sisi’s son, Prince Rudolph, in the novel. Rudolf (21 August 1858 – 30 January 1889), who was Archduke of Austria and Crown Prince of Austria–Hungary, was the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph I and heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire from birth.
One of Charlotte’s suitors is Captain Chicken Hartopp. Edward (‘Chicken’) Hartopp (1845-1902), was a British Officer in the 10th Hussars. He took part in the first polo match in England as well as being responsible for drafting the rules of polo in England.
Another character that appears in the book is Earl Spencer, who Bay served under in Ireland. John Poyntz Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer, KG, PC (27 October 1835 – 13 August 1910), known as Viscount Althorp from 1845 to 1857 (and also known as the Red Earl because of his distinctive long red beard), was a British Liberal Party politician.
Queen Maria of Naples, Sisi’s sister, is the first one to approach Bay, wanting him to be her pilot, but he refuses. Maria Sophie in Bavaria, (4 October 1841, Possenhofen Castle – 19 January 1925, Munich) was the last Queen consort of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. She was one of the ten children of Maximilian Joseph, Duke in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria.
In England Maria was in exile after her husband lost the throne. On 3 February 1859 Maria Sophie was married by proxy to the Duke of Calabria, the eldest son of Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies, King of Naples. Maria Sophie became queen of a realm that was shortly to be overwhelmed by the forces of Giuseppe Garibaldi and Piedmontese army.
The book mentions Disraeli as the Prime Minister. Benjamin Disraeli, (21 December 1804 – 19 April 1881) was a British politician and writer who twice served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Another political figure that is mentioned is Otto Bismarck, who was not happy that Elizabeth had travelled to England. Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (1 April 1815 – 30 July 1898), known as Otto von Bismarck was a conservative Prussian statesman who dominated German and European affairs from the 1860s until 1890.
There is a mention of Skittles, who was a courtesan known to wear very tight riding habits. Catherine Walters, also known as “Skittles” (13 June 1839 – 4 August 1920), was a fashion trendsetter and one of the last of the great courtesans of Victorian London. Walters was rumoured to have had intellectuals, leaders of political parties, aristocrats and a member of the British Royal Family amongst her benefactors. Her classical beauty was matched by her skill as a horsewoman, for which she was almost equally renowned.
Sisi also mentions her brother-in-law Maximilian. Maximilian (6 July 1832 – 19 June 1867) was the only monarch of the Second Mexican Empire. He was a younger brother of the Austrian emperor Francis Joseph I. After a distinguished career in the Austrian Navy, he accepted an offer by Napoleon III of France to rule Mexico. His self-declared empire collapsed, and he was captured and executed by the Mexican government in 1867.
The novel ends when Bay takes part in and wins the Grand National. The Grand National is a National Hunt horse race held annually at Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool. First run in 1839, it is a handicap steeplechase over 6.907 km with horses jumping 30 fences over two laps.