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THE PORTRAIT OF A QUEEN

 

I still remember. It was on 6th February in 1870, when I saw her for the first time. As long as I breathe, I will never forget that Sunday afternoon. I arrived at the palace at two o'clock. I was led into her parlour, where a maid informed me that I had to wait for a little while. Then I was left alone, and as quite a long time passed without anybody paying attention to me, I had time to have a look at all the details of the room. The walls were covered with violet silk wallpaper, and this was the colour of the curtains and drapes as well.

In the corner stood a table, small pictures on it which must have been taken of her children. Next to that stood a carved bookcase with a lot of books on it, the sight of which aroused my curiosity. Closer I ventured. The works of Sándor Petőfi, József Eötvös and Mihály Horváth were lined up next to each other - Hungarian writers. On the top of them there was The Love Fools, a novel by Mór Jókai, one of my favourite authors, I thought - and I had not read this one. Forgetting about myself and the place I was, I took the book off the shelf and started reading.

The Queen’s suite in the Royal Palace of Gödöllő © Royal Palace of Gödöllő

Soon after that I heard footsteps. I backed quickly, however, it was too late. She was standing in front of me wearing a dark blue riding dress trimmed with fur, which fitted her tall and slender figure perfectly. The way the hat was sitting on her head made her so gentle and royal. She was holding a white lace fan in her hands, which were covered by thick white gloves. I bowed deeply. I did not dare to look up. I felt my face getting redder and redder due to the shame. Puzzled I was. The novel fell out of my shaking hands. She did not say anything for half a minute then she told me quietly,

“Forgive me for keeping you waiting but I was completely preoccupied with horse riding. Ida has told me about you. Exactly quite as I imagined. I see you love books. They are often read to me during the long and tedious hours of my hairdressing. Jókai is one of my favourite writers, and this book was handed to me personally by him. I can lend you if you want me to.”

My embarrassment made me unable to speak. Slowly I lifted my head. I had already seen many paintings and photos of her. I did not find her as beautiful as in the pictures, however, there were no photos or paintings which could reflect the impression she made on me or anybody else, I guessed that moment and still believe. Since then no one has had such an impact on me. I looked at the white face flushed by horse riding. It seemed to be calm. Her dark brown eyes sparkled but I could see some profound sorrow. She smiled when she saw my startled eyes,

Royal Palace of Gödöllő © Royal Palace of Gödöllő

“From now we are going to spend a lot of time together. Tonight, I must attend an evening reception. There are less than three hours left. I can hardly bear all these ceremonies, yet, somehow I prefer them here in Hungary than in Vienna. The court tends to chide me because of it.”

Only then I realised that she was speaking proper Hungarian. I was grateful to hear our foreign Queen using our own language. She is not a foreigner, not an Austrian any more. She is one of our people, one of us, I thought. I hardly knew her for a few minutes but I started to admire her and begun to understand that every praise I had ever heard about our Queen was true. I could not spend more minutes with wondering since there was no time to delay. We walked into a small dressing room. She took her hat off and I could catch a glimpse of the famous crown hairstyle, which I had heard so much about.

Her hands were still wearing the white riding gloves. Hastily she pulled them down, and then I noticed that she was wearing not only one but three pairs in order to protect her majestic hands from the hurt caused by the horse bridle. She was moving quickly, though, every movement of her was gentle and elegant.

Then she took a light bath, which was followed by the preparation of the famous crown hairdo. The Queen allowed me to attend the combing ceremony. After a lace gown had been laid on her white shoulders, her hairdresser hurriedly, yet carefully unwrapped her braid which was loose due to the ride. I was so amazed that I could hardly breathe when I saw her beautiful and rich hair. How long it was! It reached down to her heels. The Queen gave me a glimpse in the mirror then sadly but proudly said,

“You see, I'm the Empress of Austria and the Queen of Hungary, yet just a servant, namely the slave of my own hair! Three hours it takes combing it each day, and the washing ritual of it is a whole day long. However, I will do it because all my strength is in her.”

The reproduction of the coronation gown Sisi Museum, Vienna © Schloß Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges.m.b.H. / Sascha Rieger

 

After the hairdresser had managed to prepare the gorgeous crown hairdo only in one and a half hour, the Queen rose from her chair majestically and the dressing process started. Rapidly we wrapped her slender body in a tight corset then dressed her into a white and silver brocade gown decorated with a traditional Hungarian apron. My privilege was to sew the little black corset on her tightly without leaving any crease on the dress. As the previous day, I was given a booklet containing the strict rules of the dressing process, I knew I had to work with the needle and thread very carefully so as to avoid touching her majestic body accidentally. However, I was required to do my best as it was well-known how proud the Queen was of her incredibly slender waist. To show off with that she had herself sewn into all her dresses including her riding gowns.

The time passed quickly. Nervously I hasted while trying to make an excellent work in order to meet the Queen's request. I had to sew without only a tiny tuck visible on the garment, which would impair the sight of her thin shape. When I was ready, she thoroughly checked the work in a long, oval-shaped wooden framed mirror and nodded with satisfaction. Then she reached for her white lace fan, which was often raised to her mouth as she was speaking in order not to reveal the only defect of her beauty, her yellowish teeth.

She was ready. She had a final look in the mirror then she slowly strode toward the stateroom. Her whole appearance was regal. It was not the wealthy elegant gown which made her be a Queen. That would not have been able to do so. She was the Queen while wearing a dark blue dress but also in the white lace gown used during the combing ceremony.

 

Queen Elisabeth in the Hungarian coronation gown (1867) by Emil Rabending (source)

 

Ida informed me that the reception was gorgeous. The thirty-three-year-old Queen was still able to catch all the eyes of Hungarian men and women, the latter not only admired but also tried to imitate her hairdo and dressing style.

I can still recall that February when I became the dresser of Queen Elisabeth in Gödöllő. Forty years have passed since then but that Sunday afternoon and the gentle, encouraging smile have been vividly in my memory ever since. Sometimes I take off Jókai’s novel, The Love Fools, and open that on the second page which reads some downward sloping lines written by Elisabeth, the beautiful and sad Queen of the Hungarians.

Notes:

 

The character of the Queen’s dresser is a fiction, however, the other things mentioned are facts (about her personality, her interest in Hungarian literature, her daily routine and her dressing and combing ceremony) and based on documents and bibliographies (such as the one of Brigitte Hamann and the one of Count Corti Egon Cäsar). Queen Elisabeth probably was not staying in Hungary on 6th February in 1870. However, she spent more than 2000 days in Gödöllő. This number is quite a huge one if we consider that she had a restless personality. I have not had any documents on dressers either in Gödöllő or in Vienna. Though, I tend to believe that events like mentioned above could possibly happen.

Before the Hungarian coronation, according to the data said to me by an expert, Elisabeth spent 114 days in our country. As a Hungarian Queen Consort she stayed here for 2549 days including the more than 2000 in Gödöllő (Royal Palace of Gödöllő). Conclusively, Sisi spent more than seven years in Hungary.

IN HUNGARIAN: EGY KIRÁLYNÉ PORTRÉJA