top of page

Womanhood and Suffering

Above: Empress consort of Austria Queen consort of Hungary. Below: Rosemary Kennedy.

In the 1880s, in Austria, Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Queen of Hungary would make her own cosmetic compounds and lotions in an effort to maintain her 'radiant complexion' and youthful skin (the empress was infamously scared of ageing). Her personal favourite was called "Crème Céleste" and was made of white wax, almond oil, and rosewater. She seemed to believe that this mixture might help her maintain her natural beauty forever. Elisabeth Wittelsbach, known as "Sissi," was reared in a relaxed environment by her involved parents, who encouraged her to explore the countryside and indulge in artistic speculations. She was born into the regal Bavarian House of Wittelsbach. When she married Emperor Franz Joseph I at the age of 16, the young Sissi was thrown into the formal Habsburg court life, which she found disagreeable and for which she was unprepared. The monotony of royal life was no match for Sissi, who was eccentric and trained in the principles of creativity and adventure. The empress disobeyed her husband by taking up riding, gymnastics, smoking (ironic considering her fear of becoming old), and smoking during their marriage, which made her a reluctant target of rumours.

The Queen, who was regarded as lovely in her day, was frequently credited with maintaining popular interest in the Austrian court because of her attractiveness and graceful features. The notorious Archduchess Sophie, Elisabeth's mother-in-law, famously said of Sissi, "It is the Empress who attracts them all." She is their pride and idol, after all. Elisabeth was in fact so revered for her beauty that in the cherished German film Sissi, which primarily focuses on the royal's radiant good features and presents a rose-tinted account of her marriage to Karlheinz Böhm, in 1955, Hollywood star Romy Schneider was cast as the empress.

The young Queen, however, was far from the ideal mix of good looks and health. Due to a lack of excitement from palace life, she developed an eating disorder and suffered from acute sadness (or "melancholy," as it was called in the 19th century). The empress followed a rigorous fitness regimen in addition to various difficult beauty rituals, one of which included a three-hour hair procedure. Elisabeth maintained a 16-inch waist and a weight of around 110 pounds throughout her whole life, even after four pregnancies. The young queen, who was characterised as being "graceful, but too slim," and "very unhappy," suffered under pressure to retain her excellent features.

Relationship with Emperor Franz Joseph did nothing to ease the empress's suffering. Elisabeth was so upset by the idea of her marriage, despite what might have appeared in Schneider's on-screen connection with Böhm, that in the moments after her wedding, the young bride could be seen sobbing from her carriage as she rode through crowds of ecstatic Austrians. Sissi experienced a great deal of emotional agony as she entered the palace gates due to her domineering mother-in-law, her uninteresting husband, and the unexpected death of her young daughter, Sophie. The empress would experience more sorrow later in life when Rudolph, her only child, committed a murder-suicide in 1889.

Unsurprisingly, Elisabeth began running away to Hungary during her most depressing moments so she might get over her sorrow and leave her terrible marriage. This, along with reading, provided some solace for the queen throughout her life. Elisabeth used the time between her scheduled hair routines to study languages; she was fluent in English, French, and had just added modern Greek to her studies of Hungarian. According to reports, the empress once confided in her Greek instructor that "Hairdressing takes approximately two hours... My mind is idle while my hair is busy. I worry that my thoughts will wander onto my hairdresser's fingers through the hair. Thus, the headache I had later. Historical descriptions of Elisabeth's intelligence have received a lot less attention than those of so many other women who came before and after her. Sissi struggled to fall asleep and stayed up late reading and writing. The empress developed a passion for the German lyric poet and radical political theorist Heinrich Heine, whose letters she kept and who encouraged her to create poetry, and had a particular interest in history, philosophy, and literature.

After being killed in 1898 by a needle file, the terrible life of Empress Elisabeth came to an equally horrific end. Elisabeth left behind a legacy of beauty and strangeness, and today, she is honoured via paintings and photos that, in an effort to live forever young, she refused to let to be taken after the age of 30. Sisi's story is a tragic one, as she was a woman who was unable to find happiness despite her wealth and status. She was eventually assassinated by an Italian anarchist while on a trip to Switzerland in 1898.

This time, the Irish National Opera returns to the Linbury Theatre with a modern opera. Rosemary Kennedy's biography, Least Like the Other, is a distressing look at the Kennedy family and their desire for perfection. The audience is transported into Rosemary's world via one vocalist, two actors, narrators, and an offstage orchestra. The full one-act opera is staged in a white room where projections of cinematography are displayed on the room's walls. It is a disturbing tale about a dubious medical technique that was popular in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States. Rosemary was treated by neurologist Walter Freeman and neurosurgeon James Watts, who helped popularise the treatment. During the period, there were few medications for the treatment of mental problems, and what now seems barbarous was a common treatment for people who had no other option. According to the JFK library, Rosemary's behaviour began to alter in 1940, when the Kennedy family returned to the United States. According to the JFK Presidential library website, Eunice, Rosemary's sister, subsequently wrote: "Rosemary did not appear to be advancing, but rather regressing." At the age of 22, she became extremely irritated and demanding. Joseph Kennedy Sr. was apparently persuaded that a lobotomy would help to calm his daughter and avoid her occasionally violent mood swings, and he authorised the relatively new treatment to be done on her.

Prior to the treatment, others questioned the severity of any mental disease. She was never an impediment, an embarrassment, or something extremely bad. I've always had the impression that her mental condition was precarious, and that the lobotomy that her father Joe authorised severely damaged her. In 2005, Harvey Rachlin, author of The Kennedys: A Chronological History, 1823-Present, told The Independent: "Rosemary's death was a shock to the nation." In November 1941, when Rosemary was 23 years old, her father decides to have her lobotomized. The process is described and projected, with the surgeon drilling into the patient's brain as he recites a familiar phrase. Perhaps most frighteningly, the surgery is regarded as successful only when the patient ceases to speak. On July 7, 2005, Rosemary Kennedy passed away at the age of 86. However, none of her painful final years is depicted in the opera. Instead, the focus is on the early years of a girl whose family history has been omitted. Sisi's story highlights the ways in which societal expectations and societal norms can lead to tragedy and suffering. As a woman in a position of power and privilege, Sisi was expected to conform to the societal norms of her time, which included strict adherence to court etiquette and being a symbol of the Habsburg Empire. These expectations led to her confinement and ultimately her unhappiness and suffering. Additionally, the silence surrounding her unhappiness and the lack of support or understanding from her husband and the court further perpetuated her suffering.

Sisi's story highlights the ways in which societal expectations and societal norms can lead to tragedy and suffering. As a woman in a position of power and privilege, Sisi was expected to conform to the societal norms of her time, which included strict adherence to court etiquette and being a symbol of the Habsburg Empire. These expectations led to her confinement and ultimately her unhappiness and suffering. Additionally, the silence surrounding her unhappiness and the lack of support or understanding from her husband and the court further perpetuated her suffering. Similarly, Rosemary Kennedy's story is also one of tragedy, suffering, and oppression. Born in 1918, Rosemary was the eldest daughter of Joseph and Rose Kennedy. She was considered to be the "black sheep" of the family, as she struggled with intellectual disabilities and behavioral issues. In 1941, at the age of 23, Rosemary underwent a lobotomy, a controversial and experimental procedure intended to help improve her behavior. The lobotomy was a failure, and it resulted in Rosemary being permanently institutionalized. She spent the rest of her life in a state of severe disability, unable to communicate or care for herself. Rosemary's story highlights the ways in which societal oppression can lead to tragedy and suffering. As a person with intellectual disabilities, Rosemary was marginalized and oppressed by society. The lack of understanding and compassion towards people with intellectual disabilities in the past led to her being subjected to a dangerous and experimental procedure that ultimately left her permanently disabled. The silence surrounding her condition and the lack of support or understanding from her family further perpetuated her suffering.

Both Sisi and Rosemary's stories also reveal the ways in which silence can perpetuate suffering. In Sisi's case, her unhappiness and feelings of confinement were not openly acknowledged or discussed. Her suffering was kept silent, and her unhappiness was not addressed. Similarly, in Rosemary's case, her intellectual disability was not acknowledged or addressed, and her suffering was kept silent. This silence perpetuated the suffering of both women, as it prevented them from receiving the help and support they needed. In conclusion, the stories of Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Queen of Hungary, and Rosemary Kennedy are examples of how societal expectations, societal norms, societal oppression and silence can lead to tragedy and suffering. It is important to critically assess these themes in order to better understand the ways in which they can be addressed and prevented in the future. This includes acknowledging and addressing societal expectations, norms and oppression, and breaking the silence around suffering in order to emancipate.

Bibliography for Rosemary Kennedy:

  1. "The Hidden Kennedy Daughter: The Extraordinary Life of Rosemary Kennedy" by Kate Clifford Larson (2015)

  2. "Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter" by Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff (2013)

  3. "A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction" by Patrick J. Kennedy (2015)

  4. "The Kennedy Family: A View from the Inside" by Barbara Gibson and Caroline Latham (1992)

  5. "Rosemary Kennedy: Her Life, Her Tragedy, Her Legacy" by Dr. James W. Wepman (2017)

Bibliography for Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Queen of Hungary:

  1. "Empress Elisabeth of Austria: A Life in Picture" by Brigitte Hamann (2012)

  2. "Sisi: Empress on Her Own" by Allison Pataki (2015)

  3. "The Lonely Empress: Elizabeth of Austria" by Joan Haslip (1966)

  4. "Empress Elisabeth of Austria: A Biography" by Ilona Schacherer-Elek (2007)

  5. "Empress Elisabeth of Austria: A Cultural Biography" by Angela Pritzel (2017)


bottom of page