A Walk on Broken Glass: Elisabeth, Empress of Austria (Revised Edition)
by Gloria M. Allan
Granville Island Publishing Ltd., Co.
source: the author (via Nafiza – I haven’t met Gloria Allan myself)
Born of royal blood, 15-year-old Elisabeth (Sisi) is a free-spirited child of nature with no social graces to speak of when Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, falls madly in love with her.
In 1854, as the new Empress of Austria, she is swept into the harsh world of the Hapsburg Empire with its power struggles and political intrigues. Elisabeth’s mother-in-law is determined to crush her spirit and her husband has a roving eye that never misses the next pretty lady.
But Elisabeth is no ordinary woman. In the face of adversity, her determination emerges unbounded and she makes her beauty one of her strengths. While blazing her own path to power and freedom, true love enters her life.
A Walk on Broken Glass is a compelling story of Elisabeth’s loves, tragedies and triumphs. Her love of Hungarians brought about her greatest achievement – helping to influence the formation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (back cover)
Writing about historical figures is always tricky, because the author has to walk the fine line between (on one hand) delving into an actual (albeit deceased) person’s heart and mind which unavoidably entails ascribing to that person motives, convictions, and emotions that did not exist or not to that degree in real life, and (on the other hand) retaining detachment from the subject in order to stick to the known and proven facts, which tends to make for a dull story, when fiction rather than biography is the medium.
A Walk on Broken Glass strives for that line, leaning to the latter side initially, the former side later. The author takes pains to make her extra-historical creations plausible. There is, obviously, no historical record of Elisabeth’s conversations, for instance, which left a gap to be filled by (and/or) in the novel.
What I liked: The history. The immense power wielded by Elisabeth’s husband and her mother-in-law, as well as by the nationalist Hungarians for whom Elisabeth interceded, is displayed fully and without ostentation. The complexity of politics within the Austrian, later the Austro-Hungarian, Empire and within that empire’s court are touched upon and made visible without overwhelming the narrative and the reader. The corruption and rigidity of the court – the constant power-mongering – are emphasized. The rigidity is both a result of the deeply-entrenched belief in Viennese superiority and a fear-filled reaction to unrest and change; it is also one reason, the novel suggests, that the empire fell. Elisabeth suffers from the snobbish cruelty of the court’s denizens. Ludovika, Elisabeth’s mother, describes the court in a marvelous passage that is at once specific to her experience and universal to any closed group with almost unlimited power:
There they were, Ludovika thought: the vultures. The word almost shot from her mouth. To her, no one was more narrow-minded, more pompous and shallow than the Viennese royals. They were an iron-cast, closed society. They knew each other from childhood, shared the same tastes and ideas and had no interest beyond their own closed circle. They lived in palaces, had vast country estates, and competed among themselves in lavish banquets, hunts and gossip. (p. 102)
With a ruthlessness befitting the Viennese court, the novel crushes the idea of an innocent girl reforming an avaricious older man given over to vice; Elisabeth’s disillusionment with her fairy tale ending permeates the story, which gives the reader a clear sense of Elisabeth’s struggles. There is no obvious path for her to happiness or any great victory. The narrative manages to avoid the reader feeling utterly suffocated along with Elisabeth through a distance that acknowledges Elisabeth’s faults even as it paints her as a woman caged by circumstance and the choices of others. Elisabeth suffers greatly and, time and time again, walks the path she must to survive, to do good where she has the reach to do so, to find as best she may a piece of that so-elusive thing, happiness. A Walk on Broken Glass is written with a great sense of compassion for Elisabeth and (some of) the people around her.
What I was less impressed by: The narrative reads in many places too much like self-conscious historical fiction rather than like a story about a vibrant character that just happens to take place in this era and location and – oh yeah, be about a real person. The writing is weak in places, and the opening paragraphs are sheer melodrama. (Which, come to think of it, suits the court, to a certain extent.) The narrative focus drifts to other significant characters; while glimpses of other perspectives on Elisabeth and other main characters, and glimpses of the wider changing world were interesting, these snippets were fragmentary, with the exception of the extended section on the murder-suicide of Elisabeth’s son. (That is not a spoiler. It is historical.)*
If you aren’t interested in history, this probably isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, you liked The Royal Diaries series, this is something like a grown-up version, minus the diary format. If you like European history, the moment above the precipice when an empire is poised to fall (and eventually does) (not a spoiler), or women who do the best they can with really bad situations, you might give this a shot.
“Everyone must think me mad, always on the run,” Elisabeth said to Countess Sztaray one day. “I’m not mad. I cannot be a burden, wallowing in self-pity. I must find my own way, with more clarity. I must be essentially myself or go mad.” (p. 306)
*And reminds me of a history prof from my undergrad who gave us pieces of gossip and scandal – including this – as well as dates and Significant Figures Of The Era from the historical periods we studied. Just saying, the personal info made history feel a lot more alive than memorizing dates of battles.