Friday, 23 December 2016

Book Review: The Secret of an Empress by Countess Zanardi Landi

2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

Men and women claiming to be the illegitimate offspring of someone rich and powerful, notably a king or less often a queen, have been known at all times. Today a DNA test suffices to find out the truth once and for all, but until not so long ago this was different. There always remained doubts unless the assumptions were so far-fetched or the impostor so clearly out of his or her mind that nobody could take the claim seriously. Of course, some of these people will have ended in psychiatric asylums, some will just have resumed their old lives, and others will have continued their fight for being recognised as natural son or daughter with all possible means. When legal action proved useless, some resorted to… writing a book like The Secret of an Empress by Countess Zanardi Landi that brought the strange story of Elisabeth – Sisi – of Austria’s secret daughter into the world.

According to her own declaration Caroline Countess Zanardi Landi was born in the Castle of Sassetot, Normandy, France, in September 1882 to be given in the care of Hermann and Nanette Kaiser in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, and baptised Karoline Franziska Marie Kaiser, but documents prove that she was the couple’s natural daughter born right in Vienna in March 1879. She married in 1902 and fours years later she emigrated to Montreal, Canada, with her husband and their two children (the younger later earned fame as Hollywood actress under the stage name Elissa Landi). After their separation in 1908, she moved to British Columbia, Canada, where she struggled to earn a living for herself and the children. In Vancouver she met Carlo Count Zanardi Landi whom she married after her divorce in 1911. Around the same time she first began to talk about being the daughter of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, a story that she wrote down in her “memoir” The Secret of an Empress published in London in 1914. She brought out at least two more books, namely The Royal Outcast (1916) and Is Austria Doomed? (1916). Countess Zanardi Landi died in Hollywood, USA, in November 1935.

At the beginning of the The Secret of an Empress stands a riding accident of Elisabeth of Austria that serves as a cover for what really happens at the Norman Castle of Sassetot, France, in September 1882: unnoticed by the world another daughter is born to the Austrian Imperial couple and this baby to be called Caroline “Lily” Franziska Marie is none other than the first-person narrator herself. The Empress sees to it that at least this – last – child of hers is brought up according to her own wishes away from the Imperial Court in Vienna with its strict rules of the Spanish etiquette. The narrator remembers her mother later explaining her reasons:
“… She drew me towards her and whispered eagerly: ‘You were to be my vengeance for all the wrongs which they had inflicted upon me. I wanted you entirely for my own, not with a selfish mother’s love, but that I might preserve you from the useless and dangerous life of Courts, because I did not wish you to be an empty-headed, empty-hearted princess. …’”
The foster-home of the Empress’s choice is the bourgeois household of the Kaiser family who just moved to Vienna. Whenever the Empress can arrange it, she secretly visits Lily at the Kaisers’ although she is Aunt Elly for the girl until she turns six and for the first time stays with her imperial mother for a time at the Palace of Lainz (then outside, now part of Vienna). After this, relations between mother and daughter grow more intimate as their mutual furtive visits become more frequent, notably after 1889 when Lily first moves into a home of her own away from the Kaisers. Her much adored teacher Professor Krause later observes in his diary:
“She loves her mother fanatically, and in turn, it seems to me, is completely dominated even to the extent of tyranny by her mother’s love for her. Everything the child thinks, she must try to remember so as to be able to repeat it to her mother. I asked her what obliged her to reveal her thoughts thus; whereupon she answered me: ‘For nothing in this world would I hurt my mother by refusing her anything.’”
As from 1892 Frau von Friese is entrusted with the girl’s education. In her care the secret daughter of the Imperial couple turns into a well-bred and always understanding teenager ready to enter the stage of Court, but just before her coming out fate strikes hard: in September 1898 Empress Elisabeth of Austria is assassinated in Geneva and in December of the same year Frau von Friese dies in Denmark. …

In the preface the author as first-person narrator declares that she is giving true account of her life as daughter who is The Secret of an Empress long dead and who finally claims her place in the Hapsburg family. She may actually have believed all that she told in her book, but there can be no doubt that her “memoir” is in fact fiction. With the skill of a talented storyteller Countess Zanardi Landi interweaves facts, rumours and own imaginings. Unlike the adept novelist or impostor, she doesn’t waste time on research, though, and includes some easily refutable information. For instance, Sisi’s riding accident in Sassetot wasn’t in September 1882 when the author pretends to have been born there, but already in 1875. Moreover, the Empress would have given birth at the age of almost 45 years which seems rather unlikely although not impossible, not to mention that it’s hard to believe that the pregnancy of such a slim and prominent woman would have remained completely unnoticed. The strongly idealised portrait that the author paints of Sisi as her mother reminds me of the fantasies that many a child has at one time or another about having been adopted or robbed or whatever. And as for the chapters dealing with the mysterious deaths of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and of Crown-Prince Rudolf, they are seem to be based on widespread rumours of the time that have little to do with the truth.

For me as Austrian who am familiar with the outlines of the life of Elisabeth of Austria, The Secret of an Empress by Countess Zanardi Landi has been a rather bizarre, but entertaining read that occasionally made me think of the famous Sissi film trilogy from the 1950s starring Romy Schneider and Karl-Heinz Böhm. Until I found the book by chance, I had never even heard of it, nor of the rumours surrounding a secret fourth daughter of the much-celebrated Empress. As a Hapsburg memoir it’s certainly not the best choice and any biography of Elisabeth of Austria like for instance The Reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann gives a more accurate and comprehensive picture of the life at the Imperial Court of Vienna, but as original fiction the book first published in 1914 certainly deserves more attention. In a nutshell: I warmly recommend this unusual piece of Austrian literature and imagined personal history.

Since Caroline Countess Zanardi Landi died in 1935, i.e. more than 70 years ago, all her works are in the public domain. A free e-book of The Secret of an Empress is available at Forgotten Books.

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This review is a contribution to
(images linked to my reading lists):


  1. What a strange book! It might be interesting to write an alternative history of one's own life though.

    1. Yes, it's really bizarre... but it's even stranger to see that in different forums about European aristocracy you can find people who take the book of Countess Zanardi Landi at face value. There seem to be no limits to gullibility (or is it stupidity?).

  2. I wondered what gem you would find for Z and this book certainly looks intriguing. I'm now thinking about who I might like to claim to be!

    1. Yes, Z was a bit of a hard nut to crack, especially because I needed a classic by a woman writer. In my research I came across some really interesting books from Greece, the Netherlands, Austria/Israel and other "exotic" places, but neither of them was available in English translation...

      I wouldn't wish to be anyone but me - even less a princess!


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