Barry Denenberg: Writing a Royal Diary is significantly different than writing a Dear America book. The facts and history are already set in a Royal Diary, and there is no room for fiction. The job of the Royal Diaries is to bring the subject to life as events actually happened. I found that a relief because I like the boundaries and confinement of the history that had to be followed.
RFA & EST: Would you tell us about the research you did for Elisabeth? Did she keep a diary? Where did you find her poetry?
BD: Fortunately, due to my bookselling background, I am able to dig up books on a particular subject (persistence helps). A number of good biographies of Elisabeth exist including a very recent scholarly one which is where I found her poetry. Elisabeth did not keep a diary but did write what I would call notes to herself which she kept hidden, along with her poems.
RFA & EST: What was the most interesting or surprising fact that you learned about Elisabeth and her times?
BD: Once again I learned something that I am constantly relearning: that the concept of marriage we have is a fairly recent one, even if one just considers European culture. Arranged marriages were more the norm than those of us living in the United States in the 21st century would think. I am always fascinated by the adjustments that women especially make to this situation.
RFA & EST: Aunt Sophie clearly preferred her son to marry Elisabeth's sister Helene. Was this because she thought she could better control Helene or was there more to her preference?
BD: Helene was simply well behaved, conventional. Sophie wasn't interested in love, or the Emperor's happiness. She was interested in an appropriate alliance. The thought of Elisabeth was outrageous to Sophie, not only because of her age but because Sophie probably saw and certainly sensed her core independence-yes, her refusal to be controlled.
RFA & EST: Elisabeth's beauty regimen seems rather obsessive and unusual. Was it typical of royals at that time or just part of Elisabeth's great concern for her own beauty?
BD: Elisabeth's beauty regimen was obsessive and not typical, at least to that extreme, of royalty at the time. I spent as much time on it as I did because it was a valid part of her life and her all consuming concern. It is also a lesson to today's girls (see Natalie Merchant's "Tell Yourself" on her Motherland album — which should be required listening for all American girls under the age of seventeen).
RFA & EST: As the diary ends, it appears that Elisabeth and her Emperor husband are truly devoted to each other but by the end of the Epilogue readers learn the couple did not live happily ever after. What happened? Was it more than a mother-in-law's interference?
BD: This is a complicated and subtle question. There was respect, and to some degree, mutual affection. The reasons they did not have an adult, fulfilling relationship, let alone live happily ever after, could go on and on. Certainly the mother-in-law was a problem as was the young age of both Elisabeth and the Emperor. Finally though there was the killer of all relationships — the inability to do what you want anyway. No one was their friend, and no one could tell them what it looked like from the outside. Reality was kept at bay causing layer upon layer of distancing.
RFA & EST: Elisabeth was stabbed to death by a political extremist. What was his cause and how would it benefit from Elisabeth's death?
BD: Elisabeth's killer was an anarchist, then a more popular political stance than today. He was striking out at Elisabeth as a visible symbol of the oppressive European rulers.
RFA & EST: In the Epilogue, Elisabeth appears tragic, strong, and eccentric. What is your general opinion of her?
BD: Elisabeth could have been somebody. In addition to her beauty — she was arguably the most beautiful woman ever to walk the face of the earth (Cleopatra being sexy but not attractive), she was an independent woman, before its time, liberal, before its time, strong, curious, and intelligent. Best of all she marched to the beat of a different and, unfortunately, possibly non-existent drum. If I had one day to spend with anyone who ever lived, I'd choose to have dinner with Elisabeth.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.