The Woman in the Pink Hat

FictionIssue ThirteenIssue Thirteen Fiction

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By Jane Downing

Rita put her lesson plan to one side in frustration. Her cup of tea was cold.

In one way there was too much material on the war, which made distilling it into lessons for study-shy Year 9s close to impossible. In another way, there wasn’t enough. The textbook lay open at her elbow. The theme was clear. Mateship. The crucible of the Australian character. Mateship. She could see the girls in the class rolling their eyes. They wouldn’t see themselves in the story, so why should they engage?

After one too many bikkies and a fresh tea, Rita went back to the beginning. The assassination in Sarajevo – the so-called spark that ignited the Powder Keg of Europe – was dramatic and would buy her a bit of sufferance to cover the complicated politics of the era. She was aware she had descendents of British, German, Serbian, Bosnian, Syrian and Turk, in her class. Mateship. Focus on mateship, she told herself, the national myth that we all get along. Just photocopy the faded old worksheets you’ve been bequeathed. You don’t have to make the students love you.

But I do want to make them love history.

She clicked through a series of World War I images on her laptop. And there it was, what she didn’t know she’d been looking for. At the beginning of it all: the woman in the pink hat.


The illustration in Domenica del Corriere, 12 July 1914, has her standing in the back of the Double Phaeton, her arms waving, seeing off the attack. If this was a humorous newspaper article, there’d be seagulls circling overhead. But no, it’s a man from the Black Hand secret society on the Sarajevo Street. Gun brandished.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, had sparked a world war, and yet the name of his wife was forgotten.

Rita flipped through the folder of worksheets again. The folder was a history itself: roneoed, photocopied, and printed sheets, all with blank spaces for student answers. Teachers before her had posed questions on the critical assassination in 1914.  From the failed hand grenade attack – the confusion over left and right turns in the Sarajevo Street – to the opportunistic moment one of the conspirators, the young man Gavrilo Princip, stepped off the curb and aimed a double shot. But there were no women’s stories. Though she’d been there at the very beginning, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg was absent.

Rita was suddenly interested in the woman who’d taken the second bullet.


The woman in the pink hat should not have been there. She’d had no right to be Franz Ferdinand’s wife.

In an internet search Rita discovered that though the Archduke was heir to an empire with wealth and privilege beyond reason, he was also obligated by Hapsburg Law to marry from within a select group of equally powerful dynasties. Marriages were alliances, contracts between states formed for the preservation and accumulation of property.

Would she arrange ‘marriages’ between her Year 9s to illustrate? Force them to sit beyond their friendship groups, demand an entire fifty-minute period be spent beside a designated member of the opposite gender? Get them to imagine a lifetime. See them flummoxed, because in their experience marriage was open to anyone – no matter status or gender – the only requisite being love.

Those watching the heir to the throne in the 1890s thought his frequent visits to Hulbturn Castle, for tennis and walks around the schloss, were a good sign. Archduchess Isabella was sure he had formed an attachment to her daughter – one of the correct      lineages in the stud book. A win-win for tradition and affection.

Rita giggled. The next bit in the story was worthy of a bodice-ripping romance novel. She glanced up from the dining room table, the only place she had to prepare lessons in her first permanent teaching position. The kids had not been disturbed by her laughter. They were curled like puppies in the glow of the television in the next room. A little ‘Shaun the Sheep’ before bedtime.

So the history went: the Archduchess retrieved Franz Ferdinand’s dropped locket from the tennis court and found it contained the image of the wrong woman. The case was blown wide open. The bachelor of the season had proposed to a lady-in-waiting instead.

Sophie, the woman in the pink hat, was in the frame; a minor noble, sent to earn a wage as a high-class maid. Rita started scribbling notes between poring over photographs. There were other suitable women on offer – and one well-prepared young noblewoman looked much like another in early twentieth century Europe – but Sophie’s suitor adamantly refused to budge. Franz Ferdinand could not always have been the stuffed-shirt in the photographs, his chest bejeweled with sashes and medals, a man with a caricaturist’s dream of a moustache.


They had three children, Franz Ferdinand and his beloved Sophie. They left behind three orphans when they were assassinated.

Rita heard the ‘Shaun the Sheep’ theme music through the open doorway and went into her two. Bathed and in their pyjamas, Sandy and Darcy were at their scrubbed cherubic best – not a fair representation of the rest of the day. She herded them to the bathroom to clean teeth. The three of them stared back from the mirror. Was she matronly, she wondered, as she caught her profile out of the corner of her eye.

The paintings and photographs of the Duchess charted her progression from long-necked bride to matron with the passing of years and arrival of children. Her cheeks filled; her bosoms evolved into a formidable bust. Across time, she looked unwavering at the artist or into the camera. Without the explanation of text, she looked nice, but ordinary. Bourgeois. Indeed, she would never have been crowned empress even if she hadn’t been cut down in Sarajevo.

The ruling dynasty hadn’t shown up to the wedding. It’d only been allowed to go ahead under strict provisions: the bride would never be empress, and their children would never be in line for the throne. In life she was not to be his equal. The list of rules was long. In the bathroom, as she reminded her children to ‘spit, swill, spit again,’ Rita could only remember two. Sophie was not allowed to sit in the royal box in theatres nor travel beside her husband in a car or carriage. The awfulness of that last rule. She’d been beside him in the Double Phaeton on that day in 1914 only because of a loophole. They were in Serbia and not on Austro-Hungarian soil.


Finally, the kids were in bed. ‘One chapter, just one chapter,’ Darcy begged.

Their lives were made up of story. She lay on Darcy’s bed and Sandy climbed in too. It was getting a bit frosty so she pulled his snowflake patterned ‘Frozen’ doona over them. The back of her mind was still working as she read from where they’d left off in Diana Wynne Jones’s ‘Power of Three.’

With her Year 9s, Rita would have to keep World War I simple – without being patronising. The war ignited by the assassination in Sarajevo had lasted more than four years; killing upwards of twenty million people. Gallipoli; mateship, Simpson’s Donkey; mateship, trenches and trench foot. The curriculum was cluttered so anything she inserted on forgotten women could only be a sideshow. On reflection, she should focus on nurses if she wanted any attempt at gender balance. Forget the woman in the pink hat.

In fact, she mused, it would fit her narrative better if she’d discovered the assassin Princip had been a woman in men’s clothing. A woman who acted, a woman with full agency, who could be cast as an anti-hero – by some lights a hero. Sophie in her wide-brimmed pink hat was merely a wife and mother. Merely? Rita realised she’d defined Sophie by an item of feminine apparel rather than by any deeds.

Darcy was asleep by the end of the chapter. Rita stood at the door to the bedroom and whispered, ‘now!’

Sandy puckered up her lips and blew a great lungful of air at the overhead light. Rita flicked the switch as the breath took flight. The room went dark. Sandy’s eyes shone. It seemed she would never get too old to believe in her power to control the electrics.


Rita sat in a small circle of light in the now otherwise dark house. Back in the dining room, the rumble of the dishwasher was her only music, sounding like the far-off roar of a crowd.

A grenade exploded but missed its target. Franz Ferdinand insisted on visiting the wounded in the local hospital before returning to Vienna, his wife insisted on accompanying him. The open-top car went down the wrong street. A second attempt on his life was made. The rest was history. Just not a viable history lesson yet.

As in life, so too in death: Sophie’s coffin was not allowed to be on a level with the Archduke’s. It was set eighteen inches lower than that of the man who’d loved her, fought to marry her and have her by his side. The family couldn’t let go of their anger at the wrong woman. She was not entombed in the Imperial crypt.

Rita could imagine the reaction from the back row of the class if she told the story in full. The girls would say: ‘The shits, stuck up arseholes.’ She’d say it herself except she was a teacher now. What a horrible, nasty empire, plunging the world into a deadly power play. Leaving millions of women with a photograph of a man in uniform as their only solace at the end of the war. Dynastic empires clinging on.

Her half-started worksheet document sat inert on the laptop screen. But no, Sophie would not do. Sophie would have to remain a footnote. At Princip’s trial he said he hadn’t even aimed for her at all.

Rita wanted her Year 9s to aspire to something great. She wanted to give the girls role models to bank, ready to access when the battles of the everyday made life too hard. Models for the future that’d tell them: you can do anything, be anything — Astronaut, CEO, PM, Nurse. Do a teaching degree while caring for two little kids who didn’t always behave as nicely as they had that evening. Doing it alone.

Could inspiring great love be enough?


Eyewitness accounts reported that Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, shouted when the Archduke was shot. ‘For Heaven’s sake, what has happened to you?’

Finally, her own voice for history to hear.

Then she was shot and slumped over, her face falling between her husband’s knees.

Her husband’s last words were recorded too. ‘Sopher,’ he pleaded, using her pet name. ‘Don’t die, stay alive for our children.’

Rita felt a tightening across her chest.

‘Why are you crying mummy?’

Rita jumped. Sandy stood beside her like an Edwardian ghost in an over-sized white t-shirt. Rita hissed, more in fright than anything.

‘Can I have a glass of water?’ Sandy whispered.

‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to snap. I was in a world of my own,’ Rita said.

Her daughter looked worried. ‘Don’t go back there.’


‘To that world all on your own.’

‘Never without you.’ Rita hugged her child close. ‘Only a small glass, then back to bed.’

She listened to the tap gurgle on then off.

Franz Ferdinand’s plumed hat fell off as he collapsed. The green feathers were later found strewn across the car’s floor. In the eyewitness accounts she could find no mention of the trajectory of the pink hat.