Princess Sophia in Bavaria dissolves into tears when King Louis II of Bavaria puts an end to their engagement. Her parents pass from anger to relief. When she learns that her sister will not be Queen of Bavaria, Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) writes to her mother:
“My indignation is at its height, as is that of the Emperor. There are no words to qualify such conduct… But I am pleased that Sophia is taking it so well. God knows that she would never have been happy with such a man. And I wish for her now to find a very kind one. But whom?”
During November, a rumour is circulating at Court: the Empress is thinking of giving birth in Hungary and if the child is a boy, she would call him Etienne, after the patron saint of the Hungarians…
The rumour is founded. After the return of Maximilien’s body from Mexico, Sissi and her spouse leave for Buda-Pest. Sissi feels that her mission will only be complete with the birth of the child, in Spring. And Franz-Josef is starting to agree with his wife. He understands – a little late – that the Hofburg’s suffocating atmosphere has effectively thrown Elisabeth toward more humane milieux. Sissi is grateful to the Hungarians for having accepted her when her mind was drifting toward certain depression. And she wants to give them this child, who is just as much that of newfound tenderness, as of her passion for a liberal, just cause.
On 22 April, Sissi gives birth to little Maria-Valeria. The child’s sex provokes a muffled polemic. The Hungarians would have preferred a boy, for a future male sovereign would have permitted, in the long term, a kingdom that was independent from Vienna. The Austrians rejoice. A girl will be less threatening for the unity of the Empire. In secret, it is murmured that the beautiful Andrassy is the child’s father… This is only a calomny which will totally collapse when the resemblance between Franz-Josef and the little girl becomes evident.
The Emperor is very happy. He describes his paternal joy to his son Rudolf, who has remained in Vienna, and gives him a first portrait of his little sister:
“She is very pretty, she has big, dark blue eyes, a nose still a little fat, a tiny little mouth, and dark hair. She is very strong and kicks vigorously.”
Immediately, Maria-Valeria will hold a place apart in her mother’s heart. She will be her favourite child. With Gisela and Rudolf, Sissi had passed from painful frustration to exaggerated authority. When she had recovered her natural rights over them, their education had been modified, along with their entourage. Passing from one extreme to another, all of them regrettable, Sissi had multiplied the teachers. There were almost fifty of them. The lessons given to Rudolf, to the point of saturation, had however developed his precocity. When the little boy obtained only average marks on a piece of homework, he was greatly affected. His governor having told him that his bad result would deprive him of going hunting with his father, Rudolf had answered:
“It is not for the reward that I try so hard. I do it because it is my duty.”
He was nine-years-old…
The study of languages was very important, for the Heir to the Throne had to be fluent in German, Hungarian, Czech, Croatian, English and French, and read them with ease. At a very early age, Duty had been presented to him as a rule for life, along with application to work. The child had his mother’s sensitivity, but had self-control that had always been absent in her.
For Sissi, the traumatism of the first years had been too much. The children had only been partially hers. Maria-Valeria will escape Archduchess Sophia of Austria’s influence.
“I now know the happiness of having a child”,
the Empress says to a lady-in-waiting.
Sissi is very tired. On 9 June, she leaves directly for Bad Ischl, without passing through Vienna. One month later, she returns to her cherished Bavaria, for her whole family is asking her to intervene with Louis II to reconnect the family relations which had been interrupted after the scandal of his broken engagement. The strange King is very agitated. He has announced his intention of rebuilding the old castle in ruins near his Hohenschwangau residence, on a spur backed up against the peaks along the Austrian border. In full mediaeval delirium, the King has given his orders:
“I don’t want a symmetrical construction, but something with picturesque variety.”
Picturesque, the result will also be grandiose under the name of Neuschwanstein. Louis II is inaugurating a series of fantastic castles in a dream of stone which still astonishes and fascinates us today.
Franz-Josef joins Sissi on the day that Louis II, barely embarrassed, comes to visit his favourite cousin. The reconciliation takes place, but the ducal family is wondering about the sovereign’s spectacular caprices. One certainty: Sophia has escaped a bizarre existence… Sissi’s sister has just become engaged to a grandson of Louis-Philippe, Prince Ferdinand de Bourbon-Orleans, Duke of Alencon. Less than a year after her misadventure with the King, she is getting married.
The ceremony takes place at Possenhofen and Sissi appears, radiant. Louis II thinks it indispensable to be present. He leaves after a few minutes declaring:
“I was mortally bored.”
In September, the Empress wants to leave again for Hungary. She stops at Vienna but only spends a few hours there. Anger erupts at Court. Too late: the unseizable Empress has already left for Godollo Castle, near Buda-Pest, a personal gift from the grateful Hungarian people, that she wants to consider as her real residence, apart from the Bavarian homes. The truth becomes evident: Sissi is only happy in the universe of her childhood or in that of her psychological and political blossoming. Godollo has been decorated to her taste. She lives there according to a protocol, of course, but a protocol adapted to life in the country, among horses and game.
Her spouse appreciates Godollo too, as well as family life far from Viennese jealousies. Further, he treats his rhumatism there. At Godollo, good humour, simple joys and etiquette reduced to a minimum are, for Elisabeth, a real cure. It could be said that, at the end of 1868, her character has more or less stabilised in disequilibrium… The unhappiness which already ravages her cousin Louis II’s mind, is, in hers, combated by an energy which, for once, has given results. From reception to reception, Sissi plays her role. She is able to assume these worldly duties because she is devoted to a goodwill mission. She has been totally adopted by her new country. The Queen of Hungary is also the Queen of the Hungarian People.
It is a real struggle for her to return to Vienna. She arrives there on 24 December, her birthday. The Austrians’ gift for her thirty-first birthday is bitter. The Press publishes a precise calculation of the Empress’ stays in Austria and in Hungary during the year: Sissi has spent nearly two-thirds of 1868 in Hungary, far from Vienna.
As a child, Sissi’s mother repeated to her, and to all her daughters, one sentence in French:
“Princesses must learn to be bored gracefully.”
It was a sacred principle. Sissi has completely destroyed it, sweeping away the boredom, but retaining the grace.