Elisabeth’s sister Helene (also known as Néné) has gone down in history as the scorned sister as she was supposedly passed over when Franz Joseph fell in love with Elisabeth instead of her. However, there is no evidence to be found that Archduchess Sophie and her sister Ludovika had planned to marry Helene off specifically. The meeting during which Franz Joseph falls in love with Elisabeth is anything but carefully planned out. Ludovika and her daughters not only arrived late, but their luggage was missing, and they were forced to appear dressed in austere mourning clothes. The only indication that Sophie may have preferred Helene comes from her diary but was quickly forgotten when Franz Joseph expressed interest in Elisabeth.
Helene was born on 4 April 1834 at the Herzog-Max-Palais in Munich as the eldest daughter of Princess Ludovika of Bavaria and Duke Maximilian Joseph in Bavaria. Ludovika had been pregnant with twins, but she had lost the other twin earlier in the pregnancy. At the time of her birth, she had just one older brother, Ludwig Wilhelm (who would become the father of Countess Marie Larisch von Moennich). A second brother had died before his first birthday. Soon, she would be joined in the nursery by her younger sisters Elisabeth, Marie Sophie, Mathilde Ludovika and Sophie Charlotte and younger brothers Karl Theodor and Maximilian Emanuel (another brother was stillborn). The marriage of Helene’s parents was deeply unhappy. Maximilian began to have affairs, and Ludovika’s sister Sophie reported to their mother that Maximilian had shown “features of an incredible tyranny.”
Helene would grow up to be the opposite of her famous sister. While Elisabeth enjoyed hunting and riding, Helene sat quietly with her embroidery. This often worried her mother, who believed her eldest daughter to be too serious. Her sense of duty, however, would be perfect for a future empress. A letter from their aunt Sophie, the mother of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, would change everything. Her son was in need of a bride, and marriages between cousins were not uncommon. The letter invited Ludovika, Helene and her younger sister Elisabeth to Bad Ischl to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday. Although there does not appear to have been a plan to marry off Helene specifically, perhaps Helene expected otherwise – she was, after all, the elder sister.
On 16 August 1853, Ludovika and her daughters arrived in Bad Ischl, but the visit was off to a bad start with their luggage missing, and they were still dressed in black mourning clothes. Nevertheless, the women were invited to tea by Sophie, and it was at this tea that they would also meet the Emperor. It was love at first sight for the Emperor, but his chosen bride was Helene’s younger sister. The following evening at the ball, Helene was dressed in a white silk gown, which complemented her complexion a lot more than the black mourning clothes. The Emperor danced the cotillion with Elisabeth and presented her with his nosegay. On the Emperor’s actual birthday the following day, he had asked his mother to enquire if Elisabeth “would have him.” And while Elisabeth burst into tears upon being asked, she vowed to do everything she could do to make him happy. Helene’s reaction has not been left to us, though she was reportedly upset and unhappy. This appeared to be mostly because she was worried that she would remain unmarried and become a spinster. She was still only 18 years old at the time. From her aunt Sophie, she received a gift of a cross of diamonds and turquoise, but the gift could not cheer her.
Nevertheless, the relationship between the two sisters remained close, and Helene showed no jealousy toward her sister. Shortly after the wedding of Elisabeth and Franz Joseph, Helene and several other siblings stayed in Vienna for a few more days to keep Elisabeth company. Ludovika later wrote, “As long as the sisters [Elisabeth and Helene] were together, they were inseparable, and always spoke English, but took no part in our conversations, which was not at all nice of them… although it got them into trouble… more than once.”1 They probably learned to speak English because of their English governess Mary Newbold and the women would use the English language to communicate for the rest of their lives. Elisabeth and Helene’s separation was now truly coming close, and Elisabeth wrote, “Every day I spend with mama and Nene is now too short.”2 Ludovika and Helene returned home in the second half of May 1854.
In August 1854, Helene spent some time with her aunt Maria Anna (Sophie’s twin sister), who had recently been widowed upon the death of her husband, King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony. Sophie would have gone to her herself, but she was ill and could not travel. Helene would later join the family, including Elisabeth, in Bad Ischl. For the next few years, Helene would remain a close companion of her mother. When her little niece Archduchess Sophie died in 1857, Ludovika took Helene and two of her other sisters to Vienna to comfort Elisabeth, which she greatly appreciated.
Then came a sudden marriage prospect for Helene – Emperor Napoleon III of France was looking for a wife for his cousin. However, Helene’s father vetoed the match for having “too few guarantees” for the future. She was now 23 years old and had “completely given up” on finding a husband, according to her mother, Ludovika.3 However, she continued to be of “great cheerfulness”, despite her uncertain future.4 Helene developed a love for painting, and she did charity work by visiting the poor and the sick in the villages around Possenhofen. Probably at the end of January 1858, Helene finally met the man who would become her husband – Maximilian Anton, Hereditary Prince of Thurn and Taxis.