In 1868, Empress Elisabeth gave birth to a fourth child – a daughter named Marie Valerie. Unlike with Sophie (who died young), Gisela and Rudolf, Elisabeth kept Marie Valerie close to her, and as a result, the siblings did not become particularly close. In fact, Rudolf was extremely jealous of Marie Valerie and was unkind to her as a child. Marie Valerie became afraid of her elder brother. Rudolf became an isolated child, even more so when Gisela married Prince Leopold of Bavaria in 1873 when she was just 16 years old. A newspaper reported that “the most touching sight was offered by Crown Prince Rudolf; he wept increasingly and was unable either to stem the flow of tears or to suppress his sobs, even though he visibly struggled to control himself.”1 Marie Valerie wrote that even if she was in the same palace as Rudolf, she would often not see him for months.
In 1880, Rudolf became engaged to the 16-year-old Princess Stéphanie of Belgium. She later wrote, “I never guessed how heavy I should find the chains he (her father) was forging for me. I had no inkling that I was already being betrayed. Not until months later did I learn that my future bridegroom had not come to Brussels alone, but accompanied by his mistress, a certain Frau F.”2 Empress Elisabeth heard of the engagement via telegram while she was in London. Her lady-in-waiting commented, “Thank God that is not a disaster.” To which the Empress cynically replied, “Pray God that it is not.”3 Elisabeth travelled home via Brussels to be able to congratulate her son and his fiancé in person. They waited to greet her on the platform of the station, and Elisabeth’s lady-in-waiting later wrote, “He (Rudolf) literally threw his arms around her neck – kissed her hands over and over, and then came the bride – young, sparkling, uninformed, a badly dressed child… The Empress bent forward, embraced her – kissed the little one, and that one looked up to her beautiful mother-in-law with undisguised admiration, and her bright-red little face looked happy and merry.”4 The visit lasted just four hours and was mostly spent at the palace at breakfast.
The wedding took place on 10 May 1881. After the formal ceremony, Stéphanie and Rudolf changed into their travelling clothes. They travelled to Laxenburg, where they were to spend their honeymoon – the carriage ride was completely silent. They arrived in rooms that had not been done up, making Stéphanie feel even more unwanted. She later described her wedding night in her memoirs, “What a night! What torments, what horror! I had not had the ghost of a notion of what lay before me but had been led to the altar as an ignorant child. My illusions, my youthful dreams, were shattered. I thought I should die of my disillusionment.”5
Once back in Vienna, Stéphanie rarely saw her husband, and he often went shooting. Despite not being present much, he was a controlling man, and he often read the letters Stéphanie wrote to her parents before allowing them to be posted. He gave orders that no one was to come into her chambers while he was not there. Empress Elisabeth – who detested official functions – handed much of her responsibilities to Stéphanie. Overall, Elisabeth strongly disliked her new daughter-in-law and the Belgian court she came from. Elisabeth wrote of Stéphanie in her poems and described her as a “mighty bumpkin” with “long, fake tresses” and “cunningly watchful eyes.”6 If Elisabeth wanted to hurt Stéphanie’s feelings, she intentionally alluded to her aunt Charlotte, who had once been married to Franz Joseph’s brother Maximilian and was now wasting away in a castle in Belgium. Stéphanie was highly critical of Elisabeth’s lack of a sense of duty, which only made matters between them worse.
On 2 September 1883 – after a gruelling labour lasting 26 hours – Stéphanie gave birth to a daughter named Elisabeth. To Rudolf’s disappointment, the baby was not an heir to the throne, and Stéphanie broke down in tears. She was named Elisabeth for the sainted ancestress of the House of Arpad – and it was coincidentally also the name of the current Empress.
Their duties soon took them away from their young daughter. Stéphanie and Rudolf visited Constantinople and Bulgaria, followed by visits to Carinthia, Carniola, Tyrol, Albania, Greece and Montenegro. They returned to Belgium to celebrate Stéphanie’s father’s 50th birthday in 1885. The following year, both Rudolf and Stéphanie became ill. Stéphanie was in bed for weeks, and doctors diagnosed her with peritonitis. Both recovered, and wishes were renewed for Stéphanie to give birth to an heir. Stéphanie was allowed to take it easier that year in hopes of conceiving. However, the Crown Prince was often not with her, and his restlessness took him elsewhere. When she saw him again, she found him looking very unhealthy.
Stéphanie began to believe he had moved away from her completely. By then, Rudolf had probably been infected with a venereal disease, and he, in turn, had infected Stéphanie. It was most likely gonorrhoea, and two gynaecologists came to examine her. She then learned that “the Crown Prince was responsible for my complaint.”7 Gonorrhoea had caused pelvic inflammation and had destroyed her fallopian tubes. She would never again conceive a child. Rudolf began to depend on a dangerous mixture of drugs to alleviate the painful symptoms of gonorrhoea. When Elisabeth learned of the difficulties in Rudolf and Stéphanie’s marriage, her first instinct was to do nothing. She told her lady-in-waiting, “Sometimes I have wondered what I could do. But I am reluctant to interfere, for I myself suffered so unspeakably under my mother-in-law that I do not wish to incur the reproach of a similar fault.”8 It is also unlikely that Elisabeth knew of the extent of Rudolf’s illness. Stéphanie, who had spent many years ignoring Rudolf’s affairs, now took a lover of her own.
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.203
- H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress p.92
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.239
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.240
- H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress p.113
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.323
- Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs by Greg King and Penny Wilson p.52
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.331-332