Sophie Charlotte in Bavaria was born on 22 February 1847 at 5.20 in the morning as the daughter of Duke Maximilian Joseph in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria. She would be one of eight (surviving) siblings, and her sisters included Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Helene, Marie Sophie and Mathilde Ludovika. She was their penultimate child.
In November 1851, Amalie Tänzl von Tratzberg was appointed as governess for the three youngest girls – Marie Sophie, Mathilde Ludovika and Sophie Charlotte. When her elder sister Elisabeth married their first cousin Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria in 1854, a painting was made with all the siblings. Sophie Charlotte was portrayed with her favourite doll.
Sophie Charlotte’s sister Elisabeth married their first cousin Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria in April 1854, when Sophie Charlotte was still only seven years old. She remained behind in Munich as her sister embarked on her new life as Empress. Plans for marriage for Sophie Charlotte were soon in the works as well. By 1861, she was the youngest unmarried daughter. During this time, she was mostly a companion to her mother, who also dictated letters to her when her headaches became so severe that she could not write. Her greatest passion was music. She played the piano, and she had a soprano voice. She received voice training from Julius Hey. She had fallen in love with her teacher, who was not only 15 years older but also a commoner and he was already engaged. She desperately wrote in her journal, “My heart is bleeding with love and longing. I feel abandoned, can I find peace?” Several prospective bridegrooms were considered for Sophie Charlotte, including royals from Portugal and Spain. In April 1866, her first cousin and the younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph, Archduke Ludwig Viktor of Austria, came up in the plans. Sophie Charlotte was not happy about this and rejected him. Elisabeth was disappointed not to see her younger sister marry him as it would have meant that Sophie Charlotte would live in Vienna. Another offer soon came her way – her cousin King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
In 1865, the family gathered for the wedding of Karl Theodor, the second eldest son of the family, and Princess Sophie of Saxony and the 17-year-old Sophie Charlotte and Elisabeth were reunited. Elisabeth later wrote, “Aunt Sofie is sitting here now, having her hair done and chattering away to Angerer [the hairdresser] in a way that I am completely going crazy.”1 After the wedding, Elisabeth stayed behind for an extra few days to spend time with her family. She later wrote that one of the entertainers was spraying Sophie Charlotte with water until she became angry. Elisabeth and Sophie Charlotte stayed up to talk until 1 a.m.
Sophie Charlotte and Ludwig were friends and were only a year apart in age. They both loved music, and during the summer of 1866, Ludwig made several visits to Possenhofen, but when Ludovika inquired after his intentions, he became annoyed. As long as Ludwig was coming over, no other marriage candidate could. He wrote a letter to Sophie Charlotte wishing her a happy summer but that he did not wish to come over anymore. Early the following year – perhaps shortly after his male favourite was dismissed – Ludwig suddenly proposed marriage to Sophie Charlotte. He wrote to her, “Do you want to become my goddess?” The wedding was set to take place later that same year. At the end of February, an engagement ball was organised, during which Sophie Charlotte wore a dress in the national colours of white and blue. Ludwig tired of the ball in an hour and left Sophie Charlotte alone. When her sister-in-law Sophie died suddenly in early March, the family was shocked by Ludwig’s lack of empathy. He even drew an awkward skull on a letter to Sophie Charlotte. When her brother-in-law Maximilian Anton Lamoral, Hereditary Prince of Thurn and Taxis – Helene’s husband – also passed away that June, Possenhofen was truly in deep mourning.
Sophie Charlotte continued to have – chaperoned – meetings with her fiance, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that he did not want to marry at all. After one of these meetings, Sophie Charlotte threw herself into the arms of Natalie von Sternbach, sobbing, “He does not love me!”2 The first scheduled wedding date was 25 August, but it was postponed to October and then to November. Then finally, on 7 October, he wrote to her, “My brotherly love for you is deeply rooted in my soul, but it is not the love that is required for unification in marriage.” He then asked her for a separation “without resentment and bitterness.” Just then, Sophie Charlotte’s father also wrote a letter asking him to either marry his daughter in November or to release her. Ludwig now had an easy way out and blamed her father for tearing them apart. When Sophie Charlotte learned the news, she fainted. Elisabeth wrote to their mother, “You can imagine how upset I am about the King and the Emperor too. There is no expression for such behaviour.[..] I am just glad Sophie knows she couldn’t have been happy with such a man.”3
After giving her daughter some time to recover from the broken engagement, Ludovika set to matchmaking once more. She made contact with the Duke of Nemours and arranged for his son Ferdinand, Duke of Alençon, to meet with Sophie Charlotte in June 1868. The two immediately hit it off, and their wedding was planned for September at Possenhofen. On 28 September, Sophie Charlotte walked down the aisle in a white silk dress adorned with orange blossoms. When the newlyweds went to Rome, they were able to meet with Elisabeth, who was staying nearby.
Ferdinand’s father was the second son of the exiled King Louis-Philippe I of France, and the year after Sophie Charlotte married Ferdinand, they moved into Bushy House in London, where the family was living in exile. Their first child – a daughter named Louise – was born there in July 1869. After the birth, Sophie Charlotte was very depressed, and she became very thin. The family travelled to a warmer climate to allow Sophie Charlotte to recover. In Merano, Sophie Charlotte met up with Elisabeth, and Marie Sophie and the three sisters undertook several trips together. Unfortunately, while there, Sophie Charlotte’s health deteriorated. She lost her appetite, became depressed and had flu-like symptoms. They delayed having another child to allow Sophie Charlotte’s health to recover. During this time, they briefly lived at Schonbrunn in an apartment that was adjacent to Elisabeth’s private garden. The sisters spent a lot of time together and their two daughters, Louise and Marie Valerie, got along well. In June 1871, the news arrived that the ban against the Orléans family living in France had been lifted, and Ferdinand began to plan for a return to France.