By then, Sophie Charlotte was pregnant again, and Prince Emmanuel was born on 18 January 1872. Sophie and Elisabeth were incredibly close during the months of her pregnancy, and they often took long walks together. Emmanuel was born in Merano, where Sophie Charlotte was again staying for health reasons. Elisabeth was asked to be a sponsor for the young Prince. Sophie Charlotte remained in Merano until May before finally travelling to France. Sophie Charlotte became restless – it seemed to run in the family – and met with her sisters as often as she could. She spent little time with her children, who were being raised by governesses. When Louise became older, she sometimes joined her mother in her travels.
In 1886, shortly after the death of King Ludwig II, Sophie Charlotte travelled home, where she fell seriously ill with scarlet fever. Her life was feared for, and her husband and children were not allowed to have any contact with her for fear of infection. She survived but took a long time to recover. She went to Munich for further treatment, where she reportedly fell in love with her physician Dr Glaser. She announced to her family that she wanted a divorce, and they were shocked and tried to have her declared insane. When her husband was brought to her, she looked at him and asked him if she was ill and if he wanted her to leave. He responded that if she wanted to be his faithful wife, she should stay. She declared that she wanted a divorce still. She was admitted to a sanatorium and would only be allowed to leave if she gave up her plans for a divorce.
She did not speak to her mother for several months. In early 1888, her treatment was considered successful, and she returned to her husband. Her mother’s following 80th birthday party was an awkward one for the family, though Sophie Charlotte and Ludovika did embrace. Elisabeth’s response to this situation is one of condemnation though perhaps she was jealous of Sophie Charlotte, who had tried to do what Elisabeth had been longing to do – escaping. Sophie Charlotte and her husband were in Vienna when the events of the Mayerling incident played out. Marie Valerie described them as “so dear and compassionate.” 1
In 1892, Sophie Charlotte was present at her mother’s deathbed. She barely recognised Sophie Charlotte but sighed “Oh my good Sophie” when she was told who she was and put her hands on her daughter’s head. Sophie Charlotte stayed by her mother’s bedside and was with her when she passed away around 4 in the morning of 25 January.
When Sophie Charlotte wrote her last will and testament in October 1896, she had no idea how soon it would come into force. Like every year, the Third Order of Saint Dominic organised a charity bazaar in Paris from the 3rd to the 6th of May. Sophie Charlotte was one of their most prominent patrons. In the afternoon of 4 May, Sophie Charlotte visited the bazaar with her husband when the projectionist’s equipment, which was using a system of ether and oxygen rather than electricity, caught fire. During the resulting fire, Sophie Charlotte rushed to help, even as her husband tried to hold her back. She led several people to safety and insisted on being the last to leave. “Leave quickly. Do not mind me. I leave the last.” Reportedly her last words were, “Yes, but in a few minutes, think that we will be in heaven!” Her body was burned beyond recognition and was identified by her teeth. Her husband sustained injuries from a falling beam.
Her last moments were described, “She died as nobly as she lived. She perished, burnt alive in the terrible catastrophe of the Bazar de la Charité in Paris in May 1897. The cinematography was at that time a novel institution, and the operator, with inconceivable clumsiness, set fire to a room above the one in which the bazaar was held. The ceiling was all in flames before any attempt was made to clear the hall. There was a horrible struggle in which the strongest had the advantage. However, among the men whose brutal selfishness seems to have stifled all chivalrous feeling, there were a few who thought of the Duchess. They hastened to her help, imploring her to escape, even trying to drag her away by force; but she refused. “I shall stay to the last,” she replied. “Save the others first.” Some Sisters of the Order of S. Vincent de Paul would not leave her, determined to sacrifice their lives also, if need be. The Duchess remained standing; the Sisters knelt around her, praying. As the fire drew close to her, she loosened her magnificent hair, which covered her like a cloak. And it was so that those who survived the disaster saw her for the last time.” 2
Elisabeth was with Marie Valerie in Lainz when news of the disaster arrived, and Elisabeth was immediately convinced that Sophie Charlotte had perished. Elisabeth’s lady-in-waiting wrote, “Her wounds were terrible, and she did not want her pain to have any witnesses than her husband and daughter.”3
On 8 May 1897, a memorial service was held for all the victims of the fire, and Elisabeth sent a wreath of white lilies and white roses as a last greeting to her sister. The funeral mass was held on 14 May at the Church of Saint-Philippe du Roule, and she was buried in the Royal Chapel at Dreux.
- Sophie Charlotte by Christian Sepp p.219
- Our Lady of Belgium
- Sophie Charlotte by Christian Sepp p.252