Alas, poor Nené, my humorless sister. As the eldest daughter in an inbred family full of loons, she was the only sane one and for all of her sanity, she very nearly became an old maid.
As you all know, I was “that little monkey” who was dragged to Bad Ischl as an afterthought that day in August, 1853. The Emperor was not supposed to pay me any mind–I was a mere child, just fresh from the nursery.
My sister’s likeness preceded her introduction in the form of many a studio shot: sitting in a brocade parlor chair with lips pinched; gazing into space, sporting a fresh heart-shaped coif; on horseback with the strong, straight back our father demanded of us, but an expression that merely said, “this corset is digging into my ribs.”
In photographs, my sister’s face always looked sour and stern. Her eyes squinted under heavy brow bones, her mouth, well, someone should have recommended more of a smile–(though, in her defense, none of us Wittelsbach woman ever smiled with teeth showing for our family curse included a mouthful of unsightly brown). And yet, had Helene been bubbly and animated in the flesh, she may still have been able to charm the young Emperor. But, it was not the case.
Now, here’s where I came in. Franz Joseph’s mother, the ever-meddling Archduchess, had decided that her son, the heir, would marry her sister Ludovica’s daughter, period. No one was more surprised than she (except, maybe, me) when he chose “the little monkey” instead of the more turned out, well-behaved elder girl.
Years later the Emperor shared his disappointment in how plain and stern my sister looked when first they met. “No youth! No joie de vivre! You’d think, at eighteen, she was forty!”
It is true, Emperor Franz Joseph robbed the cradle by plucking a fifteen-year-old child from her nursery, but things were quite different back then. For one, not only was I a child, I was also the Emperor’s cousin. Ah! But there was no child protective police in 19th Century Europe, so off to the Hofburg I went, leaving my elder, jilted sister to sulk for years to come–until she finally married a wealthy prince named Prince Max at the ripe old age of 24.
But here is the irony. My sad-faced sister was the only one among us to have a happy marriage in the end. Go figure.