To defend the Belgian royal family, it is necessary to gain a just appreciation of the Wittelsbachs, beyond the stereotypes of Wagnerian love and death, madness and despair. Certainly, like all families, the Wittelsbachs had their weaknesses; yet, like all families, they also had their strengths. As for Ludwig II and Otto I, their distant cousin, Marie-José of Belgium, the last Queen of Italy, contended that they had inherited their mental illness from their mother, a Prussian princess, rather than from their Bavarian father. This claim might seem to be merely a way of defending Marie-José's own family. I think not, though; the Italian queen was perfectly capable of criticizing her great-aunt Sisi's behavior, in her memoirs; she was also quite impatient of the romantic cult of her tragic forebear. In any case, in addition to troubled misfits, the house of Bavaria boasted genuinely noble characters.
Duke Karl Theodor, the brother of Empress Elisabeth, and the father of Queen Elisabeth, for example, was a gifted, deeply generous humanitarian. He dedicated his life to relieving the sufferings of others through medicine, becoming an internationally acclaimed ophthalmologist and caring for many for free. He raised his children with the same altruistic ideals; young Elisabeth, Belgium's future Reine-Infirmière, trained in nursing in her father's own clinic. He also cultivated a love of beauty and art; he was a wonderful pianist, and his daughter, Elisabeth, who inherited his passion for music, used to listen to the Duke play for hours, entranced. Again, the family's artistic sensibility is often associated with morbid emotionalism, with self-indulgence, with neurosis. Yet, as Count Sforza indicates in his memoirs, Makers of Modern Europe, Karl Theodor, on the contrary, actually seemed to derive the spiritual strength needed for his medical work from his music. Furthermore, the household of the Duke and his wife, the prayerful, loving, if rather autocratic Maria Josepha of Portugal, appears to have been a warm and united one, quite different from the unhappy ménage of Franz Josef and Sisi. In fact, this very family affection would become a source of bitter suffering for the Queen of the Belgians, cruelly divided from her Bavarian relatives during the First World War.
a worshipful biography of her niece, Queen Elisabeth, who was only 21 at the time of the tragedy. (Interestingly, it was at Sophie Charlotte's funeral that Elisabeth first crossed paths with her future husband, Prince Albert of Belgium. The duchess had also been the mother-in-law of Albert's sister, Princess Henriette).
Her life and its ending may be summed up in these few words: "She died as nobly as she lived."
She perished, burnt alive in the terrible catastrophe of the Bazar de la Charite in Paris, in May 1897. The cinematograph 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 round 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.
A chapel has been erected near the spot in memory of the victims. Kneeling there in devout meditation one is less moved to pray for the Duchess of Alencon than to feel her presence as a heavenly spirit, gracious and protecting.
If the Wittelsbachs had their frailties, they also had magnificent qualities. Theirs is actually quite a splendid heritage for the Belgian royal family!