Content warning for miscarriage
“What should the daughter of a great prince expect? Her fate is unquestionably most unhappy. Born the slave of the people’s prejudices, she finds herself subjected to this weight of honours, these innumerable etiquettes attached to greatness…”
— Isabella of Parma
The history of the queer community is a history of love stories; love for oneself, one's friends, one's family. Because of the nature of the queer community, it is often the story of romantic love. From the tales of fashion designers and models, kings and ladies-in-waiting, and even royal manicurists, the history of love is a diverse one. This story is one about a Princess and a Duchess.
Princess Isabel María Luisa Antonia Fernanda Josefa Saveria Dominica Juana was born on the last day of 1741 in Spain to Philip, Duke of Parma, and Princess Louise-Elisabeth of France. Her mother was fourteen when Isabel was born, and her marriage with the Duke was not a loving one. While Isabel was an only child, she and Louise-Elisabeth became more sisters than mother and daughter. This is perhaps because of her mother's young age.
Maria Christina was, however, not an only child. The fifth child of Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, and Maria Theresa, she was born in 1742, in Austria, when her mother was twenty-five. All together her parents had sixteen children, only ten of whom survived into adulthood. Well known to her many siblings, Maria Christina was the favourite child. She was known to be a gifted child, and her parents doted on her accordingly, hiring tutors to teach her English, French, and Italian. She was well loved by most who met her and at one point fell in love with a Duke. The relationship was quickly ended when he mother decided her was unworthy due to his rank.
When Isabel's mother died shortly before Isabel's eighteenth birthday, it incited her lifelong preoccupation with death. There is a story of Isabel falling for a man her father disapproved of in her youth. He would soon be killed on the Duke's command. With his dying breath, he was said to have only uttered two words, "You, three..." The story says that she believed this to mean she would die within three hours. When three hours passed, she believed it to be three days. Later three years. Though this tale is likely fiction, Isabel did believe she would follow her mother in a young death.
Isabel met Maria only a year following her mother's death when she was married to Maria's brother, Archduke Joseph of Austria.
In 1760 Isabel had her first meeting with Maria. She had married Maria’s brother. After a proxy wedding neither attended, she was escorted to Austria where a celebration was had. Though her husband, heir to the Habsburg Monarchy, was known to be quite awkward, he warmed up to Isabel quickly. Isabel, in turn, grew fond of his sister. Her disinterest in Joseph caused her to seclude herself in her room. Though popular within the court of Vienna, she found herself dissatisfied with her life, writing:
"A Princess cannot, like the poorest woman in a hut, relax in the midst of her family. In the high society in which she is forced to live, she has neither acquaintances nor friends. It is for this that she has to leave her family, her home. And why? To belong to a man whose character she does not know, to enter into a family where she is received with jealousy."
Maria was the sole exception to her tiresome life; the two exchanged letters constantly, Maria showing her cheery disposition while Isabel's pessimism shown clearly. They would play games and discuss art and music. They shared many interests and seemed inseparable. Isabel once wrote to Maria:
"I am writing you again, cruel sister, though I have only just left you. I cannot bear waiting to know my fate, and to learn whether you consider me a person worthy of your love, or whether you would like to fling me into the river. I cannot tolerate this uncertainty, I can think of nothing but that I am madly in love. If only I knew why this is so, for you are so cruel that one should not love you, but I cannot help myself"
Though she enjoyed Maria's company, Isabel was not happy. She wrote often and at length about her suicidal ideations, and grew more and more focused on her own death. Her marriage very much pleased her husband, who was enamoured with the young princess, but she wrote frankly that she did not share that opinion. She was expected to produce an heir to the throne, but she expressed fear of sex with Joseph and of pregnancy.
She gave birth to one child, a daughter named Maria Theresa, who lived through infancy. The pregnancy was incredibly difficult for her, and she remained bedridden for six weeks after giving birth. Still, the family insisted on a male heir, so she became pregnant again shortly after. She suffered two miscarriages one right after another, and her mental health crumbled. Only a year after giving birth to her first child, she was pregnant for the fourth time when she contracted smallpox. She went into early labour and gave birth to another child, a daughter named Maria Christina, who died shortly after birth. Isabel followed her only a week later, dying at the age of twenty-one. As she predicted in life, Maria Theresa died a few years just before her eighth birthday.
Maria was heartbroken after Isabel’s death, and she and the rest of the court went into mourning for longer than was deemed necessary. It was during this period that Prince Albert returned to Vienna to give his condolences and mourn Isabel with the court. During his time there he and Maria developed a close bond, and he began visiting her in Vienna. The two eventually fell in love.
Prince Albert was worried that they would not be able to marry as he didn’t have a secure rank, but before her death, Isabel had written Maria Christina advice on how to proceed in court. Through this, she was able to convince her mother to her side and became the only one of her sisters to marry for love.
Maria and Prince Albert had a happy, loving marriage. When Maria's difficult pregnancy ended in the loss of her child, the couple agreed to adopt their youngest nephew. Maria lived to be fifty-six before getting sick and dying in 1798. After her death, Prince Albert shared Isabel's letters to Maria, though Maria's letters were destroyed.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Bos, J.N.W. (2011, December 31). "Isabella of Parma.” Retrieved from http://madmonarchs.guusbeltman.nl/madmonarchs/isabella/isabella_bio.htm
Farquhar, M. (2001). A Treasury of Royal Scandals: The Shocking True Stories of History's Wickedest, Weirdest, Most Wanton Kings, Queens, Tsars, Popes, and Emperors. London, United Kingdom: Penguin Books.
Frolova, V. (2017, March 9). “I’m Dying of Love for You” : The Letters of Isabella von Parma. Retrieved from https://boisdejasmin.com/2017/03/im-dying-of-love-for-you-the-letters-of-isabella-von-parma
Sattlecker, F., & Kippes, W. (2011, January 4). Isabella of Parma. Retrieved from https://www.habsburger.net/en/persons/habsburg/isabella-parma
Vovk, J. (2009) In Destiny's Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa. Morrisville, NC: Lulu Press.