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The Mental Afflictions of Isabella of Parma, “The Melancholic Princess”

Isabella of Parma by Jean-Marc Nattier. Image taken from Wikicommons

When Inspire the Mind asked me to write a new batch of history-based articles on mental illness, in the same style as my pieces on "Glass Delusion" and "The Well-Documented Mental Health Crisis of Ann Walker," this idea came to mind immediately.

I first came across this story of Isabella of Parma while I was doing research on another princess — Margaret Theresa of Spain, the little blonde sprite from Diego Velázquez’s "Las Meninas" — whose health was incapacitated by a number of contributing factors. Being a historian of European royalty, I got more than a little invested, though the subject had little to do with the article I was writing at the time. At least, it wasn’t the same woman.

But, when you really think about it, they were the same woman. They would both die at age twenty-one, their bodies sacrificed in the mission to procure heirs for their adopted countries. Trace up and around the Hapsburg family tree and the tip of your finger is bound to brush against the numerous brittle bits, ready to fall off the branches at the slightest prick. I’m talking about the fragile, malnourished, grossly mistreated, and odiously doomed young women of royal blood forced to have too many babies too early, whose physical and mental well-being took second place in the global game of politics. This was the ultimate fate of Isabella of Bourbon-Parma (1741-1763)., Princess of Parma, Infanta of Spain, and Archduchess of Austria through her marriage to the future Emperor Joseph II, the son and heir to the formidable Empress Maria Theresa.

Though the multi-titled blueblood appears robust enough in her official portrait, the artist Jean-Marc Nattier most likely embellished the healthy rosy blush in her cheeks and the glow of her skin to protect the images of both the Spanish and Austrian royal families as being more tenacious than they really were. Princess Isabella was an ill young woman, not strong like the foundation of the Buen Retiro Palace where she was born in 1741, and famously prone to episodes of depression that made her ill-suited for the demanding role of the wife of the future ruler of the Empire of Austria.

Isabella entered her arranged marriage with a broken spirit, a bad beginning that set the tone for its course. Her mother, Marie Louise Élisabeth of France, passed away at age thirty-two from smallpox in 1759, shortly after finalising her daughter’s marriage contract with Austria. The grief-stricken, vulnerable Isabella convinced herself that she would also die young. With this morose mindset, she failed to bond with her husband, Archduke Joseph, when she finally met him in person and married him to unite Parma and Austria. Though Joseph was infatuated with his new bride, Isabella considered the Grim Reaper to be her bridegroom instead.

Archduke Joseph, the future Joseph II, by Anton von Maron. Image taken from Wikicommons.

Isabella had what research journalist Elizabeth Jane Timms calls "a presentiment of her death". This has been identified nowadays as thanatophobia — or extreme and obsessive death anxiety — which overtook her personality and impaired her ability to function. The poet Emily Dickinson, as uncovered by scholars combing through the themes of her poetry, had this too, and although the two women lived over a century apart, they shared similar symptoms and causes: loved ones passing away unexpectedly, mood disorders, self-isolation, and a disoriented sense of identity in environments that didn’t suit them, which caused them to hyper-focus on the worst possible outcome for their situation. Isabella was miserable at the Austrian court, which she found too restrictive and misogynistic for her independent mind, which like Dickinson’s, was pristinely cultivated and didn’t adapt well to harsh censorship.

Emily Dickinson, Isabella's nineteenth-century contemporary. Image taken from Wikicommons.

Psychologists and historians have suggested that Isabella may have been a sufferer of bipolar disorder which is characterized by constantly shifting periods of acute emotion. In the eighteenth century, they called it "melancholia", and Isabella gained a reputation at court as "the melancholic princess".

Her biographers Friedrich Weissensteiner and Robert Falvai both took a close look at the behavioural patterns she exhibited that fit the bill for the condition. Isabella would bounce back and forth between intense moods where she was either trying to prove her mettle by wearing herself out with sports or she would be too exhausted to even move, sitting in one place for hours, staring straight ahead and speaking to no one. This baffled and offended the court, which cherished her for her glittering conversation and her capacity to participate in a busy royal social life. As per the norm in this century, melancholia was considered a character flaw, a form of madness which rendered the sufferer an outcast from society. Isabella needed treatment and sympathy, and from the austere Austrian court, she got neither.

Isabella attempted a personalized form of therapy by throwing herself into grandiose writing projects that, for a time, distracted her and alleviated her unhappiness. At one point she produced an impressive socio-political manifesto defiantly titled The Fate of Princesses, in which she vented her frustrations at being used as a tool in a pointless enterprise: cementing an alliance between two countries that wouldn’t last. It probably would have helped improve Isabella’s overall health if she had been left in peace to enjoy her intellectual pursuits, but as the wife of the heir of Austria, she had a crucial duty to perform. She had to produce the next generation of the House of Hapsburg.

In the span of only three years, she would give birth to one living daughter, Archduchess Maria Theresa, and one premature daughter who wouldn’t survive infancy, along with two miscarriages. There was no term for it in the eighteenth century, but Isabella most definitely became susceptible to postpartum depression, a state of psychological stress caused by childbirth.

Eighteenth-century obstetrics was a waking nightmare. Lyle Massey in his study of the subject remarks on how the century’s knowledge of childbirth, though an improvement on past eras, was still dangerously primitive. He is especially critical of the manuals that physicians at the time were using. “Stark, brutal, and fetishistically naturalistic, these eighteenth-century obstetric images medicalized and pathologized childbirth in an unprecedented way,” he writes. Isabella had every reason to rally against her fate in her writing. How could she be expected to be cheerful and stable as a person, when she was reduced to just a womb?

While I was doing research on Isabella, I found that historians, journalists, and YouTubers (most especially the YouTubers) doing features on her life tend to focus mainly on the ambiguous relationship she had with her charming and livelier sister-in-law, Archduchess Maria Christina. I get it, there’s an enticing love story there, and in this age of Pride, we’re all grasping at the bits of LGBT history that didn’t get buried under an ultraconservative landslide. These were two young ladies who obviously had a very strong attachment to each other.

Archduchess Maria Christina's self-portrait. Image taken from Wikicommons.

But where I feel compelled to raise an objection is when people insist that the primary reason for Isabella’s melancholic state was her “gay angst,” or “gayngst.” – intentionally or not, they essentially reduce her life to that of a fictional character, as though she’s just the lead in a story like Portrait of a Lady on Fire. However, we must respect the history of women’s struggles by looking at all the elements of their circumstances and not narrowing it down to just one aspect. I do believe that, in the absence of queer literature and a community in which she could confide (the privileges of modern-day LGBT people), Isabella may have struggled with her sexuality, but I also believe that she was equally crushed by the loss of her mother, the demands of court life, her horrific experiences of pregnancy and giving birth, and her failure to connect intimately with her husband.

Isabella's prophecy of her early death tragically came true. On November 27th, 1763, she contracted smallpox, just like her mother did, which forced her into early labour (she was heavily pregnant with her fourth child at the time) and brought on her swift death.

As I mentioned before, she was only twenty-one years old. To me, this is overwhelmingly terrifying. When I was twenty-one years old, I was finishing my university degree. I ate a lot of Chinese food, and I was penning my own essays on what I thought was wrong with the world. I was certain of the many years ahead I would have to change those things. I am thankful for the privilege of being able to relay Isabella’s story now so that she doesn’t fade away into obscurity as a casualty of history’s unfortunate disregard for women’s health.

If you are interested in reading more about Isabella of Parma and her life, below is the list of resources I consulted for this article:

  1. Falvai, Róbert (2012). "Izabella, Izabella! Aki igazán a sógornőjét szerette" [Isabella, Isabella! She Who Really Loved Her Sister-In-Law]. In Gottesmann, Péter (ed.). A Hofburg dámái [Ladies of the Hofburg] (in Hungarian). Duna International.

  2. Massey, L. (2005). Pregnancy and Pathology: Picturing Childbirth in Eighteenth-Century Obstetric Atlases. The Art Bulletin, 87(1), 73–91.

  3. Tamussino, Ursula (1989). Isabella von Parma. Gemahlin Josephs II [Isabella of Parma. Wife of Joseph II] (in German). Österreichische Bundesverlag.

  4. Timms, Elizabeth James (14 May 2018). "Melancholy Princess: Isabella of Parma". Royal Central.

  5. Vovk, Justin C. (2009). In Destiny's Hands. Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa.

  6. Weissensteiner, Friedrich (1995). "Mária Krisztina. Mária Terézia kedvence" [Maria Christina. Maria Theresa's Favourite]. Mária Terézia leányai [The Daughters of Maria Theresa] (in Hungarian). Translated by Szántó, Judit. Fabula. pp. 63–74.


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