Her ambition to place her oldest son on the Austrian throne was a constant theme in Austrian politics. At the time she was called "the only man at court". During the Revolution of 1848, she persuaded her somewhat feeble-minded husband to give up his rights to the throne in favour of Franz Joseph, her son. After Franz Joseph's accession, Sophie became the power behind the throne. Historically, Sophie is remembered for her extremely controlling relationship with Franz Joseph's famed wife Sisi, who was also her niece.
Sophie kept a detailed diary most of her life which reveals much about Austrian court life. She was deeply affected in 1867 by the execution in Mexico of her second son Maximilian. She never recovered from that shock, and withdrew from public life. She died of a brain tumor in 1872.
She was also noted for her close relationship with Napoleon II, who lived at the Austrian Court as the Duke of Reichstadt. There were rumors of a sexual affair between them. There was even suspicion that Maximilian, born two weeks before Reichstadt's death in 1832, was actually his child. These claims were never verified, but it is certain that they were very good friends and that his death affected her very much. She is said to have turned into the cold, ambitious woman described in fiction after he died.
In the Sissi films (1955–1957), Vilma Degischer played the part of Sophie as a chillingly strict mother-in-law of the young Empress. The stereotype of Sophie as an uptight and spiteful villain seems to have spread from these films.
In the 1974 miniseries, Fall of Eagles, Sophie was portrayed by English actress Pamela Brown.
Elisabeth, a 1992 musical by Michael Kunze about the life of Empress Elisabeth, where Sophie is portrayed as a malevolent intriguer, out to ruin her daughter-in-law's life by any possible means, though more recent productions have somewhat softened her character with additional scenes and a song that give more insight into Sophie's complex motivations and personality.
In Sissi, l'impératrice rebelle, a 2004 French television film, Sophie was played by Stéphane Audran.
In the 2009 European mini-seriesSisi, Martina Gedeck portrayed Sophie in one of the more balanced interpretations of the character.
* also an infanta of Spain by marriage
** also a princess of Tuscany by marriage
*** also a princess of Modena by marriage
^also an archduchess of Austria in her own right
^^did not have a royal or noble title by birth