Youth is an envied commodity, it seems. Look how jealously it is held on to; how desperately it is pursued…how the grasping fingerprints still show on its soft skin.
This wasn’t always the case. Photographs and portraits provide galleries of children and teenagers dressed as adults – diminutive and unprepared. Frog-like, they have blithely leapt over their childhood; landing instead in a marketplace built out of society’s expectations.
History has long portrayed these defeated children. Crinolines, hoops and farthingales trying in vain to balance on undeveloped hips. Greatcoats that are too great, after all. Tiny silk slippers and tight polished boots. Corsets that punish soft bones: their crossed laces creating a pattern of misery on thin backs. We see the faces of distant youth, impervious and set: profiles of extinguished rebellion.
What hope was there for the mutinous child? What prospect was there for the young adult brave enough to be witty – that volatile combination of audacity and intelligence?
In 1538 Christina of Denmark was 17 years old and already a widow – she had been wearing her smothering ‘weeds’ for two years. The Duke of Milan had proposed marriage to her when she was only eleven – her guardian, Charles V, not only agreed to the match but also to its immediate consummation. His sister, Mary of Hungary – a strong and moral woman – was able to delay the wedding until Christina was thirteen.
In 1533, a portrait was done of the bride-to-be, no doubt to be rushed to the groom before the paint had completely dried. Christina is seen in a three-quarter profile, taking advantage of her curving brow, the soft landscape of her neck and mouth. She is dressed in a gown of quiet midnight; her hair scraped from view beneath her cap – no madcap tresses, no scintillating curls to tickle the skin unbidden. She is shown reading a book – an obvious symbol of her careful education – yet it seems that at any moment the charming, red mouth will flutter into a smile and the lids rise to reveal eyes full of childish confidences. She has been carefully posed, yet she has the attitude of a mischievous Madonna.
Five years later, another portrait of Christina was painted. Henry VIII had been on a marriage hiatus for almost a year and needed a new wife. His third wife, Jane Seymour had done the unexpected – given birth to a male heir – but had also done the expected, dying as a result of her three days of labor.
Hans Holbein’s portrait of Christina reveals a face of barely subdued dimples, of restrained amusement. She is wearing black, standing in a shadowy room: her white hands bloom against the dark like soft flowers.
In her eyes there is a demure twinkle; a cleverness that kept her informed of events happening beyond her realm. And it is with that same spark that she commented to the English ambassador: “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.” The ambassador, Thomas Wriothesley, no doubt thinking the outspoken girl deserved a good beating, commented to the King’s minister that their master should; “fyxe his most noble stomacke in some such other place.”
Christina is an example of the extraordinary child – the spirit that would battle her way into adulthood on her own terms. In any century, there was hope for the honest child, the strong woman. But that hope was rare, a prickly star few could hold on to. But for the majority, there were only vanquished dreams, and a life to be spent staring into the starry sky.