Fair Oriana

Rarely have my eyes been arrested and unable to move from a portrait, as they were when I saw Chrysogon Dacre.

And I wasn’t the only one. The room was full of people, there to see the sumptuous home of one of England’s great families at The Vyne, in Hampshire. But they all stopped short of the door where, to the left, next to the window, the solemn little girl stared out of the canvas from the 16th century.

Six years old, she was, when it was painted in 1579. And already betrothed.

It was the custom in those days, to settle unions well ahead of time in the interests of the great dynasties of England.

And to make it official a portrait of the little girl was commissioned, in finery beyond her years.

There she stands in a splendid dress, her hair intricately dressed, the whole visage redolent of the Virgin Queen, fair Oriana herself.

The clothes would have been stifling, the length of time to sit a supreme challenge to a little one who, these days, would only just have started school.

She would have worn a tunic close to her skin, silken stockings and a corset to draw an already tiny frame in. A roll to accentuate hips, a hooped skirt called a farthingale; a boned stomacher to flatten the stomach, a kirtle or under-smock, and a neckpiece, a gown with separate cuffs and a ruff.

Poor little Chrysogon, cooped up in clothes and a persona not entirely her own. A very small Oriana indeed.

I stand and gaze at the picture and all those madrigals I ever sang, in praise of Fair Oriana, a fond nickname for Elizabeth I, weave through my memory. The woman on whom Chrysogen was modelled inspired such awe.

She is not, of course, the only one ever to have gloried under the name Oriana. It may ring Tudor, but we have had an Oriana of our own time: a woman of such startling intelligence and assertive wit that she coloured decades of Italian news reporting.

Oriana Fallaci was born in 1929, a Florence child born of principled parents. Her cabinet-maker father Eduardo was a key rebel against the might of Mussolini and she was exposed early to the ugliness a war could bring. Despite being only ten when World War II began she joined the resistance movement ‘Giustizia e LIberta‘.

The year after the end of the war found her taking up her first post as a journalist with Il mattino dell’Italia centrale. It was the beginning of an illustrious career peppered with prestigious awards. She covered Vietnam in 1967; she was there at Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Massacre, when government forces killed students and protesters just ten days before the ’68 Olympics.

During the massacre she was shot three times, dragged down the stairs by her hair, and left for dead by Mexican police.

She had an affair with a Greek rebel leader; she interviewed Henry Kissenger who later confessed their interview was  “the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press.”

An Oriana for our times.

But it was her interest in the women of Iran under the direction of Ayatollah Khomeni which made me think of her today.

Dressed head-to-toe in the chador, which was a requirement of every woman living under his regime, she wanted to ask him: why must women wear this?

“I am not only referring to the dress,” she explained,” but to what it represents; I mean the apartheid Iranian women have been forced into after the revolution.

“They cannot study at the university with men, they cannot work with men, they cannot swim in the sea or in a swimming-pool with men. They have to do everything separately, wearing their chador. By the way, how can you swim wearing a chador?”

The Ayatollah retorted: “None of this concerns you…If you don’t like the Islamic dress you are not obliged to wear it, since it is for young women and respectable ladies.”

I know what I would have done at this point.

And Oriana did not disappoint. “This is very kind of you, Imam,” she answered, “and since you tell me that, I’m going to immediately rid myself of this stupid medieval rag. There !”

And she took it off there and then.

The little girl wearing clothes too old, and too stiff, and uncomfortable for her; the journalist wearing head-to-toe black. They were doing so because the people around them said they must.

Chrysogen lived until she was 56 years old.

And I hope that this little Oriana knew some moments of freedom, just as our twentieth century Oriana did.

44 thoughts on “Fair Oriana

  1. Oriana Fallaci (29.06.1929 to 15.09.2006) has many quotes attributed to her. This one, I particularly liked:

    The moment you give up your principles, and your values, you are dead, your culture is dead, your civilization is dead. Period.
    Oriana Fallaci

  2. Oriana Fallaci was certainly a strong woman of principles. “And she took it off there and then” – in front of him I suppose, I’m left wondering what she wore underneath…

  3. She certainly does bare a striking resemblance to the Virg..er, that queen who never married, but had Sir Walter Raleigh, and all the other “Close” friends about the castle constantly…Oh, sorry, that’s another story.
    God Bless You
    paul

      1. Oh, yes, I feel certain she was married to her country…just, not necessarily a virgin. But, then, not my place to say, or does it matter. She did great things in the way of trying to broaden the boundaries, and colonize North America, and other places,but, of course had to fight off the Spanish Armada. That’s, in my opinion why she and Sir Walter Raleigh weren’t successful, and the “Lost Colony” @ Roanoke Island, right up the coast from me, went missing. You may like to read that one sometime when you get a few minutes. I love history…and Salt..or the sea…

        http://sonsothunder.wordpress.com/2010/07/17/colony-lost-from-the-start/
        My version short link isn’t working right, but there it is anyway.
        God Bless
        paul

      2. Went off to read this, Paul, and what a gift you have for storytelling. Spellbinding, thanks. Elizabeth, well, she made the rules, and one of the rules was that her propagandists made very sure we never see the real her: we’ll never know the full extent of her private life. She has a lot of irons in the fire and here we are still drilled as to how successful she was. Interesting to read the failures too.

  4. Your post reminds me of some of the things I’ve worn because I was told to. No Ayatollah, just custom and the fashion industry. I wish I’d had Oriana’s nerve and tossed everything that wasn’t comfortable. And done a few other un-respectable things as well.

    One more in a long line of great posts…

  5. Wow, cool story about Oriana! I’m really glad to have not been born in a place where woman are treated as inferior and even more like objects than human beings. I can’t imagine having to live in a culture like that…

  6. Our generation is so blessed not to have the restrictions of the former. We must make sure that we use our ‘permissions’ wisely.

    Good post.

    (Well deserved award, by the way)

  7. Lucky me! Sitting here in shorts and a t-shirt . . . not in “medieval rags” or “solemn finery.”

    Aah . . . bliss!

    BTW: I find you quite versatile. 😉

    1. Thanks Nancy 🙂 Being called versatile is lie waiting for a London bus. You wait for ages and nothing comes, and then two come at once! Versatile, twice in one day! Thanks Nancy!

  8. Betrothed at 6? A freedom fighter at 10? I shudder to think what might have happened to me had I been christened Oriana. 🙂 Although the modern one certainly had much more control over her life than I imagine the other ever did (poor thing). A woman after my own heart, that journalist – though I expect she was much braver in deed than I will ever be.

  9. Like you, I always love to stare at those old portraits and wonder what they were thinking. Your story today did that and then turned it on its head. Another great piece of writing.

  10. isn’t it odd we speculate about Lizzie’s lovers, yet the kings never bothered to keep them a secret. double standards, even for the most powerful monarch of her time

  11. Intriguing post as always. Checked out the Chrysogon painting. My art history is a little rusty but there was a historical crossroads when Europeans moved from painting children as mini adults to actually seeming cherubic and childlike. This would appear to be in that movement.

  12. Brilliant post, Kate. Painting is absolutely haunting, must say. As for Oriana, how has she been off my radar though I remember reading that Kissinger quote…hmmm, any suggestions on a book by her or about her?

  13. That portrait is quite amazing – especially thinking about it as you describe – all the things she had to wear for it, her age…I think of how much your normal 6-year-old would complain if they had to dress up in half that much for 20 minutes to have a digital photo taken……

  14. A brilliant post, Kate. Oriana. Even the name rolls off the tongue in headfastness and determination, doesn’t it? I’m having fun catching up a bit today and this one certainly hit the spot of compelling blogs.

  15. Oriana Fallaci. I’m going to find out more about her. You’ve enflamed my imagination, yet again! How wonderful that women like her pass through history, record history, and make history.

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