The flush of youth: nine talented teenagers from history

Following Emma Raducanu’s tennis triumph in the US Open, historian Sean Lang picks out nine more gifted teenagers from the past who left their mark – not just in sport, but in politics, literature and kingship…

Montage of three talented teenagers. From left to right: Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great, musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and chess player Judit Polgár

If Emma Raducanu’s phenomenal success in the US Open is making your own teenage achievements look a bit underwhelming, then do not read on. History has plenty of other talented teenagers.

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The concept of ‘teenager’ was a late 20th-century development: in earlier ages adulthood began at about 14. However, even if some of these examples would not have been thought children, they still showed immense promise at a disconcertingly early age…

1

Alexander the Great (356–323 BC)

The celebrated Macedonian warrior king died at 33, having conquered much of the world known to the Greeks, and his early years showed his promise. Even before his teens, Alexander the Great had tamed the ‘unrideable’ horse Bucephalus, which would later carry him into battle. He was tutored by Aristotle, developing a taste for literature as well as knowledge of medicine, philosophy and art.

He governed Macedonia during his father’s absence on campaign and showed his own military ability, leading his men successfully into battle against rebels and neighbouring states. By time he acceded to the throne at the age of 20, following his father’s assassination, Alexander had already shown himself a sort of early Renaissance Prince, a scholar and a soldier in equal measure.

2

Joan of Arc (1412–1431)

The ‘Maid of Orleans’ was 19 when she was burnt at the stake, having led a remarkable military campaign that galvanised the French nobility and people and forced the English out of much of their French territories. Her enemies accused her of witchcraft, partly because her wearing of men’s attire in battle was deemed unnatural and partly because, as a young woman, she was thought susceptible to the wiles of the devil.

Her youth became an important part of her image in the Second World War, when collaborationists saw her as a victim of the English and the Resistance saw her as a youthful martyr of a ruthless occupier.

Joan of Arc, holding a sword in one hand and hold aloft a flag in the other
Joan of Arc in battle at the Siege of Orléans in 1428. (Image by Kean Collection/Getty Images)
3

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)

Mozart is still well known for having been a child musical prodigy. His father, Leopold Mozart, took the young Wolfgang, and his sister Maria Anna (‘Nannerl’) around the courts of Europe, where their accomplished playing astonished and delighted courts and rulers. Wolfgang also had a remarkable musical memory and could write out whole pieces, like Allegri’s Miserere, from one or two hearings.

However, it was his astonishing ability at composition that established his reputation. He wrote his first symphony at the age of 8 and by the time he was 14 he was well under way as a successful composer of operas. By the time he was 17 he was appointed Court Musician at Salzburg, where he had written a string of violin concertos by the time he was twenty. His adult career was as brilliant as his early years, though his financial acumen never matched his musical prowess and he died in poverty.

4

William Pitt the Younger (1759–1806)

Since he became prime minister at the age of 24, it is no surprise to learn that William Pitt the Younger was a talented and precocious young man. The son of the statesman William Pitt the Elder, young William was largely educated at home. However, at the age of 14 he was admitted to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where his studies included classics, history, mathematics and chemistry. He was clearly intended for a political career: his father trained him in public oratory, always imagining that he was addressing the House of Commons.

He was elected to parliament for the rotten borough of Appleby in 1781 at the age of 21, and two years later he was appointed prime minister during the political confusion that followed the American War of Independence. Although he went on to lead Britain through the conflict with revolutionary France, Pitt would always be best remembered for the precociousness of his early career.

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5

Mary Shelley (1797–1851)

The author of Frankenstein and wife of the poet Shelley was a gifted scholar in her youth. She was brought up by her father, the radical writer William Godwin, her mother having died of childbed fever shortly after her birth. Her father nurtured her early love of learning: as well as showing wide knowledge in history and classics, she was also a gifted linguist, speaking Italian and French fluently, as well as Latin and Greek.

At 15, her lecture on The Influence of Governments on the Character of a People, though actually given by her brother William, much impressed those who heard it, and the following year she first met the young Shelley, who had recently been expelled from Oxford for his atheistic views. In 1814 they eloped to France, though they were soon forced by penury to return to England. She was only 20 when Frankenstein was published, though, typically for the time, it was widely assumed that a book of such profundity must have been written by a man.

6

Fanny (1805–1847) and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809–1847)

Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn were both musical prodigies, though 19th-century assumptions of gender roles meant that Fanny had to develop her musical talent largely as a sideline, while Felix was able to use his to build a career. They were both gifted pianists, with a particular enthusiasm for the music of Bach; they were largely responsible for popularising his then largely forgotten work. Felix was a prolific child composer, producing 12 string symphonies by the age of 14 and an orchestral symphony, a piano quartet, a strong octet and an overture to William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the time he was 17.

Goethe, who was old enough to have heard the young Mozart, thought Felix even more talented. Fanny’s musical career largely supported her young brother’s, though they each happily performed the other’s works and they developed a close working relationship. They both died of strokes within six months of each other. For many years Felix’s reputation eclipsed Fanny’s, though in recent years her reputation as a composer in her own right has been more widely recognised.

7

Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887–1920)

One of the most talented mathematicians in history, Ramanujan’s talent became evident very early. He grew up in a very modest household in Madras (Chennai) and was taught mathematics by students his mother took in as lodgers. At school, he devoured mathematical texts, finishing examinations in record time and receiving a string of prizes. His work analysing the nature of numbers demonstrated his extraordinary gifts and gradually attracted attention from the British authorities.

He was invited to study at Cambridge but held off because of his religious objections to leaving India. He finally travelled in 1914, when he was accepted at Trinity College. He went on to become a Fellow of the Royal Society and the first Indian elected to a Fellowship at Trinity. His name deserves to be known outside the realm of mathematics.

8

Tracy Austin (born 1962)

Before Emma Raducanu there was Tracy Austin, who in 1977, aged 14, took Wimbledon by storm with a spirited performance against the top seed, Chris Evert. When she was shown the celebrated Wimbledon Centre Court she responded, “It doesn’t scare me one bit”. Even though she lost to Evert it was clear she was heading for great things: she won the 1979 US Open at the age of 16, where her opponent in the final was, once again, Chris Evert.

She went on to win the US Open again two years later and the mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 1980; however, her career was derailed by injury on the court and in a car crash. Her story is perhaps a warning that sporting success can be fleeting.

American tennis player Tracy Austin, plays at Wimbleton in 1977
American tennis player Tracy Austin, plays at Wimbleton in 1977 (Photo by Getty Images)
9

Judit Polgár (born 1976)

The Hungarian chess champion was a Grandmaster at the age of 15, having been ranked number 55 in the world by the International Chess Federation at the age of 12. Her early promise was shown by the way she could win games blindfolded, even against Chess Masters. At a time when women were thought incapable of taking on male chess champions, Judit and her sister Sofia were soon able to prove the sceptics wrong.

She was an International Master at the age of 12, the youngest ever to have gained the distinction. Before she retired in 2014, she had defeated a whole string of major names in the game, including Garry Kasparov and Boris Spassky. Judit is the only woman to have been ranked in the top ten of all chess players. She never accepted the need for a separate women’s league and she has triumphantly proved her point.

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This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2021