In By­ron’s Wake: The Tur­bu­lent Lives of By­ron’s Wife and Daugh­ter: Annabella Mil­banke and Ada Lovelace by Mi­randa Sey­mour

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Jenny Uglow

In By­ron’s Wake:

The Tur­bu­lent Lives of By­ron’s Wife and Daugh­ter: Annabella Mil­banke and Ada Lovelace by Mi­randa Sey­mour.

Pe­ga­sus, 547 pp., $35.00

Ada Lovelace:

The Mak­ing of a Com­puter Sci­en­tist by Christo­pher Hollings,

Ur­sula Martin, and Adrian Rice. Bodleian Library,

114 pp., $35.00

On March 20, 1816, Annabella, Lady By­ron, re­ceived a poem in the mail. In fif­teen stan­zas, By­ron’s “Fare Thee Well” was a cascade of bro­ken­hearted loss and love:

All my faults per­chance thou know­est,

All my mad­ness none can know;

All my hopes, where’er thou goest, Wither, yet with thee they go.

It was quickly pub­lished in a lim­ited edi­tion of fifty copies. Yet within a few days By­ron was at­tack­ing Annabella for black­en­ing his name, “as if it were branded on my fore­head,” and send­ing her a vi­cious sketch of her for­mer gov­erness and loyal friend Mrs. Cler­mont, whom he ac­cused of de­stroy­ing their mar­riage. On April 23 he left for Dover and the Con­ti­nent.

Read­ing the poem, By­ron fans wept over a mar­tyred ge­nius con­demned to ex­ile by a cold­hearted wife. But when the poem and sketch ap­peared to­gether in The Cham­pion, many read­ers sim­ply laughed. Isaac Cruik­shank’s car­toon The Sep­a­ra­tion, a Sketch of the pri­vate life of Lord Iron, showed By­ron sa­lut­ing cheer­ily as he left his house with his arm around a bo­somy ac­tress. Ge­orge Cruik­shank went fur­ther in a draw­ing of the poet wav­ing his hat to the mother and child left on shore while de­claim­ing “Fare Thee Well” to a boat­ful of whores. In an in­stant the satires gave the “heroic” By­ron the sta­tus of an ogre. Annabella was re­lieved, if astonished at the speed at which pub­lic opin­ion could be re­versed. And what about her own name—had that es­caped black­en­ing? What would his­tory say?

In By­ron’s Wake, Mi­randa Sey­mour’s metic­u­lously re­searched study of Anne Is­abella Mil­banke—al­ways short­ened to Annabella—and her daugh­ter, Ada Lovelace, shows how con­cern for rep­u­ta­tion dogged their lives at ev­ery step. A skilled and ex­pe­ri­enced bi­og­ra­pher, Sey­mour weaves her way through cob­webby cur­tains of ru­mor and gos­sip, show­ing how tabloid in­tru­sions are noth­ing new, pri­vacy has al­ways been won at a price, and rep­u­ta­tion—the judg­ment of the pub­lic—re­mains a slip­pery, frag­ile thing. At her death in 1860, Lady By­ron’s pub­lic rep­u­ta­tion was that of a de­ter­mined ed­u­ca­tion re­former, added to the names on the Re­form­ers’ Me­mo­rial in Lon­don’s Ken­sal Green Ceme­tery, along with John Stu­art Mill, Joseph Pri­est­ley, and El­iz­a­beth Fry. Ada, who had died eight years ear­lier at the age of thirty-six, won no such trib­ute. To­day, how­ever, her star shines bright­est: she is hailed as the “mother of the com­puter” and is the sub­ject of books and doc­u­men­taries, cour­ses and con­fer­ences. Yet both women are still of­ten iden­ti­fied first as “By­ron’s wife” or “By­ron’s daugh­ter.” Annabella

Mil­banke met By­ron in March 1812 at a morn­ing waltz party given by Caro­line Lamb at the house of Lady Mel­bourne, who was not only Caro­line’s mother-in-law (she was mar­ried to Lady Mel­bourne’s son Wil­liam, later, as Lord Mel­bourne, Queen Vic­to­ria’s adored prime min­is­ter) but also Annabella’s aunt, sis­ter of her fa­ther, Sir Ralph. Women had swooned over By­ron since the pub­li­ca­tion of the first can­tos of his Childe Harold a month ear­lier, but Annabella was more impressed by his pas­sion­ate speech in the House of Lords at­tack­ing the govern­ment’s bill to in­tro­duce cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment for frame­break­ers—Lud­dites who broke up mech­a­nized looms. She knew his rep­u­ta­tion as a wom­an­izer, but told her mother that she found him “more agree­able in con­ver­sa­tion than any per­son I know . . . a very bad, very good man,” re­port­ing that he was “deeply re­pen­tant” for his youth­ful sins and con­clud­ing that it was her “Chris­tian duty” to be his spir­i­tual guide. By­ron found Annabella “a very ex­tra­or­di­nary girl,” he told Caro­line Lamb, but had no de­sire to be bet­ter ac­quainted: “she is too good for a fallen spirit to know, and I should like her more if she were less per­fect.”

Brought up on her fa­ther’s es­tates in County Durham, Annabella stood out in cyn­i­cal Lon­don so­ci­ety. She was clever and spir­ited, writ­ing po­etry and study­ing math­e­mat­ics, which she found, Sey­mour sug­gests, to be “a re­li­able refuge from emo­tion; here was a world of num­bers over which, with dili­gent ap­pli­ca­tion, she could ex­ert con­trol.” Her fa­ther was a Whig MP, and both her par­ents were abo­li­tion­ists and crit­ics of op­pres­sion. Sey­mour notes in pass­ing that they were also stout Uni­tar­i­ans; she could have added some­thing about the in­flu­ence on Annabella of the Uni­tar­ian be­lief in tol­er­ance and its in­sis­tence that slav­ery, dis­ease, and poverty did not re­flect judg­ments of God but were so­cial flaws that must be fought. The Uni­tar­ian sense of duty and the im­per­a­tive to speak out would gal­va­nize many women of the pe­riod, in­clud­ing Annabella’s friends Har­riet Martineau and Anna Jame­son. An­other strand in Sey­mour’s book, lightly played, is the power of the sup­port net­works that these fe­male friends of­fered. Later By­ron found Annabella prud­ish and cor­rect, but they were doomed to come to­gether. The mar­riage was en­gi­neered largely by Lady Mel­bourne, who was anx­ious to pre­vent a scan­dal sur­round­ing By­ron’s af­fair with Caro­line Lamb. Here was an­other fam­ily with rep­u­ta­tions to res­cue. By Septem­ber 1813 By­ron was pre­pared to pro­pose to Annabella. But did he love her? asked Lady Mel­bourne. To which he replied:

As to Love, that is done in a week (pro­vided the Lady has a rea­son­able share) be­sides mar­riage goes on bet­ter with es­teem & con­fi­dence than ro­mance, and she is quite pretty enough to be loved by her hus­band, with­out be­ing so glar­ingly beau­ti­ful as to at­tract too many ri­vals.

His first pro­posal was re­jected, his sec­ond, in Septem­ber 1814, swiftly ac­cepted. This time the pressure to pro­pose came not only from Lady Mel­bourne but also from By­ron’s easy­go­ing, whim­si­cal half-sis­ter Au­gusta Leigh, the woman, he said, whom he

most loved, and with whom he was now pas­sion­ately close: she too was con­cerned with her own and her fam­ily’s rep­u­ta­tion. They were to­gether when Annabella’s ac­cep­tance ar­rived. “It never rains but it pours,” he said.

Af­ter com­plex ad­vances and re­treats, metic­u­lously chron­i­cled by Sey­mour, the cou­ple were mar­ried on Jan­uary 2, 1815. Bizarrely, Au­gusta then be­came Annabella’s clos­est con­fi­dante and her ad­viser on deal­ing with By­ron’s rages and taunts—de­spite the fact that Annabella was told that Au­gusta’s fourth child, El­iz­a­beth Me­dora, was his daugh­ter, and that he made Au­gusta and Annabella pose on a sofa while he sat be­tween them to de­cide “which of the two women could kiss him more ar­dently.” It took a year for her to credit the ru­mors of in­cest, but in the mean­time, as By­ron’s be­hav­ior be­came in­creas­ingly er­ratic and threat­en­ing, she of­ten said she would leave. Within weeks of the birth of their daugh­ter, Ada, on De­cem­ber 10, 1815, she was hunt­ing for med­i­cal and le­gal ev­i­dence that he was in­sane. In late March a fu­ri­ous and re­luc­tant By­ron signed his name to the first doc­u­ments of sep­a­ra­tion. A month later, he was gone.

That sum­mer, pur­sued by the preg­nant Clair Clair­mont, with whom he had had a brief af­fair in the fi­nal weeks be­fore he left, By­ron was writ­ing ghost sto­ries with the Shel­leys un­der the stormy skies of Lake Geneva. Annabella’s chief ob­jec­tive, how­ever, as Sey­mour writes, was still “pre­serv­ing her­self and her child from calumny .... Her only chance of es­cap­ing scan­dal was to be­have im­pec­ca­bly, and to choose her friends with scrupu­lous care.” Al­most im­me­di­ately her de­sire for a quiet life was blown apart by Caro­line Lamb’s novel Gle­nar­von, in which By­ron ap­pears loosely dis­guised as the glam­orous and heart­less Lord Ruthven and Annabella as the fee­ble Miss Mon­mouth. She winced as peo­ple stared at her in the street:

Jus­ti­fy­ing the role that she had played in her hus­band’s life, while blam­ing oth­ers—and blam­ing, above all, Au­gusta for con­tribut­ing to the de­struc­tion of a mar­riage in­creas­ingly gilded by mem­ory’s broad and ide­al­is­ing brush—would be­come the oc­cu­pa­tion and ob­ses­sion of a life­time.

A part­ing prom­ise to pro­tect Au­gusta’s name left Annabella ham­strung in her fight to ex­plain why she had been so adamant on a sep­a­ra­tion.

None­the­less, she drew her­self up and em­barked on her long ca­reer as an ed­u­ca­tion re­former; and af­ter 1825, when she in­her­ited her un­cle’s vast Went­worth es­tates and took the fam­ily name as Lady Noel By­ron, she had the means to ful­fill her am­bi­tions. Her so­cial sta­tus, wide net­work of friends, the knowl­edge of her life story, as well as her rep­u­ta­tion as a phi­lan­thropist and a woman of strict morals and re­li­gious pro­bity saved her from be­ing os­tra­cized, although some prim friends still had doubts about the con­ta­gion of By­ronic de­gen­er­acy. She sup­ported the Brighton Co-op­er­a­tive So­ci­ety, help­ing to found a branch in Hast­ings and lend­ing the ground floor of her house to its me­chan­ics in­sti­tute for classes. As the model for her own pi­o­neer­ing schools she turned to Dr. Em­manuel Fel­len­berg’s school for poor chil­dren at Hofwyl in Switzer­land, run on Pestalozzian lines with a mix of man­ual la­bor and aca­demic study. Her “Co-op­er­a­tive School” at Eal­ing Grove, opened in the early 1830s for poor and or­phaned boys, took both board­ers and day pupils, whose in­door lessons were bal­anced by time spent out­side on the school’s grounds. She also gave gen­er­ously to hospi­tals, asy­lums, and mis­sions, and was ac­tive in prison re­form and the an­ti­slav­ery move­ment.

Sey­mour’s sub­ject is Annabella’s tu­mul­tuous per­sonal life, not her pub­lic work (an en­gag­ing foot­note ad­mits that “list­ing Lady By­ron’s phil­an­thropic ac­tiv­i­ties would take up an in­ter­minable chap­ter”). But she does quote Annabella’s re­mark­able, lib­eral note on the kind of school in which, as Sey­mour writes, “benev­o­lence was united with dis­ci­pline”:

No creed. No scrip­ture books. No con­tin­ual seden­tary in­door em­ploy­ment . . . . No over-ex­cite­ment of feel­ings by prizes or other ar­ti­fi­cial stim­u­lants. No def­i­nite boundary be­tween work and play, the for­mer as much as pos­si­ble a plea­sure, the lat­ter not a con­trast with lessons. No cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment. No over-leg­is­la­tion.

Annabella’s other main con­cern, in­creas­ing in in­ten­sity, was with her daugh­ter, Ada. In “Fare Thee Well,” which Sey­mour chooses not to quote, By­ron had writ­ten:

And when thou wouldst so­lace gather,

When our child’s first ac­cents flow,

Wilt thou teach her to say “Fa­ther!” Though his care she must forego? . . .

Should her lin­ea­ments re­sem­ble Those thou never more may’st see,

Then thy heart will softly trem­ble With a pulse yet true to me.

It was the po­ten­tial re­sem­blance, not of face but of char­ac­ter, that made Annabella trem­ble. By­ron asked af­ter Ada’s progress and sent her small gifts, in­clud­ing a locket with the in­scrip­tion in Ital­ian: “Blood is thicker than wa­ter.” Af­ter his in­quiries from Greece in 1823, Annabella sent a brief char­ac­ter sketch of their daugh­ter:

Her pre­vail­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic is cheer­ful­ness and good-tem­per. Ob­ser­va­tion. Not de­void of imag­i­na­tion, but it is chiefly ex­er­cised in con­nec­tion with her me­chan­i­cal in­ge­nu­ity—the man­u­fac­ture of ships and boats etc. Prefers prose to verse .... Not very per­se­ver­ing. Draws well. Tall and ro­bust.

By­ron’s re­sponse, not­ing how like him­self as a boy Ada sounded, was on his desk when he died of fever at Mis­so­longhi on April 19, 1824. The last time he had seen his daugh­ter, she was four months old. Ada was in­deed cheer­ful, mak­ing friends eas­ily, but she was also volatile,

with a fierce tem­per. Governesses noted both her en­dear­ing an­i­ma­tion and her stub­born re­bel­lious­ness. They com­mented, too, on her talent with fig­ures: at five, she was adding up “sums of five or six rows of fig­ures, with ac­cu­racy; she is de­lib­er­ate and cor­rect in the process, and takes an in­ter­est in the per­for­mance.” In Ada Lovelace: The Mak­ing of a Com­puter Sci­en­tist, the au­thors give a splen­didly crisp, clear de­scrip­tion of her ed­u­ca­tion, ex­plain­ing the vogue for math­e­mat­ics against the back­ground of nine­teenth-cen­tury con­cerns with in­dus­try, steam, nav­i­ga­tion, and statis­tics. This short book is also en­livened by su­perb il­lus­tra­tions. To see Ada’s care­ful pen­man­ship as she asks in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult ques­tions some­how makes ab­stract cal­cu­la­tions hu­man and equa­tions sud­denly ex­cit­ing. That in­ti­mate en­joy­ment is clearer still from the scrap of pa­per that records her and the math­e­mati­cian Charles Bab­bage play­ing with math­e­mat­i­cal puz­zles: he draws di­a­grams in a scratchy pen, while she leans over and adds to them in pen­cil. Dusty ar­chives dance into life.

Math­e­mat­ics was an in­ter­est that Ada’s mother could sup­port with en­thu­si­asm: By­ron once praised Annabella as the “Princess of Par­al­lel­o­grams,” though par­o­dy­ing her later as Don Juan’s stuffy mother Donna Inez, whose “thoughts were the­o­rems.” Ada en­joyed other sub­jects—dis­sect­ing a drag­on­fly, learn­ing about the forests of Nor­way and vol­ca­noes of Ice­land, mas­ter­ing Ital­ian—but at ten she was al­ready puz­zling over the “rule of three” and declar­ing that she was ready to move on to dec­i­mals. At twelve she said that her new­est project would be learn­ing to fly:

I am go­ing to be­gin my pa­per wings to­mor­row and the more I think about it, the more I feel al­most con­vinced that with a year or so’s ex­pe­ri­ence & prac­tise I shall be able to bring the art of fly­ing to very great per­fec­tion. I think of writ­ing a book of Fly­ol­ogy il­lus­trated with plates.

She asked for a book on bird anatomy, as their wings would pro­vide a model, and had “great plea­sure in look­ing at the wing of a dead crow.” Her next ob­ses­sion, equally in­tense, was with as­tron­omy. Alarmed, her mother asked her old tu­tor Wil­liam Frend and his daugh­ter to see if they could sub­due Ada’s fan­cies with a course of “fig­ures and logic”—an idea that fell through when Ada suf­fered from a dan­ger­ous bout of measles.

Her teenage years brought dif­fer­ent prob­lems, with, her mother feared, a dis­turb­ing By­ronic tinge. In 1833 in Eal­ing, where Annabella had es­tab­lished her school, the sev­en­teenyear-old Ada was dis­cov­ered us­ing a gar­den shed for pas­sion­ate ses­sions with a young man hired to teach her short­hand. In Annabella’s cir­cle this made her per­ilously near to “dam­aged goods.” But Ada was un­re­pen­tant. A few months later she tried to start the af­fair again, and when her mother in­formed her that she was ap­pointed “by God for­ever” to re­strain her wild­ness, Ada wrote an­grily, “I can­not con­sider that the par­ent has any right to direct the child or to ex­pect obe­di­ence in such things as con­cern the child only.” Later, how­ever, she humbly thanked her fu­ture hus­band for over­look­ing her “blot­ted past,” as Sey­mour calls it.

Hop­ing that a course of math­e­mat­ics with re­li­gious in­struc­tion would calm Ada down, Annabella ap­pealed to her friend Dr. Wil­liam King. But King’s course, in­ter­est­ing at first, proved dull and old-fash­ioned: in seven weeks Ada out­ran her tu­tor. Cor­re­spond­ing with the now el­derly but still lively-minded Wil­liam Frend, she asked him why a rain­bow al­ways ap­peared as a curve, and later said she needed Frend’s help, for, as she told King, “noth­ing but very close & in­tense ap­pli­ca­tion to sub­jects of a sci­en­tific na­ture now seems to keep my imag­i­na­tion from run­ning wild, or to stop up the void which seems to be left in my mind from a want of ex­cite­ment.” She must ex­er­cise her mind to curb her sen­sual self. Both Annabella and Ada were in­ter­ested in “sciences” that sought to ex­tend the senses into in­ef­fa­ble realms— Annabella be­ing drawn first to phrenol­ogy and later to mes­merism, while Ada, far ahead of her time, once thought of de­vel­op­ing a “cal­cu­lus of the ner­vous sys­tem” and work­ing out laws “for the mu­tual ac­tions of the mol­e­cules of [the] brain.”

Pure math­e­mat­ics seemed safer. Ada’s next men­tor was the re­doubtable science writer Mary Somerville, whose trans­la­tion of Pierre-Si­mon Laplace’s Mech­a­nism of the Heav­ens had been pub­lished in 1831. It was Somerville who in­tro­duced Ada to Bab­bage in 1834, and Somerville’s son, Woron­zow Greig, then in­tro­duced Ada to the schol­arly landowner Lord Wil­liam King. They mar­ried in 1835, he be­came Earl of Lovelace in 1838, and by 1840 they had three chil­dren, By­ron, Annabella, and Ralph. Wil­liam en­cour­aged Ada’s sci­en­tific in­ter­ests. “I now read math­e­mat­ics ev­ery day,” she told Somerville, “& am oc­cu­pied in Trigonom­e­try & in pre­lim­i­nar­ies to Cu­bic & Bi­quadratic Equa­tions. So you see that mat­ri­mony has by no means less­ened my taste for those pur­suits.”

Her in­ter­est in­ten­si­fied when she met Bab­bage, a for­mer pro­fes­sor of math­e­mat­ics at Cam­bridge known for his on­slaughts on the Bri­tish sci­en­tific tra­di­tion and for his Econ­omy of Ma­chin­ery and Man­u­fac­tures (1832). Could the com­plex ta­bles re­quired for bank­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing, he won­dered, be pro­duced by a ma­chine rather than hu­man “com­put­ers”? He had raised £17,000 of govern­ment money to pur­sue his Dif­fer­ence En­gine, with its cogs and wheels and stacks, which could cal­cu­late suc­ces­sive val­ues us­ing the method of fi­nite dif­fer­ences, but by 1834 it was still un­fin­ished. In­trigued by this “think­ing ma­chine,” Ada wanted to learn more ad­vanced math­e­mat­ics, and in 1840 she found the ideal tu­tor, Au­gus­tus de Mor­gan, a pro­fes­sor at Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don and an ex­pert in dif­fer­en­tial and in­te­gral cal­cu­lus. De Mor­gan made her slow down, learn from mis­takes, and work from first prin­ci­ples. Af­ter a year she could point to prob­lems in his own con­clu­sions. She also saw now that imag­i­na­tion and math­e­mat­ics were not op­po­sites, as she had thought, but com­ple­ments:

Imag­i­na­tion is the Dis­cov­er­ing fac­ulty, pre-em­i­nently. It is that which pen­e­trates into the un­seen worlds around us, the world of Science. It is that which feels & dis­cov­ers what is, the real which we see not . . . .

Math­e­mat­i­cal Science shows what is. It is the lan­guage of un­seen re­la­tions be­tween things. But to use & ap­ply that lan­guage we must be able fully to ap­pre­ci­ate, to feel, to seize, the un­seen, the un­con­scious. Imag­i­na­tion too shows what is, the is that is be­yond the senses. Hence she is or should be es­pe­cially cul­ti­vated by the truly Sci­en­tific.

More Co­leridge than By­ron, per­haps, but a true de­mand for “po­et­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, po­et­i­cal science,” as she wrote in one let­ter to her mother.

Imag­i­na­tion and math­e­mat­ics came to­gether in Bab­bage’s de­signs for a new “An­a­lyt­i­cal En­gine.” Pro­grammed by punched cards, it would be able to mod­ify its cal­cu­la­tions as it went along, to “eat its own tail.” In 1843 Ada trans­lated from the French an ac­count of the en­gine by the Ital­ian sci­en­tist Luigi Menabrea, ex­pand­ing it with her own notes at Bab­bage’s sug­ges­tion. In her fi­nal one, Note G, she cre­ated an “ex­e­cu­tion trace”: ta­bles that show the suc­ces­sive changes in­volved in cal­cu­lat­ing the com­pli­cated Bernoulli num­bers, which are im­por­tant to many as­pects of the­o­ret­i­cal math­e­mat­ics.

This note—some­times called the first com­puter pro­gram—would en­sure her last­ing fame. Such ta­bles would be used to ex­plain com­put­ing a hun­dred years later, at the time of the first stored pro­gram com­puter. But above all, Ada’s note leaped ahead be­cause it showed her vi­sion­ary aware­ness of the ma­chine’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties. She sug­gested, for ex­am­ple, that it might be used for things other than num­bers if they were re­duc­ible to math­e­mat­i­cal rules—com­pos­ing mu­sic, for ex­am­ple, or cre­at­ing pat­terns in al­ge­bra. By think­ing in this way, she was mov­ing to­ward some idea of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, although she in­sisted that “the An­a­lyt­i­cal En­gine has no pre­ten­sions what­ever to orig­i­nate any­thing. It can do what­ever we know how to or­der it to per­form.”

Life was as com­plex as any cal­cu­la­tion. In 1843, the same month that Ada fin­ished her trans­la­tion, Au­gusta Leigh’s daugh­ter Me­dora turned up, hys­ter­i­cally de­mand­ing com­pen­sa­tion for her “rights” as By­ron’s child. Blaz­ing with loy­alty to­ward her mother, Ada fell ill. She raged at the thought of the “al­most aw­ful en­ergy & power” still un­de­vel­oped “in that wiry lit­tle sys­tem of mine,” she told Bab­bage. Ada Lovelace gives a vivid sense of the close­ness of these odd friends. In the last year of her life Bab­bage took her, al­ready frail, to the Great Ex­hi­bi­tion—where, to his fury, none of his ma­chines were shown—coax­ing her to “put on worsted stock­ings, cork soles and ev­ery other thing which can keep you warm.”

The fi­nal years of Ada’s life were sad. She was con­stantly ill, and heavy use of opi­ates may lie be­hind her more ex­trav­a­gant pro­nounce­ments: she would be­come a sun, or a va­grant star, com­plete with cir­cling plan­ets and comets (“I think I must my­self be the chief Comet & not merely one of the Plan­ets. Yes—that will do”) and viewed her­self as “the HighPri­est­ess of God’s earthly man­i­fes­ta­tions.” While her hus­band poured their dwin­dling funds into build­ing pro­jects, she trav­eled rest­lessly, and her ex­penses grew. In the mid-1840s she be­came em­broiled with the un­scrupu­lous John Crosse (the son of a fel­low sci­en­tist, An­drew Crosse), with whom she had an emo­tion­ally pas­sion­ate re­la­tion­ship and who not only black­mailed her but also used her let­ters to black­mail her hus­band af­ter she died. With dis­as­trous con­se­quences, she tried to use her math­e­mat­i­cal skills to win on horses, pulling to­gether a ring of friends and book­ies. In in­creas­ing pain from the cer­vi­cal can­cer that would kill her in No­vem­ber 1852, she pawned the Lovelace fam­ily jewels twice, sub­sti­tut­ing them with paste repli­cas. Each time her des­per­ate mother bailed her out. At her death the house­keeper burned “all the dread­ful let­ters,” as Florence Nightin­gale put it, and the fam­ily lawyers moved in to de­stroy more ev­i­dence. Avoid­ance of scan­dal—the fear that ran like a ner­vous tremor through Vic­to­rian so­ci­ety—was still the chief value.

The com­bi­na­tion of pure math­e­mat­ics and ag­o­nized per­sonal pas­sions gives Sey­mour’s book an ar­rest­ing power. And By­ron’s ghost could not be laid to rest. Ada, for one, wel­comed the specter, ask­ing to be buried at New­stead, at her fa­ther’s side: “I do love the ven­er­a­ble old place & all my wicked fore­fa­thers.” But her mother still shrank from the By­ronic “mad­ness.” One of her most chill­ing de­mands was that Ada’s three chil­dren be brought up in dif­fer­ent house­holds: the broth­ers should never be left alone with their sis­ter. She in­sisted too that the world should see her as the vic­tim, not the vil­lain, in her tor­mented re­la­tion­ship with By­ron, but the ar­gu­ments about who was to blame have run on from her day to ours, and how­ever fat the ar­chives, as he wrote, “All my mad­ness none can know.”

Ada Lovelace; paint­ing by Al­fred Ed­ward Chalon, 1835

Lord and Lady By­ron; sketch by Lady Caro­line Lamb, 1815

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