The Elusive Ada Lovelace

I read a biography of Byron when I was about 17 or 18, having been introduced to him by a teacher. I fell in love with his life story, the drama and romance, the scandal, and of course the poetry. I automatically took his side in the break with his wife Annabella (which happened as a consequence of all his, um, dalliances, one of which was with his half-sister). Cold and repressed, I resented her attitude to his liberal lifestyle. The tragedy was of course the fact that after he left England in 1816 he never saw their daughter, Ada, ever again. She was a year old when he left.

Ada was then molded by her mother Annabella, who was intent on erasing any ‘Byronic’ elements from her daughter. All I knew of the adult Ada was that she was interested in mathematics (inherited from her mother) and worked with Charles Babbage on his difference engine. Given my past love for Byron, I naturally wanted to know more about her, and pounced on this book when I saw it in Waterstones.

2015 Pan paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)
2015 Pan paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

I had high hopes for this book, and some of them were fulfilled – I learned a lot about Ada’s life, her personality and attitudes, and more of the details of her work with Babbage. But – this book is ultimately unsuccessful. The long-winded title is the first of many small errors that add up to an unsatisfying experience. For starters the first third of the book is all about Byron and Annabella; while the context of their relationship and history is relevant, Benjamin Wooley chooses to tell the whole story from start to finish, with far too much detail. This may be my opinion because I already knew the story and didn’t learn anything new, but I think to have an interest in this book in the first place you would probably already have some knowledge of Ada’s parents. Either way I think there is too much detail and context at this point, and you begin to wonder when Ada will enter the story.

When she does arrive she is still playing second fiddle in the narrative to her mother Annabella – which is exactly what happened to her in real life. Annabella, the pragmatist, was terrified of her husband’s scandalous and wild behaviour manifesting itself in her daughter; and so she forced upon Ada a rigid life of maths and science, with little time for imagination and creativity. Imagination itself was seen as something dangerous and risky, capable of taking one to untold depths of depravity.

To me, Annabella was an overbearing, insecure, and rather selfish mother that was terrified of letting her daughter just be herself. In the end Ada seems to have been a perfectly normal person with a good balance of intellect and creativity. Unfortunately Wooley takes up pages and pages telling us of the various ways in which Annabella tried to control her daughter’s mind and behaviour, rather than letting us see Ada herself. For most of the book she seems to be a secondary character.

Even when she is an adult, we hear about Ada only in relation to other interesting people of the time that she met or corresponded with. Her initial fame comes from her father and her colleague Babbage – and the way in which Wooley tells her story only compounds the idea that she is only relevant or important because of her associations with other people.

Possibly the most famous portrait of Ada, from 1836. (image: wikipedia.com)
Possibly the most famous portrait of Ada, from 1836. (image: wikipedia.com)

To me, Ada seems remarkable in herself. There is a limited amount of her own writing and work left, and perhaps this is why Wooley chooses to go to so many other sources and people for news of her – but I found this tedious and speculative. I wanted to know the real Ada, and I felt like this book only touched the surface. I wanted more analysis of her personality, and her famous and undoubtedly impressive work with Babbage (just google it and look at the complexity!). I wanted more of her. And this book was more about her time, and the ways in which she was continually pulled between her parents’ personalities, a theme which got tired pretty quickly.

This is one of those books that could have been so great, but just fell down at the simplest hurdles. It was first published in 2000, and if a new biography of Ada is ever released I’d certainly consider it, in order to fill in the gaps left by this one. Ada remains elusive.

*

First published by Pan in 2000. The edition I read was a 2015 reprint by Pan.

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2 thoughts on “The Elusive Ada Lovelace”

  1. It almost seems as if the title was an afterthought and the book the author set out to write from the beginning, that or just far too much backstory. What a pity, after your introduction to the family already read.

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  2. […] Finally in May I read two history books, one of which was a bit meh, and one of which was unbelievably amazing. A-bit-meh was The Bride of Science by Benjamin Woolley, a book I had high expectations for. It is a biography of Ada Lovelace, who I had wanted to read about for some time. She was the daughter of Lord Byron and his wife Annabella Millbanke, which is interesting enough, but she was also one of the first ever computer programmers and worked with Charles Babbage on his difference engine. So should make for a great biography right? Uh, no. Benjamin Woolley manages to make the book entirely about the people around Ada rather than Ada herself, and I got tired of this quite quickly. Sigh. My review here. […]

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