“In Byron’s Wake”, Miranda Seymour

Book Review:

Growing up in England, I read extensively on the so-called “Devonshire House Circle” and their contacts. These included Annabella Milbanke, Lady Byron, and her aunt Lady Melbourne, Byron’s advisor, possible mistress, and friend of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Lady Byron has, sadly, gone down in history, due to Lady Caroline Lamb and others, as “The Princess of Parallelograms”, who had “thick ankles and understands statistics”, cold and prudish to boot. 

This book focuses on Lady Byron (1792-1860), her daughter, Ada, Countess of Lovelace, and the ways they were affected by Lord Byron. While a great deal has been written about Ada, since she worked closely with Charles Babbage, I was most interested in Lady Byron. The problem was that Lady Byron insisted her papers be sealed for several decades after her death, to protect her family from the fallout of Byron’s incest with his half sister Augusta Leigh. At the same time, Teresa Guiccioli, a former mistress of Lord Byron, published a scandalous memoir lambasting Lady Byron, whom she never met. The result was predictable. Lady Byron’s reputation, high during her lifetime, was destroyed. 

Lady Byron, an only child, inherited the vast estates of three families-the Milbankes, Noels, and Wentworths. She was Lady Wentworth in her own right. Most interestingly, she was actually trained to be the family lawyer and administered her estates not only with great effectiveness but also with extraordinary generosity. She was one of the great philanthropists and educational reformers of the 19th century. She established and supported an experimental school at Ealing Grove, near where I grew up, that was considered revolutionary in its day. Her philanthropy even extended to New York City, where she gave the equivalent of 3 million pounds to a charity in Five Points, NY!! She was interested in education and advocated revolutionary and enlightened ways to educate young people. She had a good mind, rational, enquiring, mathematical, scientific. She indeed “understood statistics”, cutting edge in 1815.

Augusta Leigh, by turns dishonest, delusional, hypocritical, stupid, and venal, comes off very badly. So does Charles Babbage, whose incredible behaviour, despite his genius as an engineer, puts him firmly “on the spectrum”. Ada’s genius was obvious, but what is now clear is that it combined influences from both her parents. She inherited her mother’s mathematically gifted, enquiring mind, and her father’s imagination and brilliance-here we have the explanation of why this young woman was able to predict the computer revolution 150 years before it happened. 

It was sad to read how difficult it was for women to acquire anything approaching a technical education. What is amazing, is that Ada, despite lifelong ill-health, managed to rise above the limitations imposed upon even rich women, to contribute something useful. What is also incredible, is why anyone would expect her to live comfortably on an annual allowance of only 300 pounds while her husband ruined the family building large, useless, country houses and picking fights with his mother in law. Ada as a result got sucked into a betting ring, which caused even more financial problems. She pawned the Lovelace diamonds- twice-and had to be bailed out by her mother.

This is a book for a reader interested in the period and fairly knowledgeable about it.

While Byron and Shelley were hailed as geniuses in their day, it is becoming clear that the women of the Byron-Shelley circle-Mary Shelley, Lady Byron, and Ada, Countess of Lovelace, were as gifted as the men, if not more so. They were dismissed as trivial by biographers, mostly male, for many years, so it is gratifying to see new biographies that give their accomplishments, against all the odds, their due. After all, everyone has heard of “Frankenstein” and we all use computers.

Sandya Narayanswami, PhD