In the wake of last week’s post about Post-Capitalism and cyberpunk (and sure, strokes) BBC Radio 4 embarked on its Digital Week. It seemed Britain’s talk station was forever teetering on the edge of a discussion about what the next generation of roboticisation would mean for us humans. But they never quite got there while I was listening. A bit like today’s news stories.
A good job, too. Because I don’t know about you, Dear Reader, but I’m not up to another socio-economic post today. However, Digital Week did throw up some gems….
One that particularly caught my eye was a “dramatisation” of The Letters of Ada Lovelace. Long-suffering readers will be aware of my love of letters. And there’s always been an enjoyable tension between ars poetica and scientia on the blog, I’d like to think. The Hon. Augusta Ada Byron might be said to personify that tension.
sine scientia ars nihil est.
My period back in Edinburgh that has been marked by collaborations with Lady Scientists in Illicit Ink and Nerd Bait, reaching its apogee, I suppose, in the love letter to bloody-minded astronaut and scientist Tara Beckett in Apollo 21.
As I listened to The Letters of Ada Lovelace, it struck me that she’d make a tremendous Tara. Though she’d probably strike me and point out Ada was a pretty bloody brilliant Ada. As mathematician and presenter Hannah Fry writes, she was
[a] woman who swore and smoked and said what she damn well thought.
In a way, that’s hardly surprising. She was born the daughter of Lord Byron, the most flamboyant and notorious of the major Romantics. Her story unfolds from there like something from the pages of Eliot or Austen. The pages, not the celluloid re-imaginings.
As an aside, I was very much looking forward to discovering Austen in the raw during my recent creative writing degree at Edinburgh University. Particularly after a brief exposure to her writing had suggested a Wildean wit and piercing intelligence.
But I – particularly the teenage part of me that once refused to read anything written before 1920 – found Sense and Sensibility hard going. It said, as a fan of Wilde once wrote, nothing to me about my life. Or so I thought. This may have been a failing of empathy on the part of this writer, but the flawed (so I thought) feminism of P&P rings much more true to this feminist/ally in the aftermath of hearing Ada’s writing of her experiences.
As Wikipedia summarises it, Ada’s mother and Lord Byron separated a month after her birth, with Annabella leaving, at Byron’s behest, for her parents’ home at Kirby Mallory. Byron made no attempt to claim his parental rights, but did request that his sister keep him informed of Ada’s welfare. On 21 April, 1816, Byron signed the Deed of Separation, although very reluctantly, and left England for good a few days later. Aside from an acrimonious separation, Annabella continually made allegations about Byron’s immoral behaviour throughout her life. Byron did not have a relationship with his daughter, and never saw her again. He died in 1824 when she was eight years old. Ada was not shown the family portrait of her father (covered in green shroud) until her twentieth birthday.
Quite right. As Ada herself wrote, I ought to do greater things than he ever did. But I am not so flash, and have much more depth. Her conviction of her own genius, though, was something she inherited from the old man. And it was this which led her to recognise something in herself that sees her today venerated as never before. Her self-belief, incredible in its age, comes through in her letters. As Georgina Ferry presents them, the letters also present a fragile and flawed character existing in a stiflingly convential 19th Century world, which is to be expected, given her father and an impossibly self-righteous and controlling mother.
From this bi-focally promising and forbidding beginning, Ada did indeed launch herself on a journey with echoes of the Bennett or Brooke sisters.
Indeed we won’t. Ada, it seems, married well. Shortly after her début in London, “steady, serious” William, Lord King, proposed, and she immediately accepted. Listening to their correspondence, Ada’s letters of the time sound ardent, while proper (even if she self-effacingly describes them as a stupid waste of time – a neat epistolary trick in itself?).
William’s sound similar, if a little impenetrable. It’s all very Austenite. Or…
Georgina Ferry speculates as to whether Ada really loved King, and admits she’s not so sure. However, William truly wanted to make her happy, and she enjoyed the comparative freedom of not having to share a home with her mother – who was certainly happy with the arrangement.
Ada made friends with Charles Babbage, and her notes on his Analytical Engine, an early mechanical general-purpose computer, include what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. Because of this, she is often regarded as the first computer programmer.
Something about the young Ada’s confidence in her ideas that were beyond anyone else’s grasp (including it seems, Babbage) is very appealing. Hannah Fry talks of Ada’s annoying habit of forcefully underlining several words a sentence in her letters, but as a late-life embracer of exclamation marks (No! It’s not like laughing at your own jokes!!), I admire it. What’s more, that conviction and enthusiasm shines through in her letter writing. She remarks upon very mathematical weather, and is tantalised by her learning. She writes of the will-o’-the-wisp nature of the functions and equations she studies.
Later, Ada wanted in particular to examine the nervous system within the field of mathematical science – the work of a lifetime, as she noted, and the opportunity to be a burning star for the light and life of mankind.
She died at 36.
At the last, this visionary poet of mathematics wrote that she began to understand death, which is going on gradually and steady every minute.
I could learn and write about the fascinating and complex Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, all day. So, I’ll off and do that. If you’re interested in fascinating Ada, I commend The Letters of Ada Lovelace to you. And since burying impolite speculation is the order of the day in Britain, have a dig around Hannah Fry’s piece, too.
Enjoy, and I’ll write at you next week….