New York Public Library

Ada Lovelace; painting by Alfred Edward Chalon, 1835

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
      All my madness none can
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 easy-going, 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
      When our child’s first accents
Wilt thou teach her to say “Father!”
      Though his care she must
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 seventeen-year-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.”

National Library of Scotland/John Murray Archive

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

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 High-Priestess 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.”