The Enchantress of Numbers

Enchantress of Numbers is a wonderful novel about the life of Ada Lovelace. The story begins before Ada’s birth, with the tumultuous courtship and marriage of her parents. As Ada’s mother tries to shield her from Byron’s excesses, I was made even more curious. There are so many wild stories about Byron, who was completely incapable of keeping it in his pants OR keeping his mouth shut afterwards.

This story is has some Romantic drama, with wild twists of fortune hinging on archaic inheritance laws, and the melodramatic custom of sending and keeping locks of hair, for example. On one hand, yes, I definitely have some ticket stubs for sentimental value, so Romantic-era me would totally have a secret locket with a lock of hair, but on the other hand, no fair covering up a portrait with black crepe and then freaking out when people mention it. COME ON ANNABELLA, you’re slipping into Gothicism.  Are codified mourning clothes  not enough for you?

Anyway, a lot of the this story is devoted to Ada’s upbringing. To prevent any of Byron’s excesses in his daughter, Ada is forbidden to read poetry, or imaginative fiction, or indulge in creative play. Even outside of these forbidden creative areas, whenever young Ada takes an interest in something, her mother reins her in, because her mother worries that Ada’s Byron blood will show in all-encompassing passions and dangerous manias. This pattern happens over and over, and it’s not entirely clear whether Ada enjoys new interests, especially with a lack of playmates, or whether she really shows signs of getting dangerously obsessed.

At one point, Ada gets a crush on her tutor. She’s sure she’s in love, but reading it, I had to wonder if she was a lonely young teen who attached herself to the only person who showed her kindness and encouraged her intellectually. Her mother sees this as Byron’s impulsive blood coming out, since young Ada has managed to escape educational seclusion to form an inappropriate romantic relationship with a young man with no family or money. (Actually, I vaguely remembered that her future husband was called William King, and I kept hoping her tutor would come into an inheritance and marry her.) This is where the first-person narration really shines, because it seems like a girl’s first crush, with Romantic notions, and the era’s worry that being unchaperoned with a man makes her ruined for any future husband.

I’ve written about Ada Lovelace on my main blog, and I’ve read other books about her life, but somehow I didn’t realize quite how young she died. Maybe I got distracted by the Difference Engine or maybe I first encountered this when 36 seemed like distant adulthood.  But she really doesn’t have too much time after meeting Charles Babbage and Mary Somerville, and corresponding with the great minds and intellectual societies of the day. She doesn’t have much time to live as she wants, pursuing her own interests and friendships.

I thought the amount of the story devoted to the worry that Ada would follow her father’s excesses meant that the end of the novel would make this clear, but I was basically left wondering if Ada did show dangerous signs of Byron’s manias, or if she was a bright child who was punished for showing any signs of imagination and creativity.

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