A marriage that makes a good end to a comedy will often make as good a beginning to a tragedy. If any couple bore out that maxim it was Annabella Milbanke and George Gordon Byron. The ‘happy’ chapter lasted barely 24 hours, the ‘ever after’ is with us still. Even the clergyman who performed the service was soon disillusioned. The Rev. Thomas Noel had been promised some ‘substantial’ token of the groom’s appreciation. He received instead one of the rings of which Byron kept a plentiful supply to distribute to admirers. Noel was used to disappointment. An illegitimate cousin of Annabella, he knew full well that the vast fortune of his father, Viscount Wentworth, would not come to him but would pass, in due course, to her. Noel’s bad luck was the good luck on which Byron was counting to pay his debts. Money, inherited wealth and the time many people consequently spent waiting for other people to die, are recurring themes in Miranda Seymour’s deft and compelling account of the whole horrible saga.
Anne Isabella, as she was christened, was the late and much loved only child of ageing parents who doted on her. Sir Ralph and Lady Milbanke were justified in admiring their daughter’s intelligence and high spirits, if less sensible in giving in to them. In due course she was brought from the family home in County Durham to be launched in London. From Seaham Hall, a solid neoclassical house which she always loved, with its views across the terraced gardens to the sea, Annabella was catapulted into Regency London, and a milieu of high taste and low morals. She enjoyed herself thoroughly at dances and parties, aware that her status as an heiress gave her considerable cachet. But all was not quite as it seemed. The Milbankes were short of money and at 65 Lord Wentworth was in discouragingly robust health. Apart from land, which they didn’t wish to sell, Annabella was her parents’ greatest asset and she proved a stubbornly illiquid one. At least half a dozen suitors were turned away or turned into friends. Annabella was enjoying her independence and, Seymour suggests, comparing the contented lives of her older women friends, a striking number of whom remained unmarried, with the scandal and intrigue in which the marriages in her circle were entrammelled, most especially those of her aunt, the ‘unblushingly scandalous’ Lady Melbourne, and her permanently overwrought daughter-in-law, Caroline Lamb, who made no secret of her relations with Byron.
Annabella was too clever and too easily bored to settle for a man like George Eden, whose enthusiastic suit was pressed by his parents and hers: he was too nearly a paragon. Deeply impressed by Pride and Prejudice, Annabella wanted a project, and in Byron she saw a man whom she might save from his own flaws. If Byron was no Darcy, Annabella was no Elizabeth Bennet. In their courtship she was more of a Catherine Morland, naively in thrall to a fictional worldview and unable to see beyond it. If there was a literary parallel for the tortuous manipulations that surrounded the marriage it was Les Liaisons dangereuses. Having refused Byron once and attempted to turn him into another of her male friends, Annabella changed her mind. She had invented an imaginary alternative suitor and so now had to un-invent him in a series of convoluted letters as she became more set on marrying Byron, who remained at best ambivalent. Lady Melbourne, much deeper in his confidence than Annabella, was in favour of any marriage that would get him away from her daughter-in-law. Since his initial proposal, however, Byron’s financial difficulties had eased, and fatally, he had been reunited and fallen in love with his married half-sister, Augusta Leigh. They now had a daughter, Medora, born in 1814. Augusta wanted Byron to marry so that her relations with him would have a respectable front. Annabella wanted to reform him. His friend John Cam Hobhouse made strenuous efforts to stop the whole thing, while the Milbankes merely wanted their daughter settled. Thus the company assembled for the muted wedding ceremony at Seaham Hall on 2 January 1815 came with incompatible hopes and expectations. Hobhouse wrote that after the ceremony he felt ‘as if I had buried a friend’.
Exactly what happened in the 12 months before Annabella left Byron, taking with her their baby daughter, Ada, is impossible now to know. For the biographer all the usual complications of hindsight are magnified by the protagonists, who at once set about reconstructing events in more or less self-serving ways. Caroline Lamb put the Byrons into Glenarvon, the sort of bad Gothic novel from which they seemed at times to have emerged. Byron satirised Annabella in Don Juan, while she herself told and retold the story over the four and a half decades between the end of her marriage and her death in 1860. Seymour’s view is that Annabella told the truth, but not the whole truth, being understandably inclined ‘to focus an obliging memory upon those truths that would most help to make her legal case for separation’. Whatever she told her lawyer, Stephen Lushington, it had a galvanising effect. From that point, he recalled, ‘I considered a reconciliation impossible.’ Whether it was the incest, the sodomy, adultery, drugs or Byron’s episodes of apparent near psychosis, it shook Lushington to the core. The more extreme possibilities were left out of the deed of separation once Byron had agreed to it, but the whiff of scandal clung to Annabella and Ada. The late Georgians invented the cult of celebrity and Byron was its first and finest creation. His wife and daughter could not escape fame, they could hope only to avoid notoriety. Annabella’s attempts to preserve her reputation and other people’s attempts to salvage Byron’s have left a pall of smoke from burning letters and diaries, further obscuring the facts that remain. Seymour carries off a delicate balancing act, combining the historian’s proper caution with acute judgments and a dashing narrative pace.
The agonising negotiations over the separation saw Annabella, though more than once tempted to return to her husband, turn rapidly from the naive reader of novels into the shrewd and forceful woman who, Seymour suggests, might in another century ‘have become the model director of a bank’. By now ‘Annabella understood her husband better than he did her,’ for Byron was, wrongly, convinced that she was being controlled by her parents. He also misjudged the public mood. After the separation he went into self-imposed exile in 1816. His verses on the occasion, Fare Thee Well, cast him as a tragic hero, ‘Torn from every nearer tie/Seared in heart, and lone, and blighted’. The poem was reproduced as a broadsheet under a caricature by George Cruickshank showing Byron waving his handkerchief towards Annabella and Ada from a boat full of hock and prostitutes. After his departure, Annabella lay low. She was not well off, despite Lord Wentworth having finally died, for his fortune went first to his sister, Annabella’s mother. This had always been the understanding, and the fact that Byron had not grasped it and was severely disappointed at the delay to his wife’s inheritance was yet another blow to the fragile marriage. It took three more deaths, her mother’s in 1822, Byron’s in 1824 and her father’s a year later, to free Annabella completely to become the formidable Lady Noel Byron. By then her husband’s reputation had revived. His death at Missolonghi on his way to fight for Greece had made him a hero again and, on the whole, he continued to be one. As its afterlife grew ever longer in proportion to the marriage itself, his widow continued to recast events with the aid of ‘memory’s broad and idealising brush’ until this became the ‘occupation and obsession’ of her life.
Annabella was a generous philanthropist and a highly competent, if less generous, manager of the family fortune, keeping the purse strings, and hence her various dependents, close. She was also an effective and tireless campaigner for education reform, but reform is ‘seldom a glamorous subject’, as Seymour admits, and from the moment Ada Byron becomes audible she dominates the narrative. Ada made herself heard at an early age. Writing to a younger cousin, assuring him of her affection, she continued: ‘No more about this at present for should your death take you from me though I do not feel it much now I should when it happened.’ She was seven. She had already coined the word ‘gobblebook’ to describe her feverish reading. At 11, while experimenting with various kinds of paper wings, she informed her mother that she would ‘bring the art of flying’ to such a pitch that ‘I think of writing a book of Flyology illustrated with plates.’ Augustus de Morgan, the ‘witty, intelligent and empathetic’ mathematician who took on the task of tutoring Ada’s equally brilliant but often unruly mind, found that she evinced an intelligence ‘utterly out of the common way for … man, or woman’. Her energy and charm, encouraged by her mother, enabled her to study mathematics at the highest level and engage with the best scientific minds of her generation, Mary Somerville, Michael Faraday, William Whewell and Charles Babbage among them.
The passion for numbers and experiments was inherited from Annabella, who was christened by Byron on one of their happier days ‘Princess of Parallelograms’, but in Ada it was shot through with her father’s imaginative genius, which came out in bad poetry and inspired science. She has been at times disparaged as an intellectual butterfly, her discoveries largely due to luck. She was undoubtedly given to abrupt changes of enthusiasm. Typically, while in the grip of a mania for the harp, she absent-mindedly ordered three at once. But her achievements were not serendipitous. If an intelligence so ‘out of the common way’ in its combination of impulse and insight could be compared with another it might be that of John Aubrey, the 17th-century antiquary, who was also often written off as credulous or whimsical. Aubrey discovered the stone circle at Avebury, invented archaeology, architectural history, modern biography and oral history, but left an archive so vast and chaotic it took centuries for his genius to be appreciated. In Ada’s case it took less than a hundred years. It was in the 1930s, when Alan Turing drew attention to the originality of her work, that Ada got her due, up to a point. In hailing her as ‘the first computer programmer’, posterity makes a claim that is not so much exaggerated as anachronistic. In their brief, well-illustrated and lucid account of her career, Hollings, Martin and Rice all firmly distance themselves from any aspirations to ‘relevance’ as might be implied by the book’s presentation, while Seymour, who gives a less detailed account of the mathematics, offers an illuminating view of the context.
Hindsight, which complicates the biographer’s task, can make the history of science appear all too simple. Peaks of discovery rise above the wasteland of crackpot theories, failed experiments and false premises. But the teleological account of winners and losers distorts the reality of scientific research at ground level. Newton believed as fully in numerology as in gravity. Ada and her mother, who pursued their shared scientific interests together, made strenuous efforts to help Babbage raise funds to build his Analytical Engine, the ‘thinking machine’, as Ada called it. To this end she translated from French Luigi Menabrea’s description of it, adding appendices of her own which constituted 41 of the final 66 pages. Of these it was the last, ‘Note G’, which explains Bernoulli numbers and how they would function in the engine’s calculations, that contained the ‘extraordinary accomplishment’ on which her reputation rests. But Ada and her mother, like many of their thoughtful contemporaries, also took phrenology seriously as a form of diagnostic science. They were interested in mesmerism, though Ada later rejected it, and at the same time as they were nominated among the earliest members of the British Meteorological Society, they were visiting William Rutter to watch his experiments with rotating balls of wax. These appeared to behave differently in the hands of men and women, a phenomenon that Rutter linked to accounts of spirit rapping and levitation. His theory was based on the effects of electromagnetism rather than the supernatural, but at the outer limits of knowledge it was not easy always to see the difference.
Ada lived through the period when ‘natural philosophy’ was becoming ‘science’, and it was her friend William Whewell who coined the word ‘scientist’. She was a product, a child, all but literally, of the brief moment when it was possible to talk of Romantic science, in which the most famous episode is the house party gathered around Ada’s father at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in 1816. Byron, the Shelleys, Claire Clairmont and Byron’s physician, John Polidori, spent the ‘wet ungenial’ summer inventing stories. Mary Shelley’s became her novel, Frankenstein, a retelling of the myth of Pygmalion in which the artificial creation of life moves for the first time from the artist’s studio to the scientist’s laboratory, never to return. The Enlightenment experimented with clockwork, trying to reproduce digestion, speech and thought in increasingly complicated pieces of craftsmanship. Now, quite suddenly, that moment had passed and Ada personified the change. When she visited Babbage for the first time he assumed that a young woman would like to see his ‘silver lady’, a glamorous automaton who balanced a mechanical bird on her fingers. Ada walked straight past it to look at the steam-driven calculating machine. Seymour, who has written a life of Mary Shelley, has tried to find proof that she and Ada met. It seems likely that they did, though no firm evidence has emerged. More important, however, is the undeniable line of intellectual descent from the author of Frankenstein to the self-described ‘bride of science’ and her collaboration with Babbage, the ‘logarithmetical Frankenstein’ of the London Literary Gazette.
Yet despite her mathematical achievements and the desire to become ‘a completely professional person’, respected by her scientific peers, Ada was fated to be known in her lifetime chiefly as Byron’s daughter, with all the attendant risks. At 19 she realised her mother’s worst fears when it transpired that Ada’s interest in Annabella’s charitable allotment scheme in Ealing was largely due to the availability of a garden shed in which to meet William Turner, who was supposed to be teaching her shorthand, but with whom she attempted to elope. After this the quest for a respectable husband became urgent. It settled on William King, later earl of Lovelace. The marriage was based on real affection and was a considerable success for some time, although the bride of science made no secret of the fact that she found children, including her own, boring. ‘The less I have habitually to do with [them] the better for them & me.’ As usual, ‘before the marriage came the settlements’ and King, whose own fortune was ‘sufficient though not ample’ in Annabella’s opinion, found himself, like Byron before him, entertaining hopes of inheritance which depended, in this case, on his mother-in-law’s death. Yet despite her apparently fragile health Annabella kept a firm hold on life and also on Ada by means of a modest allowance of £300 a year. Meanwhile beyond the fairly harmonious family circle lay the minefield of Byron’s legacy. His half-sister, Augusta, their daughter, Medora, and Byron’s last love, the heavily veiled Countess Teresa Guiccioli, lurked like the Fates.
Augusta, with whom Annabella made considerable efforts to stay on good terms, seems fully to have deserved her sister-in-law’s diagnosis of ‘moral idiocy’. Despite the need to keep up a respectable front in her marriage to the virtual cypher that was George Leigh, she cheerfully announced in 1828 that her son-in-law, Henry Trevanion, had got £300 from a publisher for a collection of Byron’s letters. Exactly how much would have been revealed by this correspondence about her relationship with her brother or about Medora’s true parentage is not clear because Annabella joined forces with Hobhouse to stop it, whereupon Augusta pronounced herself ‘very hurt’ and asked for money. When, after a further wrangle over a new trustee for Byron’s estate, Augusta wrote to ‘forgive freely, all and everything that has antagonised and I may say almost destroyed me’ it was the last straw. The breach with Annabella lasted a decade, during which time a mare’s nest of entanglements among Augusta’s daughters and the lecherous Trevanion, unwanted pregnancies and more demands for money culminated in Georgiana Leigh telling Medora that they were only half-sisters and that she was Byron’s daughter. The gunpowder trail thus lit in the mind of this ‘outrageously charming’ but incurably mendacious young woman, the mother of three illegitimate children with one of whom she was now living in France to avoid more scandal, blew up in 1840. Medora let news reach Annabella that she was dying, which she wasn’t, and, having been rescued and set up at considerable expense under an assumed name in the Place Vendôme, she went on to unfold an incredible tale, which was nevertheless believed by Annabella and even her more sensible friends, about her mother more or less selling her into prostitution. For Ada, so long used to the advantages and dangers of her position as Byron’s only child, the eruption of this harpy of a half-sister was deeply disturbing. Medora for her part was envious of Ada, and in 1842 she created a scene, the violence of which Annabella admitted she had never seen or heard, even from Byron himself. Yet still, with a touching sense of obligation to the human wreckage of Byron’s career, she did not break off all relations.
Ada meanwhile, to her mother’s discomfiture, began to take an interest in her father on her own account. Inevitably, her version of him was at odds with her mother’s ‘increasingly distorted view’. A visit to the Byrons’ ancestral seat, Newstead Abbey, last resting place of ‘all my wicked forefathers’, made Ada resolve to be buried there herself and this re-engagement coincided with, or perhaps precipitated, the emergence in her of one of the most unfortunate Byron family traits, gambling. The last and worst of Ada’s inventions was a system for betting on horses, which failed, but not before the Lovelace diamonds had been pawned, twice. By this time Ada was seriously ill. Her health had been undermined by some undiagnosed condition in childhood, after which a cervical ulcer had been followed by uterine cancer. In constant pain, she nevertheless tried to use her illness as a subject for research. ‘I walk about … in a molecular laboratory,’ she wrote and began to wonder if there might be some parallel between Babbage’s engine and the workings of the human nervous system. By now her marriage was collapsing, and her son, the ‘small and stubborn’ Viscount Ockham, was happier at sea or in hiding than with his family. ‘Life is so difficult,’ Ada wrote with poignant understatement. She died, by agonising degrees, in 1852, aged 36. There followed another holocaust of papers. Annabella survived her until 1860, by which time she was widely respected both for her philanthropy and her heroic forbearance in never speaking publicly about her marriage or its scandalous aftermath. Her reputation, however, had a life of its own in which it continued to suffer vacillating fortunes.
The scandals of the Romantic age appeared more, or rather differently, scandalous to the Victorians: ‘What a set! What a world!’ Matthew Arnold’s verdict spoke for his generation’s high-minded disdain for their parents and the Vanity Fair of the Regency. Elizabeth Barrett Browning said that she would not wish even to touch Annabella’s hand, as if degeneracy were contagious. Prim young Florence Nightingale, who knew and liked Annabella, apparently felt the same. Horrified that Ada should have been buried at Newstead, she ‘thought of the words “conceived in sin” and what an account that man, her father, has to render … and wondered they should like to bring her near him in her death’. Annabella’s last bid for dignified silence had been to instruct her trustees that her correspondence was to be sealed for thirty years. This backfired in several directions. Harriet Martineau, who was first off the mark with an affectionate biography, had little to buttress her account of the infamous marriage. Then, eight years later, Teresa Guiccioli, now settled in Paris as the widowed Marquise de Boissy, stepped out of the shadows, like a character from a melodrama, poignard in hand. Her Lord Byron jugé par les témoins de sa vie cast her as Byron’s chaste Beatrice and Annabella as the cold-hearted, spoiled wife who was happy, by her silence, to incriminate Byron and Augusta. An enthusiastic review in Blackwood’s magazine played up the Grand Guignol, accusing Lady Byron of generating ‘a poisonous miasma in which she enveloped the character of her husband … O God forgive her.’ It caused a sensation. Still more of a catastrophe was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘True Story’, published in the Atlantic Monthly. Stowe ‘unburdened by the facts’ got her chronology wrong in such a way as to imply that Annabella was already married to Byron at the time of his affair with Augusta and the birth of Medora, making her complicit in the incestuous liaison. The reaction nearly sank the Atlantic; fifteen thousand readers cancelled their subscriptions. Soon other journals were coming out in defence of the ‘retired, gentle, pure’ Augusta Leigh, while one Charles Larkin did a brisk trade in tickets for his lecture in Newcastle on ‘The Byron Scandal’.
By this time the recalcitrant Viscount Ockham, Byron King-Noel, was dead. He died in a cottage hospital in Wimbledon at the age of 26 and has no known grave. His brother, Ralph, and sister, Anne, were left to face the storm of newspaper stories, most of them exaggerated and many invented. They felt as ‘though they had been driven out into a storm, stark naked’. Ralph spent the rest of his life writing Astarte, or A Fragment of the Truth, a voluminous account which remains ‘a cobwebbed treasure trove for Byron scholars’ but not enough to vindicate Annabella. Only in the present century have she and Ada had their due from Julia Markus, and now from Seymour, most handsomely.