The Scandalous Poet’s Daughter

Sometimes a well-written book fails to satisfy simply because it isn’t what the reader wanted or expected. This was largely, but not entirely, the case for me with Jennifer Chiaverini’s book Enchantress of Numbers.

I bought the book at Book Passage in Corte Madera. The book was on a display of biographies. Ada Lovelace’s name appeared on the cover, so I grabbed it. I think Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, is one of the most interesting women of early nineteenth-century Britain, and I thought I was getting a biography. If I had looked more closely, I would have seen the word “novel” both on the front and the back of the book.

Chiaverini is known for historical novels, and if I read a lot of historical novels I would have recognized the name. Ultimately, though, I picked this up expecting a biography, and found out it was a novel.

I got over my disappointment and continued to read. The novel disappointed me again, though, by choosing to emphasize the parts of Ada Byron King’s life that are least interesting to me: mostly, her famous, scandalous parentage, and her inherited fame. Ada was the daughter of George Gordon, Lord Byron. She was his only legitimate child, although her parents divorced in a high-profile divorce shortly after she was born.

Ada Byron King was fascinated by mathematics, was a friend of Charles Babbage, and may have invented the first computer program. (That’s disputable, but even the disputes are interesting.) She was fascinated by Babbage’s Analytical Engine, and suggested ways to improve it. She translated and then expanded upon a treatise written by a French scientist; Byron King’s notes and additions made the concept of the engine vastly more accessible and understandable.

Most of that is in Enchantress of Numbers, but it’s touched on lightly. It might make up fifteen percent of the book. Chiaverini doesn’t bother to imagine what thinking about mathematics might be like. She writes sentences, in Ada’s first-person voice, like, “I worked on the algorithm.”

I wanted so much more.

And I wanted so much less of the Cinderella-style take on Ada’s childhood. Ada’s mother, Anabella Milbanke, was both neglectful and controlling of her daughter. Her fear that Ada would somehow inherit Lord Byron’s crazy and selfish behavior made her ban poetry and fairy tales from her daughter’s life, instead having her tutored in natural science and mathematics. Young Ada grew up with no children her own age. The book portrays her in youth as lonely, somewhat introverted and very sheltered.

Milbanke was an educated woman in her own right. She was very interested in a system of public education in a country that didn’t have that, and she funded several schools for working-class children. It’s clear from history that right or wrong she believed the worst of her former husband, while still managing to admire his poetry. Her fear that Ada had inherited “bad blood” was plausible for her time, although it does not explain or imagine explanations for some of the choices Milbanke makes once Ada is a adult and married.

In the novel, we see Annabelle, who believes she has weak health, frequently decamping to various spa towns, leaving Ada with a trio of her unmarried women friends, who Ada calls The Three Furies. One disappointment in this book is that the Furies are presented basically as an aggregate character, the Wicked Stepmother function in a story with no fairy godmother. According to Ada’s first-person narration, they dislike her, and always tattle on her, casting everything she does in the worst light as they write their reports to her mother. This may have been true; it would have been nice to see the motivations of the Furies, if only later in the book, perhaps through Ada’s adult eyes. Maybe one of them was truly envious of Ada’s place, or maybe they were genuinely worried that she’d go the way of her father. Maybe they were just sour, unhappy women. We never know.

Annabella and Ada are both smart, passionate, complicated (and often inconsistent) women. Since mathematics and the working of Ada Byron’s excellent mind weren’t going to be the focus after all, more depth in the fraught relationship between these two women would have been nice. Instead, somewhat ironically, we get the very thing Ada says repeatedly that she does not want; we get the story of Scandalous Lord Byron and His Daughter. Chiaverini can’t tear herself away from the marriage and subsequent Separation; from the rumor (which Annabelle believed whole-heartedly) of Byron’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister and the possibility that they had a child together. While Ada Byron King, like her mother, ultimately helped support the other woman who claimed Lord Bryon as her father, this story was not Ada’s at all. The book shifts away from the interesting stuff about Ada time and time again, however, to dwell on the old scandal.

Chiaverini spends more time describing Ada’s dress for her first Season in London than she does on any of the mathematics. Most disappointingly, she talks about young Ada’s fascination with flying and the time she spends as a child in a DaVinci-like pursuit of a flying apparatus. Ada tells us she “worked on the formula,” but we never see, through her eyes, a sketch, or a model made of paper (we’re told there are some in her room) or, well, anything. I would have loved to have seen this keen young mind imagining a device that allowed her to fly.

If you want to read about a nineteenth-century thinker, scientist and influencer overcoming the sexism of her time, don’t read Enchantress of Numbers. On the other hand, if you want to read a pretty interesting story of two strong women of the British aristocracy during the early days of the Victorian period, Enchantress of Numbers might be for you.

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