Friday 19 April 2024

Ada Lovelace - by Sue Purkiss

 On a recent stay on Exmoor, I came across an article about someone called Ada Lovelace. I had vaguely heard of her, but if you'd asked me why, I wouldn't have been able to tell you. Yet she turns out to have been a fascinating and significant character - in a number of different ways. 

Born in 1815, she was the only legitimate child of Lord George Gordon Byron, who was famous as much for his scandalous, buccaneering lifestyle as for his status as one of the Romantic poets. His shadow would loom over her life - she called her sons Byron and Gordon; yet she never met him: he and her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke (known as Annabella), separated a month after Ada was born, and he subsequently left England for Europe, never to return. He died in Greece eight years later. Part of the reason for his departure was the amount of scandal surrounding his love life - in particular a probable relationship with his half-sister Augusta. These were the things that pushed him, but there was also something that pulled him: an irresistible craving for adventure, and for a life unshackled by the mores of English society.

Ada Lovelace

Annabella, left with her child, does not seem to have been a particularly affectionate mother, largely handing over the care of Ada to her own mother; but she did have strong views about how the child was to be brought up. Disturbed by Byron's behaviour and black moods, she had come to believe he was insane, and she determined to protect her daughter from insanity by means of education: Ada was to be taught mathematics and logic, and kept away from the dangerous possibilities of literature. One of her tutors was eminent mathemetician and astronomer Mary Somerville - after whom Somerville College in Oxford was later named - and the two became good friends. Ada seemed to have a natural propensity for science: when she was twelve, she decided she was going to learn to fly, and she went about her project methodically and seriously, deciding on suitable materials for wings and studying the anatomy of birds.

Her interest in mathematics continued, and she became friends with the eminent scientist Charles Babbage, working with him on his Analytical Engine, which is often said to be the first computer. Another eminent scientist, Michael Faraday, was impressed by the scientific papers she wrote on the workings of the engine; she saw possibilities as to how it might be used in a way which was over a hundred years ahead of her time. This was a time, remember, when new ideas were bubbling up in all sorts of different spheres: technology, botany, agriculture, ballooning, astronomy, the use of electricity - and, of course, in literature too. Byron himself was one of a group of successful poets including Shelley and Keats, with Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey at a slight remove, all of whom, to a greater or lesser degree, plundered the worlds of science for imagery and ideas.

Ashley Combe House (now demolished)

In 1835, Ada married William, the eighth Baron King, later to become the Earl of Lovelace. The main family home was in Surrey - but they honeymooned at another family house on Exmoor, near Porlock Weir, called Ashley Combe. The house was on the steeply wooded slopes of the north coast, with dramatic views of the Bristol Channel. It's a stunningly beautiful area, and it's no surprise that Ada came to love it. She returned there frequently, and she and William redesigned the house, turning it into an opulent Italianate mansion - and they also improved the woodlands, planting exotic trees and creating dramatic viewpoints and a network of paths: she and Babbage discussed their ideas as they walked along these paths, perhaps ending up at the tiny Anglo-Saxon Culbone Church. These woods are a focus of interest again now: along the cliffs are pockets of temperate rain forest, where trees are hosts for lichens and mosses and ferns, thanks to the damp air which sweeps in from the west. Like many other nature-rich habitats in Britain, temperate rain forests have declined, so any remnants are doubly precious - and Ada played her part in protecting them.

She died young, at only 36 - the same age as her father. Like him, she had a life which didn't follow the expected pattern for her time and milieu. Her name is less well-known than his - yet arguably, she achieved far more. Sadly, she became estranged from her husband just months before her death; her mother swept in to care for her. Rather poignantly, she requested to be buried beside the father she had never known, in Nottinghamshire, near his ancestral home, Newstead Abbey.


Susan Price said...

Ada Lovelace was a fascinating character.
I recommend Sydney Padua's 'Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage' -- very funny!

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, Sue!

Penny Dolan said...

Ada is such an intriguing character. Even though she had so many strong influences in her background, how did all that come together within this one girl? How was she as gifted as she was?

I am inspired by the idea of Ada being interested in tree species ad tree-planting in the grounds of the house. Whenever I see this great specimens, wonder who is funding or planting the great tree landscapes of the future now and the skilled hands-on people to look after them?

Thanks for your interesting post, Sue.

Lesley Downer said...

Lovely piece! Being married to a scientist I'd heard a bit about Ada - what a fascinating woman!

Sue Purkiss said...

Thank you, Penny and Lesley!