Books: Biological calculating machine

The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason and Byron's Daughter by Benjamin Woolley Macmillan pounds 20
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Though there have been many biographies of her father Lord Byron, famously bad, mad and dangerous to know, Benjamin Woolley's absorbing, meticulous and beautifully written account of the life of his almost equally remarkable daughter, Ada, is long overdue.

As celebrities go, Byron was one of the first, a man whose poetry sold in quantities that rivalled today's bestsellers if literary standards and literacy rates are adjusted accordingly. He was every woman's fantasy, an early victim of stalking, a man whose death in Greece was the cause of national grief almost unfettered by the fact that he had left the country in 1816 a traitorous supporter of Napoleon, a debtor and a man whose wife had left him because of his immorality, cruelty and an insanity which doctors insisted was the product of a diseased imagination and not, as she first hoped, "water on the brain".

In 1815, the year of Wellington's great victory at Waterloo, Byron made one of the more dangerous and improbable liaisons in literary history when he met and married Annabella Milbanke, the woman he christened the Princess of Parallelograms. It was an off-on courtship which baffled many who knew them, and one which Woolley sees as a symbol of two emergent and contrasting worlds: romance and reason, passion and improvement, spontaneity and calculation. Byron, creator of Childe Harold, was the embodiment of the Romantic movement which elevated man to the position of a deity, one whose adherence to moral scrupulousness and fair play was nothing when set against dark desires and the demands of the free spirit. Annabella was a bluestocking, reserved, prudent, enquiring and keen to improve herself, courtesy of the mathematical and scientific thinkers of the time. The marriage was a disaster: on the night of Ada's birth, Byron reduced his young bride to tears and then kept her awake all night by what she took to be the poet hurling soda-water bottles at the ceiling. As it transpired, it was merely Byron indulging in "his odd habit of knocking off bottle- tops with a poker".

There were more serious reasons for her to worry: strong rumours of Byron's homosexuality and details of sodomy at Harrow; the likelihood that Byron was the father of his half-sister Augusta's child; even hints of a terrible crime which haunted the creator of Don Juan and could have been murder itself. Lady Byron soon grew sick of a household invaded by creditors and bailiffs, and populated by her beetle-browed, suicidal and unattentive husband and his boozy pals.

Acrimony so infected Ada's upbringing that she wasn't shown her father's picture until she was 20. By then she had already proved herself the child of both parents: both with her early scientific enquiry and obsession with flying machines, and in a teenage fling with a tutor which, according to one contemporary source, went as far as it could "without complete penetration". It was hushed up.

Ada seemed to inherit her mother's hypochondria, but was weakened early in life by a paralysis which rendered her almost blind in 1829. Woolley sees an element of psychosomatic disorder in this, for Ada was a lonely, frustrated child brought up by a mother who proved to be more scheming than caring, an absentee parent who often left the girl in the charge of strict governess and a coven of Annabella's spinsterish friends whom Ada dubbed "the Furies".

But the lonely child grew to be an extraordinary adult, teeming with the thirst for knowledge which typified her starchy mother but carrying on her tortured father's commitment to sexual experimentation, fast living and massive debt. Ada became a great devotee of the turf, and as her father was the focus of an admiring and glittering social throng, so Ada met, conversed and worked with the great movers of the Victorian age: with Charles Babbage, whose "thinking machine", a mechanical contraption which anticipated the computer by over a century, she instinctively understood. She met Dickens and was close to Andrew Crosse, whose sometimes bizarre experiments with electricity led many to presume that he was the model for Mary Shelley's Dr Frankenstein.

An intellectual and calming influence was mathematician Mary Somerville, although Woolley refuses to find any real sign of early feminism in Ada despite the claims of several books and articles from the 1980s which based their assumptions on her refusal "to accept limits set by men". Unlike her mother, who argued about whether atoms had gender with Byron, Ada, believes Woolley, "did what she did on behalf of herself, not her sex". In 1960 the US Department of Defence decided to name its standard computer language used to control its military machine after this unique woman whose own attempts to fuse the world of her unsuited and warring parents she dubbed "poetical science".

As a work which captures the intellectual and scientific impulses of a period that stretched from Waterloo to the Great Exhibition, this is a superbly intelligent and muscular achievement, but one which is also deeply moving. And Woolley's prose, while always elegant and judicious, often crackles with imagistic invention: Byron and Annabella meeting are "as still as a pair of cast-iron firedogs"; Lady Byron at the time of her husband's death is "marooned on a salt lake of sanctity". And of Ada's proposition of a "calculus of the nervous system", formulated at a time when she had experienced severe mental breakdown, he calls it a form of "intellectual murder ... Nothing but a few spinning cogs and Jacquard cards in a biological calculating machine".

On her death bed, Ada, attended by her mother and her husband William King, first Earl of Lovelace, made a final confession while racked with the agonies of cancer of the womb. She had behaved badly, had failed to heed the voice of experience and had taken scientific experimentation too far, "experimented with the precious, God-given gift of life as though it were so much electricity or molecular matter". She had also, she admitted, fallen prey to the idolatrous admirers of her father. She had not only admired the poet, but the man, and had thus been tempted to look unfavourably on her own mother. She was 36 years old, this extraordinary woman who dabbled in the new ideas of her time - phrenology, the nervous system, materialism - and yet whose death was as sad and as self-deprecating as any in Victorian fiction.