Books: Theories of probability

Romantic heroine, computer pioneer: Byron's daughter led an amazing life. But we probably need a better version than this.
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The Bride of Science: romance, reason and Byron's daughter

by Benjamin Woolley

Macmillan, pounds 18.99, 416pp

It is an amazing story: the birth, loveless childhood, teenage elopement (terminated, hushed up), and marriage to an Earl of the woman who in 1844, before she was 30, wrote a scientific paper which anticipated computer programming by a century; whose name the US Defense Department gave to its programming language and whose year of birth was commemorated in its military standard number, MIL-STD-1815. This was Byron's daughter (the one born in wedlock), Ada Lovelace.

How did wedlock get any grip at all on Byron? Annabella Millbanke was a moral, chilly, strong-minded heiress with an active interest in contemporary science, who specialised in character assassination by post. Byron played along with this; she felt he really believed he needed reforming.

Her money, his need to escape other snares, and the piquancy of someone so totally incompatible led to what must be the worst honeymoon on record, in a country house near Durham. Byron began the bridal journey singing Albanian songs. His first English words came as the bells of Durham Cathedral welcomed them. "Ringing for our happiness?" he murmured sarcastically.

According to Annabella, he walked away the minute the carriage stopped; then roughly consummated things on the drawing-room sofa. They spent weeks there in conditions so arctic Annabella tied the ring to a frozen finger with black ribbon. Later, the happy couple visited Byron's half-sister Augusta. While engaged with Augusta, Byron barred Annabella from the drawing-room, only joining her in bed when Augusta had a period. His alleged daughter with Augusta was Medora (whom Annabella, decades later, would rescue from financial straits). Ada, Annabella's daughter, was born a year after the marriage.

Byron saw her for a split second; then Annabella decamped with the cradle. Byron left England, to die in Greece after commemorating his daughter in lines that would haunt her:

Is thy face like thy mother's, my fair child?

ADA! Sole daughter of my house and heart?

When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled,

And when we parted - not as now we part,

But with a hope -

Awaking with a start,

The waters heave around me; and on high

The winds lift up their voices: I depart,

Whither I know not, but the hour's gone by.

Annabella brought her daughter up by remote control. A group of dragonish female friends monitored Ada's progress and reported. Afraid Byron's madness and badness might erupt in the child, Annabella wanted all poetry bred out of her: the important thing was moral progress.

A portrait of Byron in Albanian costume hung over the fireplace at Ada's grandparents' Leicestershire home. It was covered with a curtain when she visited. She did not know what Byron looked like until she was 20 - married, with a child of her own - when her mother sent her that painting as a merry Christmas present.

Annabella placed scientific (which also meant meddlesomely psychological) monitors around Ada too. With her character spied on and quashed, Ada rebelled. She had teenage "nerve storms", violent fluctuations in weight, and an escapade with a tutor. But she also grew intensely interested in science, which Annabella encouraged as antidote to poetry; she was obviously brilliantly imaginative, and intellectually impetuous.

Developing her science and research throughout the 1830s and 1840s, she became glitteringly outspoken as well as scientifically acclaimed. Relations with her insanely self-righteous mother were terrible; her main emotional stay became sexually-charged friendships with men of science. She died of uterine cancer in the 1850s, doped to the eyeballs on opium, experimenting with cannabis, causing havoc among her husband, mother and admirer.

But stories are one thing; storytellers another. Benjamin Woolley has done an admirable amount of research but it comes out in lumps of fascinating but half-digested detail. This book reveals no grounding in the two subjects essential for a real picture of Ada's work: nuanced scholarship in 19th-century women, plus the history and philosophy of science. No mention, for instance, of the problematic role metaphor plays in scientific invention. Nor is psychology a forte: Diana, Her True Story is its preferred model of woman's life.

As writer, Woolley belongs to the school which says that if you throw enough cliched metaphor at your interpretations you do not need to provide much evidence for them. When Byron "lay with Annabella in their hotbed of hellfire, he was in torment, like the child locked in an oven - the Victorian description of damnation." Is there any evidence that Byron thought about it like that? When Ada visited her father's old home, "she could smell her family's past emerge from it like hot, pungent breath." This flood of seeming knowingness, attributing important feelings on no given evidence, makes for an unbelievably irritating read.

The sloppiness does not stop there. Maybe you will not need perfect grammar to write biography in the next millennium, but in this one a copy editor could have eradicated passages in which Woolley writes "who" for "whom"; or his split infinitives. To be even more brutal about this poor book with a wonderful subject, sometimes I did not think it was copy-edited at all. Words hang over from previous drafts: "The portrait of Byron that had hung over mantelpiece" (no "the"); "at the same time as he had was [sic] corresponding with Annabella he had been spending more time with his half-sister". "From" is sometimes "form"; "had" is once spelt "haOd." If you buy it, you should ask for a discount for technical defects.

Britain has a fantastic appetite for biography. To feed it, we have evolved some fantastically high standards - of evidence, of writing, and of distinguishing between interpretation and fact. But "probably", Woolley's third word in Chapter One, is the main way you have to take this book. Woolley concentrates Ada's courtship, for example, into a London carriage ride, when "Ada no doubt talked excitedly about her ideas... By the Thames, he might have started to talk... On such a warm summer's day they might even have exchanged a kiss".

By the end of the first chapter, I had lost any trust in the precise truth of what he was saying. Woolley is fascinated by these lives, has done a lot of work, and tells a racy story. But you become, as you read, increasingly put off by the over-heated, sloppy way he tells it.