Podium: A thoroughly Victorian remedy

Taken from a speech given by the author of 'The Bride of Science' during the recent Guildford Book Festival
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The Independent Culture
BYRON'S DAUGHTER, Augusta Ada Byron, never once met her father. In her upbringing, her mother, Annabella Milbanke, aimed to ensure that there was no trace of Byron in Ada's makeup, so his daughter received tutoring in mathematics and music, disciplines to counter any dangerous poetic tendencies possibly lurking.

Unfortunately for Annabella, it wasn't possible to drain all Byron's blood from his daughter. She proved to be a wilful child, and a succession of crises culminated in her attempting to elope with a tutor when she was 18. Dragged back, now so scared that she had no control over what she called "unnatural feelings, mental and bodily", she agreed to a programme of reform.

Ada was probably hard at work when the carriage drew up to Ockham Park. Its cargo was a large, flat package - a present from her mother. To innocent eyes, the gift sealed inside would have seemed a generous and fitting one: an heirloom that celebrated the bloodline which Ada, just married and expecting her first child, was carrying into future generations. Those familiar with Ada's life and susceptibilities would have thought differently. To them it was a potential parcel bomb. If handled incorrectly, it could devastate its recipient's life the moment it was opened.

Someone was on hand to try to prevent this from happening: Ada's mentor, Dr William King. A physician, lunatic asylum manager, devout evangelical Christian and enthusiastic promoter of the Co-operative Movement, Dr King knew a lot about moral incontinence, the disease it was feared Ada had inherited from her father Lord Byron. He had saved her from ruination by prescribing a course of trigonometry and sums.

The medicine had worked. Barely a year after she had nearly plunged to her destruction, she'd married the very respectable William, become pregnant, acquired a reputation as an intellectual bright light in the scientific firmament of London, and for the first time shown herself to be properly submissive to her mother's will. There was now not a trace of her father's romantic licentiousness in her. She was a thoroughly modern young woman.

Possibly even the clipped wings of Dr King's emotions experienced a little flutter when the moment arrived for the present to be opened. After so much mathematical training, so much exposure to the latest ideas about natural philosophy and physical laws, would her reaction be a scientific one - detached observation focused by a certain amount of curiosity? Or would it be of a more dangerous sort, an unreasoning, instinctive, passionate engagement with what she saw?

The sealed casket was opened, the packaging removed, and for the first time in her life Ada beheld the life-size face of her father. The portrait of Byron that Annabella had given her created the image by which its subject would be for ever recognised. It depicted him dressed in Albanian costume, clasping a ceremonial sword, his high forehead wrapped in a billowing turban with a braided silk tassel that cascaded over his shoulder like a tress of hair, his long, smooth jawline containing just a hint of the shape of Ada's own, his cupid's-bow lips framed by a pencil-thin moustache above and a prominent dimpled chin below.

It was a picture Ada had passed many times. When as a little girl she had stayed with her grandparents at their Leicestershire seat, Kirkby Mallory, it had hung over the mantelpiece. When her mother took refuge at Kirkby a year after her marriage to Byron and a month after her daughter's birth, a curtain was drawn over it.

Now, just turned 20, armed with the reflective shield of science and Victorian morality, Ada could safely behold this moral Medusa, and did so without flinching. Dr King could reassure himself that his remedy had worked, that she had passed the ultimate test, confronted the man whose countenance was so dangerous that even a glance at his face was once considered potentially fatal. As Lady Lovell, a friend of Ada's mother, had warned her own daughter when she spotted Byron during a visit to Rome: "Don't look at him, he's dangerous to look at."

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