Book Review

The daughter of a poet genius was a genius in her own right

By Donna Bruno
Posted 4/2/24

‘Enchantress of Numbers’ By Jennifer Chiaverini

Anyone who has taken a course in British literature will be familiar with the most lionized of Romantic poets, Geroge Gordon, Lord …

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Book Review

The daughter of a poet genius was a genius in her own right


‘Enchantress of Numbers’
By Jennifer Chiaverini

Anyone who has taken a course in British literature will be familiar with the most lionized of Romantic poets, Geroge Gordon, Lord Byron, who was described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Such would prove true for his young wife, Arabella Milbanke, who married him in 1815.

Besotted with his handsome good looks, she ignored warnings of his erratic behavior and family history of instability, as well as his insistence that he was guilty of some unknown, unpardonable sin. Together with other young females, she was greatly impressed by the evocative phrases of this “genius,” whose most admired poem was “She Walks in Beauty Like the Night.”

When he described his beloved as “all that’s best of dark and bright … meet in her aspect and her eyes …” Arabella hoped he was referring to her. Highly intelligent, wealthy, and well educated, Arabella believed that she could rehabilitate this libertine notorious for his licentious behavior, and his flouting of tradition.                             She might have known his proclivities when soon after her marriage, Arabella found him entwined with his beloved sister Ada in his library playing their unique “kissing game.” Cruelly, he instructed her to go to bed and leave them at their play.

An innocent 18-year-old, the young wife was too naïve` to realize the incest right before her eyes. Years later she would learn of a child from this union of siblings.

Even during his wife’s pregnancy, Byron flaunted his affair with actress Susan Boyce. When his outrageous behavior drove her to despair, she began to consult textbooks and experts on mental illness. Eventually she would leave him with their seven-week-old baby Ada to return to her parents, who provided this grandchild with unwavering, unconditional love.

Extremely precocious, Ada was considered a prodigy who excelled in mathematics and enjoyed taking apart clocks and musical boxes, then reassembling them perfectly. At age 12, she was experimenting with the creation of a flying machine and studying the anatomy of birds to this end. She set up a lab with cables and ropes and pulleys which her mother insisted be dismantled.

As a result of these restrictions, she was profoundly lonely, since her mother traveled incessantly and she lacked playmates her own age. Consequently, the youngster began to experience throbbing headaches, weakness, and paralysis. Securing a physician, the mother allowed him to use leeches – little sucking worms – applied to the child’s scalp to suck what was believed to be impurities.

Her mother constantly referred to the “abundance of Byron blood” running through the child’s veins and forbid her nannies to expose her to anything that might stimulate her imagination. One devoted, exemplary, and beloved caretaker would be abruptly dismissed because she told the child fairy stories.

Bereft, the tot became rebellious, given to tantrums, refusing to eat, hiding at bedtime. One governess lasted only a week, another only a day, a third only a few hours. Around her second birthday, Ada realized that “if she loved anyone too much, they would be taken away.”

The reader feels great empathy for this desolate child, whose losses become monumental, especially when both grandparents pass and she learns of her father’s death in Greece. All her life, she yearned to know him, would eagerly seek out anyone with whom he was acquainted. He too must have been thinking of her when in his poetry, he wrote: “Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child? Sole daughter of my …heart. When last I saw thy young blue eyes, they smiled.”

She cherishes a locket containing a curl of his hair that he sent to her requesting one of hers. Although her mother demanded the girl not read his works, she allowed her to be schooled in math, science, geography, and languages; Ada excelled in all.

She will fall deeply in love with one young tutor, but her mother will thwart their elopement. When she meets William Lord King, 8th Baron of Ockham, part of his appeal will be his encouragement of her scholarly pursuits, as well as offering an escape from her dominating mother.

One invention that sparks Ada’s imagination is the mechanical jacquard loom able to weave complex patterns and elaborate designs by punched cards interacting with hooks and harness. She marvels at this revolutionary invention that is 25 times faster than the traditional one. In addition, she becomes intrigued by the traction piping railroad, employing a system of vacuum, tubes, pistons, and pumps.

Moreover, she will coordinate her efforts with an esteemed mathematician Mr. Babbage in his construction of an analytical engine for which her design to generate a table of numbers is considered the first computer program.

This is a most informative book about a little-known female, the first computer programmer who had a vision of what future computers could do. Ada always wished to be considered for her own accomplishments, not merely a curiosity as the daughter of the notorious Lord Byron.

She succumbed to uterine cancer at age 36, a tragic loss since she never had a chance to discover the fullness of that energy and power. The author skillfully evokes myriad emotions in the reader as she acquaints you with the painful losses and rigid discipline to which Ada was subjected.

Her domineering mother repeatedly strove not only to dampen her daughter’s keen interests and inquisitive mind, but to extinguish her intellectual curiosity entirely. We are saddened by Ada’s lonely and deprived childhood and cringe as she suffers one loss after another. In the end, all her mother’s dictatorial restrictions and censures were for naught, because genius prevails.

This is an excellent work of historical fiction. As in “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker,” Chiaverini not only relates an interesting story, but is masterful at developing character and the motives for certain behavior. Although Arabella might be construed as an overbearing and controlling mother, the author gradually reveals why she tries so hard to counteract any evidence of “bad” blood Ada might have inherited from the Byron genes. She also provides accurate details regarding the position of women at that time.

Arabella is initially concerned when upon marriage she realizes her wealth will immediately pass to her wayward husband because females could not own property at that time. In addition, throughout the novel Ada is again and again chastised that her interest in scientific technology is neither common nor appropriate for a woman. In fact, one of her tutors describes the girl’s passion in such subjects as “manic,” igniting her mother’s worst fears.

One of Ada’s esteemed female mentors tells her how she herself was “forbidden to study Euclid because the strain of abstract thought would injure a female’s fragile frame.” Such archaic suppositions provoke the reader to examine advances in theories about the female constitution, cognitive ability, as well as women’s rights to own property and pursue their own goals. Thank heaven for progress!

Donna Bruno is a prizewinning author and poet recently recognized with four awards by National League of American Pen Women.

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