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24 March 2009

Ada Lovelace Day

Let me tell you a story.

It starts with philosophy, and then moves through feminism, politics, graveyards, literature, monsters real and imagined, syphilis and ends up with, of all things, the humble computer. And it’s ALL TRUE.

So there was this guy, right? William Godwin. He was a political philosopher and novelist in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He wrote a book called Things as They Are or The Adventures of Caleb Williams, which is said to be the first mystery novel.

William married a lady called Mary. Mary Wollstonecraft, to be precise. You may have heard of her. She is one of the pioneers of modern feminism, and wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, where she argues that women aren’t inferior to men at all, they are just not as well educated. And wouldn’t it be nice, if everyone were treated as rational people and our social order was founded on reason.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary had a few children (some illegitimately), but we’re going to focus on her namesake, Mary Godwin. Mary Wollstonecraft died when baby Mary was only ten days old, so little Mary was brought up by her father and given a somewhat eccentric education. The story goes that William Godwin taught her to read by tracing her little pudgy fingers over the letters on her mother’s tombstone. He said, of Mary:

“She is singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.”

Mary Shelley

Mary, it seemed, was destined for great things. And here’s where it gets interesting.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was estranged from his aristocratic family and his pregnant wife, because of his interest in radicalism. He was drawn to William Godwin’s political theory, and offered to pay off Godwin’s debts. Then he met Mary, who was seventeen at the time (Shelley was 22). They began secretly seeing each other. When William Godwin found out, he was mightily annoyed (especially since the debt-paying-off never eventuated), and Mary and Percy ran away together to live in sin.

A few years and a miscarriage later, Mary and Percy found themselves in Geneva with their friend Lord Byron, who was having an affair with Mary’s stepsister, Claire.

They rented the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva, and basically just hung out writing, boating and talking late into the night. Also there was John William Polidori, a romantic novelist.

One particularly wet and rainy afternoon, Byron suggested they all write a supernatural story to entertain each other. Polidori wrote a short story that is basically the reason why teenage girls go weak at the knees at the mention of Edward Cullen – the story, Vampyre, is acknowledged to be the beginning of the vampire genre.

Mary also started what she thought would be a short story, but ended up being Frankenstein.

We’re going to follow this story on a slightly different path now, for the final chapter. Lord Byron had two daughters. The second was with Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepsister. This illegitimate daughter, Allegra, died aged 5.

The other daughter was Ada, also known as The Hon. Augusta Ada Byron, or, later, Ada, Countess of Lovelace, or, now, Ada Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace is perhaps best known as being the first computer programmer. Well, sort of. She worked with Charles Babbage on a sort of theoretical predecessor to the modern computer. She also recongised that computers were capable of much more than just calculating numbers, which was something that no one (including Babbage) had ever considered.

Ada’s mother was very worried that her daughter might succumb to the madness of her father (you know, the syphilis, incest, sexual promiscuity that Byron is famed for), so she had Ada privately tutored in science and mathematics for a young age (the best way to stave off madness, as I’m sure you all know, is quadratic equations).

She was good mates with Charles Dickens, and also with Babbage, who said this about her:

Forget this world and all its troubles and if
possible its multitudinous Charlatans — every thing
in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.

So here we are, at the end of our story. Or the beginning. Today is Ada Lovelace Day, and I have pledged to blog about women in science. Although I ended up blogging about women in political science and science fiction, as well as the ordinary kind of science.

I think perhaps one day I will write a novel about this strange dynasty of women. But in the meantime, if you want to hang out in Ada's world a little more, I can recommend Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine.


Andrew said...

*Waves flag for librarians*

I daresay it's the most female-dominated of the professions in applied science!

james roy said...

Andrew, it would probably be almost on a par with nursing. And as you know, both my careers thus far have been closely linked with nurses or librarians. To his dying day my grandfather bemoaned the fact the "Jim's never going to get a real job." Namely, one that isn't "being a wardsman" as he called me, and "telling stories to kids".

Penni said...

Oh Lili yes! Write that novel. Please, please write that novel. That novel. That one.


Young lady, go to your room. (And write that novel).

ClareSnow said...

If you need some research material for that novel, i recommend "Mary Shelley" by Miranda Seymour (2000). I fell in love with Mary Shelley after reading this book and discovering how difficult her life was. You misssed out on the worst part of Mary's life (which I'm sure you're saving for the novel) after Byron, Claire went onto Percy and Mary continued to live with them!?

When you started with Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, I had no idea how you were going to get to Ada Lovelace. Byron is the evil philanderer (can't spell) in Mary's bio so his first daughter is never mentioned. Thank you for detailing the connection between these great women.