'The more I study, the more insatiable do I feel my genius for it to be'’: Ada Lovelace and her mother Annabella Byron

by Eleanor Fitzsimons
‘Never was a bridegroom less in haste’. This worrisome observation was noted down by politician and diarist John Cob Hobhouse as he accompanied his dear friend George Gordon Byron on a convoluted journey to Seaham Hall in County Durham. Once there, Hobhouse, who had known Byron since both were students at Trinity College, Cambridge, witnessed the marriage of his friend to Annabella Milbanke at eleven o’clock in the morning on 2 January 1815.

Seaham Hall

Seaham Hall

Although his bride had expressed a preference for a lavish wedding, Byron insisted on a private ceremony; the only people present besides the bridal couple and Hobhouse, in his capacity as Byron’s groomsman, were Annabella’s parents, her governess, and two members of the clergy. In his journal, Hobhouse also noted that although he expressed uncertainty about the strength of his love for Annabella, Byron insisted their marriage would provide ‘the surest road to happiness’. It did not.
The newly-weds, sketched by Byron's former lover, Lady Caroline Lamb

The newly-weds, sketched by Byron’s former lover, Lady Caroline Lamb

Ever since he had first met her, Byron had been intrigued by his ‘Princess of Parallelograms’. When Sir Ralph Milbanke, 6th Baronet, and his wife, the Hon. Judith Noel, realised that their daughter Anne Isabella Milbanke, known affectionately as Annabella, had an exceptional gift for mathematics, they had engaged former Cambridge fellow, and tutor in mathematics at Jesus College, William Frend, to oversee her education. An enlightened man with stellar credentials, Frend had also tutored Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and Robert Malthus. Under his supervision, Annabella studied philosophy and mathematics to an advanced level, and also demonstrated an extraordinary aptitude for astronomy.

Annabella Byron

Although she was exceptionally scholarly, she was far from dull and she absolutely loved to dance. In 1810, aged eighteen, Annabella attended her first London season, attracting several eligible suitors as she swirled around the most fashionable ballrooms in the capital. Two years later, she was introduced to Byron, who, at twenty-four, was already celebrated as an accomplished poet. Although she rejected his first proposal of marriage, Annabella was captivated by the notion of taming Byron’s turbulent nature. She accepted his second proposal in 1814.
Difficulties in their marriage arose almost immediately. As Annabella struggled through an early pregnancy, she was beset by worries arising from her husband’s dark moods, heavy drinking and casual infidelity. Augusta Ada, the couple’s only child, was born on 10 December 1815, but her parent’s marriage survived for just six weeks more. In January 1816, Lady Byron, at her husband’s request it seems, fled with her new-born daughter back to her family home. This rash act gave rise to widespread speculation. By leaving her husband, she was inviting notoriety. Since a divorce would almost certainly not be granted, she was also destroying any chance of a happy marriage in the future. Also, she stood to lose custody of Ada, since Byron, as her father, had sole rights to his daughter.
On 8 February 1816, a remorseful Byron wrote to his estranged wife:

I still cling to the wreck of my hopes, before they sink forever. Were you, then, never happy with me? Did you never at any time or times express yourself so? Have no marks of affection of the warmest and most reciprocal attachment passed between us? or did in fact hardly a day go down without some such on one side, and generally on both?

In a letter to Irish poet Thomas Moore dated March 1816, he accepted responsibility for the failure of his marriage, writing: ‘I do not believe—that there ever was a better, or even a brighter, a kinder or a more amiable and agreeable being than Lady B’. Weeks later, having agreed to a legal separation amid rumours of a scandalous affair with his half-sister Augusta, he left for continental Europe, never to return. Although Byron never saw his daughter again, he assured his publisher, John Murray: ‘I have a great love for little Ada, and I look forward to her as the pillar of my old age, should I ever reach that desolate period, which I hope not’. He also sent her a locket containing a lock of his hair, and received in exchange a portrait of his little girl. Byron’s longing for Ada is expressed in the first stanza of the third canto of his narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

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 then 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
When Albion’s lessening shores could grieve or glad mine eye.

Eight years later, Byron, still hopeful of reconciliation, told his confidante William Parry: ‘The prospect of retirement in England with my wife and Ada gives me an idea of happiness I have never experienced before’. His faithful servant Fletcher insisted that he died with words of affection for Annabella on his lips.
With help from her mother and a band of tutors and servants, Annabella took charge of Ada’s upbringing and education, filling her days with music lessons, mathematics and French, although poetry was excluded from the curriculum. Aged twelve, Ada, precocious and imaginative but prone to ill-health, drew up plans for a flying machine. At seventeen, she was introduced to Charles Babbage, Cambridge Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and founder of the Statistical Society. He invited her to inspect a small-scale version of the difference engine, a calculating machine he was working on at that time. Ada was fascinated. She began to exchange notes with Babbage discussing complex mathematical matters including his plans for an Analytical Engine. One such note, she signed ‘Your puzzle-mate’.
No longer required to oversee her daughter’s education, Annabella devoted her intellect to developing a radical new educational model. She held Harrow responsible for corrupting her husband and denounced ‘the vicious systems of our schools,’ adding: ‘Few have as much cause as I have to lament their effects’. In 1833, she founded Ealing Grove School for labouring-class boys, and she presided over it until 1852, instilling in its pupils skills that were practical as well as academic. Ada was drafted in regularly to teach and lessons included allotment schemes, carpentry, masonry, and the commercial principles of marketing garden produce. Annabella also attended the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840, worked to improve slum conditions, and pioneered women’s rights. In 1852, she bought Red Lodge in Bristol and invited educationalist and social reformer Mary Carpenter to administer it as a reformatory for girls.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace

In 1835, when she was nineteen, Ada had married William King, later Earl of Lovelace, and their three children were born between 1836 and 1839. In 1841, she rekindled her passion for mathematics under the tutelage of Professor Augustus De Morgan of University College London. She also corresponded with leading mathematician and astronomer Mary Fairfax Somerville, the woman who had introduced her to Babbage. When she published her translation of Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s Sketch of the Analytical Engine in 1843, she included her own extensive notes, which contained the first ever algorithm detailing instructions for the very first computer programme. She also developed a passion for gambling but the mathematical model she formulated in an attempted to improve her chances of winning was a spectacular failure.
Ada Lovelace died of uterine cancer on 27 November 1852. She was just thirty-six years old. At her own request, she was buried beside the father she had never known at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.
Her mother Annabella died of breast cancer on 16 May 1860, and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery. We are grateful for Ada’s contribution to computing to this day. Since 2009, ‘Ada Lovelace Day’ has been commemorated on the second Tuesday of October in order to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths and ensure that women and girls can look to role models in these fields. Perhaps we should also remember Annabella and her input into her daughter’s education.
Further Reading:
Julia Markus, 2015: Lady Byron and Her Daughters (New York: W. W. Norton & Company)
Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1870: Lady Byron Vindicated
The British Library holds a set of letters from Ada Lovelace to Charles Babbage
Doris Langley Moore, 1977: Ada: Countess of Lovelace (London: John Murray)
Joan Baum, 1986: The Calculating Passion of Ada Byron (Archon Books)
Betty A. Toole, 1992: Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers (Mill Valley, CA: Strawberry Press).
Eleanor Fitzsimons is a researcher and writer who specialises in historical and current feminist issues. She has an MA in Women, Gender and Society from University College Dublin. In 2013 she was awarded the Keats-Shelley Essay Prize and was runner-up for the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize. Her work has been published in The Keats-Shelley Review, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, History Today and elsewhere. Her book Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women he Knew was published by Duckworth Overlook in October 2015. She is working on a new biography of Edith Nesbit for publication in 2018.
@EleanorFitz on Twitter