Engendering the Future

2015 marked the bicentenary of Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, the woman whose visionary notes upon the most extraordinary unbuilt machine of Victorian times enabled Alan Turing to identify her as the prophet of the modern computer. (Lovelace’s translation and notes on Babbage’s Analytical Engine are given in full on www.turing.org.uk/scrapbook/computer.html)

  2016 marks the bicentenary of the birth of Frankenstein, Mary Godwin Shelley’s prophetic account of a scientific achievement that, back in the early nineteenth century, seemed beyond the control of man.

  But did they meet? Byron – father to one woman, friend to the other – offers the most obvious link. In the spring of 1816, following the abrupt end to his shortlived marriage, Lord Byron left England for Europe. That summer, at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, while Byron lamented the loss of the baby daughter he had scarcely known (‘Ada! Sole daughter of my house and heart’), the poet and Mary Shelley competed in a game of telling ghostly tales. The stories that they dreamed up were intended to frighten others as much as an exceptionally imaginative group of people – huddled around the fire on a stormy night (this was ‘the summer of darkness’ during which the after-effects of a volcanic explosion wreaked havoc on the climate of the Western world) - had succeeded in terrifying each other.

   Two tales and a fragment survived from that night. One of them transformed its author into an infamous celebrity. In 1823, the newly-widowed Mary Shelley left her task of copying and occasionally revising the final cantos of Don Juan for Lord Byron out in Italy, to return to London. There, to her mild discomfort, she encountered her own high-minded novel, transformed into Presumption; or the Fate of Frankenstein, and playing to packed houses at the Lyceum Theatre. This was the age of scenic thrills: Presumption’s hottest theatrical competitor, playing at Drury Lane, featured a horseman’s runaway gallop up a cataract, amidst raging flames. T.P. Cooke’s rendering of Shelley’s creature was praised by one excited theatregoer as ‘tremendously appalling.’ 

   In 1823, Ada turned seven. While it is fun to imagine that she might have been taken to see Frankenstein, the likelihood is remote. Lady Byron, at this early stage in her small daughter’s life, was more concerned with giving the child a good education than indulging Ada’s vivid imagination with notions of a man-made creature.

  And yet. Once the idea is seeded, it becomes hard to resist. Look at the dates. Ada: 1815-1852; Mary: 1797-1851: how is it possible that Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace, two bold, brilliant and extraordinary women who died within a year of each other and who spent most of their adult lives in London, where they moved in the same literary and scientific circles, did not meet?

  I am not about to reveal or even propose that such an encounter did take place. Writing a twin-study of Ada and her mother, I can (at present) see no substantial grounds from which to develop such a delicious hypothesis. Instead, I’m flagging up a few of the link-points from which to draw - in a year when we can expected to be hearing a lot about both Frankenstein and its creator - whatever fanciful conclusions we please. Sydney Padua’s prize-winning steampunk novel, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (2015) showed the way by contriving a fruitful encounter between her madcap scientific duo and George Eliot: if Eliot, why not Shelley?

  Here are the connecting points. For a start, back in the autumn of 1815 when Ada was born, her impoverished father – bailiffs were sleeping in the back rooms of Piccadilly Terrace – was sending money to help Mary Shelley’s ageing father, William Godwin. (Byron was a great admirer of Godwin’s novels.) Link two. In March 1816, shortly after Byron ‘s wife of a year had left him (taking baby Ada with her) Mary Shelley, together with her step-sister, Claire Clairmont, paid a visit to the poet’s London home. Did Mary know of Ada’s existence? Such knowledge would have been hard to escape at a time when the abrupt collapse of the Byrons’ marriage had become the subject of scandal-sheets and drawing-rooms from New York to Madame de Stael’s home, out by Lake Geneva.

  Link three. Byron’s wife, playfully described by him as ‘the Princess of Parallelograms’, was a mathematician herself. Her tutor, William Frend, was one of William Godwin’s closest associates, and a regular visitor to Godwin’s London home when Mary was a child. When Ada, a precociously intelligent girl, also began to evince an interest in mathematics, her mother turned to Frend, inventor of a form of abacus that was intended to accompany his children’s primer. Tangible Arithmetic was published in 1805 and reprinted in 1812, making it enticingly possible that young Mary Shelley and Ada both learned their first maths skills from Frend’s book and used his abacus toy. (I’m still on the hunt for Frend’s toy; none reached the Science Museum, alas.)

  The links grow closer. In 1840, it was William Frend’s brilliant son-in-law, Augustus de Morgan, who introduced Ada Lovelace to Differential Calculus and equipped her with the skills required to demonstrate (in 1843) the extraordinary potential of her friend Charles Babbage’s unbuilt machine.

  Did Mary Shelley ever visit Babbage’s rooms near Manchester Square? These were the rooms at which, in 1833, Ada was shown an exquisite automaton: a miniature mechanical woman, fashioned from silver, not flesh. Although no reference is made to such a visit in Mary Shelley’s diary, this is the place at which a meeting between the two women could most easily have occurred. Invitiations to Babbage’s weekly soirees were highly coveted; Mary’s fame, both as Shelley’s widow and as the author of the infamous Frankenstein, would have made her a welcome guest.

  Between 1833 and 1851, the year of Mary Shelley’s death, two clever women who had shocked society (Ada’s private life was anything but conventional) occupied the same small London world: it was one in which women enjoyed an increasing freedom to visit the multitude of galleries, institutions and halls at which scientific experiments could be observed. Ada watched Charles Wheatstone operating a primitive form of the electric telegraph, attended Faraday’s lectures at the Royal Institution, made notes about electro-magnetism and took a ride on the new Atmospheric Railway (it could climb a steep gradient at 25 mph). It’s hard to imagine that a woman as intelligent and inquiring as Mary Shelley did not follow the same course.

  Start looking and connections glitter from every corner. And that way - as my favourite English tutor used to warn me - madness lies. She was right, but one extraordinary connection is there for all to see, hanging at the National Portrait Gallery.  Click here to see it: http://bit.ly/1VuMyzu

  In the summer of 1840, Benjamin Haydon painted a historical record of the great Abolition of Slavery meeting at which Thomas Clarkson addressed an assembly of delegates at Exeter Hall Only a handful of women were permitted to attend. One of them was Ada’s mother, Lady Byron; there, seated right beside her and looking up at Clarkson on the platform, sits Amelia Opie, the artist whose glowing portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft hung in Mary Shelley’s home throughout her London childhood.

  Did Ada and Mary know about each other? Without a doubt. Did they meet in life? We’ll never know. It’s only in their voluminous family archives, the Abinger Papers and the Lovelace Papers, that two exceptionally farsighted women finally settled into some kind of posthumous communion, snug and safe within the hallowed walls of the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

   Added: Saturday 02 January 2016