Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42
Born in London in 1788, the poet George Gordon Byron, or Lord Byron as we know him, spent his life collecting sensations and courting controversy. While a student at Cambridge, for example, he kept a tame bear as a pet, taking it for walks as one would a dog. During his acrimonious and very public divorce in 1816, Byron was rumoured to be having a sexual relationship with his half-sister, an allegation he denied in public but less adamantly in his private letters. His passionate support for the freedom of the Greeks in their War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire was likewise a ‘keenly felt pursuit’ that ultimately proved deadly. Suffering from a fever and infection contracted while awaiting battle in Greece, Byron died in 1824 at the age of 36. Lord Byron was infamous for putting it about as they say. His short and chaotic life of sexual deviance resulted in three daughters, none of whom he ever cared for.
Ada was born just before Christmas in 1815 to his wife Anne Isabella Milbanke. Mother and child left Byron’s house when Ada was one month old and Ada never met or knew her father, the infamous Lord Byron, he died when she was eight years old. Two years later his daughter Allegra was born in Bath in January 1817, her mother was Claire Clairmont (1798-1879), the teenage stepsister of the writer Mary Shelley. Elizabeth Medora Leigh (15 April 1814 – 28 August 1849) was the third daughter of Augusta Leigh. It is widely speculated that she was fathered by her mother’s half-brother Lord Byron, although her mother’s husband Colonel George Leigh was her official father.
Anne Milbanke was a highly educated and strictly religious woman, she seemed an unlikely match for the amoral and agnostic poet, and their marriage soon ended in acrimony. Lady Byron’s reminiscences, published after her death by Harriet Beecher Stowe, revealed her fears about an alleged incest Lord Byron had with his half-sister. The scandal about Lady Byron’s suspicions accelerated Byron’s intentions to leave England and return to the Mediterranean where he had lived in 1810.
Clairmont had relentlessly pursued Byron, and despite thinking her “foolish”, the combination of her advances and his weakness for women was too much: “I never loved her nor pretended to love her—but a man is a man–& if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night—there is but one way.” When the child was born, Byron was in Venice, and showed little interest in ‘the little being’ who had been named Alba in his absence. The child’s birth coincided with a time when Byron was at his most dissolute: a time, according to Edna O’Brien in Byron in Love, he was “bargaining with mothers and father for their daughters, brazenly naming his conquests from contessas to cobblers’ wives and claiming to have ‘tooled’ with two hundred women of one sort or another.”
Considering his lifestyle, his decision to have the child sent to him when she was a year old seems positively bizarre. The penniless Claire believed their daughter would be guaranteed a better future with her famous father, and sent him “my child because I love her too well to keep her.” Although she could not have realised it, she would never see her daughter again.
None of her many heartbroken, pleading letters to Byron would ever be answered and worse, his deep-rooted animosity for Claire was passed on to his child.
Byron had decided to “acknowledge and breed” his daughter, albeit in a conditional way – he gave her the surname Biron to distinguish her from legitimate Ada and renamed her Allegra. The first meeting between father and infant daughter was not promising: “My bastard came three days ago,” he wrote. “Heathy – noisy – & capricious.” Within months, Byron had tired of Allegra and she was passed between various carers. At the same time, Byron was indulging in any romantic encounter which came his way, contracting myriad sexually transmitted diseases and writing his vast blasphemous and bawdy work Don Juan, published anonymously in 1819.
He sent her to convent and in 1822, when her mother asked to see her he sent Allegra to another convent further away to prevent her from seeing the child. Clairmont was so desperate to see her daughter that she considered kidnapping her, or forging a letter in Byron’s hand directing her to be returned to England. Sadly, her plans came to nothing and that summer Allegra became ill and died.
Allegra’s tiny body was sent back to England. A ghoulish rumour circulated that the child was sent back to England in two parts to save money. Whilst untrue, it gave expression to just how depraved the people of England believed Byron to be. In fact, Byron lavished more attention on Allegra’s corpse than he ever had while she was breathing. Her funeral was a lavish affair. Her father knew exactly where he wanted her to be laid. “There is,” he wrote in May 1822, “a spot in the church’yard’, near the footpath, on the brow of the hill looking towards Windsor, and a tomb under a large tree (bearing the name of Peachie, or Peachey), where I used to sit for hours and hours when a boy. This was my favourite spot; but as I wish to erect a tablet to her memory, the body had better be deposited in the ‘church’.” Byron composed a eulogy to be carved on a marble tablet inside the church door, commemorating “the memory of Allegra, daughter of George Gordon Lord Byron” and quoting a verse from Samuel: “I shall go to her but she shall not return to me.” But the Rector of Harrow, the Revd John William Cunningham, and the churchwardens considered Byron so immoral, they refused the stone, citing Allegra’s illegitimacy as the reason and so poor little Allegra was laid to rest in an unmarked grave. It was only in 1980 that a memorial tablet was erected on the side of the church near to the place she was interred.
Byron made no attempt to claim his parental rights to Ada but did request that his sister keep him informed of Ada’s welfare. On 21 April Byron signed the Deed of Separation, although very reluctantly, and left England for good a few days later. Aside from an acrimonious separation, Annabella continually made allegations about Byron’s immoral behaviour throughout her life.
Ada’s mother could not have been more different to Claire Clairmont. Anne, hated the product of her union with Byron. She left Ada with her grandmother Judith, Hon. Lady Milbanke who doted on her. To protect herself from any possibility of Byron one day claiming his daughter she did however write to her mother presenting herself as a caring mother with a cover note advising her mother to keep the letters as proof of her affection for the child. In one letter to Lady Milbanke, she referred to Ada as “it”: “I talk to it for your satisfaction, not my own, and shall be very glad when you have it under your own.”
In her teenage years, several of her mother’s close friends watched Ada for any sign of moral deviation worried that her father’s unnatural behaviour was in the blood. Ada dubbed these observers the “Furies” and later complained they exaggerated and invented stories about her.
Ada was often ill, beginning in early childhood. At the age of eight, she experienced headaches that obscured her vision. In June 1829, she was paralysed after a bout of measles. She was subjected to continuous bed rest for nearly a year, which may have extended her period of disability. By 1831, she was able to walk with crutches. Despite being ill Ada developed her mathematical and technological skills. At age 12 this future “Lady Fairy”, as Charles Babbage affectionately called her, decided she wanted to fly. Ada went about the project methodically, thoughtfully, with imagination and passion. Her first step, in February 1828, was to construct wings. She investigated different material and sizes. She considered various materials for the wings: paper, oilsilk, wires, and feathers. She examined the anatomy of birds to determine the right proportion between the wings and the body. She decided to write a book, Flyology, illustrating, with plates, some of her findings. She decided what equipment she would need; for example, a compass, to “cut across the country by the most direct road”, so that she could surmount mountains, rivers, and valleys. Her final step was to integrate steam with the “art of flying”.
In 1833 she tried to elope with her tutor but was found out and the incident was covered up to prevent at scandal. The same year she became close friends with her tutor Mary Somerville, who introduced her to Charles Babbage. On 8 July 1835, she married William, 8th Baron King, becoming Lady King. They had three homes: Ockham Park, Surrey, a Scottish estate on Loch Torridon in Ross-shire, and a house in London. They had three children: Byron (born 12 May 1836); Anne Isabella (called Annabella; born 22 September 1837); and Ralph Gordon (born 2 July 1839).
A year after the birth of Ralph Charles Babbage helped Ada begin mathematical studies with Augustus de Moyan in 1840 at the University of London. During a nine-month period in 1842–43, Lovelace translated the Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s article on Babbage’s newest proposed machine, the Analytical Engine. With the article, she appended a set of notes. Explaining the Analytical Engine’s function was a difficult task, as even many other scientists did not really grasp the concept and the British establishment was uninterested in it. Lovelace’s notes even had to explain how the Analytical Engine differed from the original Difference Engine.Her work was well received at the time; the scientist Michael Faraday described himself as a supporter of her writing.
The notes are around three times longer than the article itself and include a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers with the Engine, which could have run correctly had Babbage’s Analytical Engine been built. (Only his Difference Engine has been built, completed in London in 2002.) Based on this work Lovelace is now widely considered the first computer programmer.
Unknowingly Ada developed an addiction to prescribed drugs including laudanum, opium and morphine, and displayed classic mood swings and withdrawal symptoms. She took up gambling and lost most of her fortune. She was suspected of an affair with a gambling comrade. In 1852, Ada died of uterine cancer. She was buried next to her famous father. In 1980, the U.S. Department of Defense settled on the name “Ada” for a new standardized computer language, named in honour of Byron’s daughter.
Byron’s relationship with his half sister Augusta as well as reports of his sexual depravity forced the Lord to leave Britain shortly after their love child Elizabeth Medora Leigh was born. Three days after her birth, Byron visited Augusta and the baby. He later wrote to a friend, Lady Melbourne: “Oh! but it is ‘worth while’ – I can’t tell you why – and it is not an Ape and if it is – that must be my fault.” There was a folk belief, common in the 19th century, that a child born of incest would be an ape.
Medora Leigh’s life was a troubled one. As a teenager, she had an affair with her older sister Georgiana’s husband Henry Trevanion, and ran away with him. They went to Normandy, where the child she was carryig was stillborn. The runaway pair set up home in a tumble-down chateau near Morlaix where they passed themselves off as brother and sister. They then moved to Brittany where Medora became a Catholic and declared her intention of entering a convent. However, she got pregnant again by Henry. The Abbess was tolerant and found Medora lodgings outside the convent, where a living child was born on 19 May 1834; she was baptised Marie Violette Trevanion on 21 May 1834. Due to poverty and illness, the pair eventually had to beg their families for money. Henry’s father, Major John Purnell Bettesworth Trevanion of Caerhays Castle, Cornwall, thought Medora was to blame for the situation. He sent one of Henry’s uncles to Brittany to persuade Henry to return to England. Henry refused to leave. Her mother Augusta was now keeping her other daughter Georgiana’s three children by Henry, but sent what money she could to Medora. However, Augusta eventually lost touch with Medora, who had become ill in Brittany after a series of miscarriages.
In 1838, Henry Trevanion and Medora Leigh finally parted permanently. In an autobiography, Medora later wrote of Henry that he “gave himself up to religion and shooting”. Henry died in 1855 in Brittany, France.
Medora left for the south of France with her daughter where she entered into an affair with a French officer who later abandoned her. She ultimately ended up with his servant, a former sergeant called Jean-Louis Taillefer with whom she had another child a son. Medora h married Taillefer on 23 August 1848. Both of her children chose to enter the Church, her daughter became a nun and her son a priest.
Eisler, Benita (1999). Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame.
Moore, Doris Langley-Levy. Countess of Lovelace: Byron’s Legitimate Daughter.
Toole, Betty A. and Ada King Lovelace. Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: Prophet of the Computer Age. 1998.
Woolley, Benjamin. The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason and Byron’s Daughter. 2000.
Wade, Mary Dodson. Ada Byron Lovelace: the Lady and the Computer. 1994.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42 Also available on:
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