By John Early
Ada, Countess of Lovelace, daughter of British poet Lord Byron, may arguably be the more renowned of the two in the future.
I very much want to celebrate the life and achievements of Ada Lovelace, whom Claire Cain Miller in the New York Times recently called, “A gifted mathematician who is now recognized as the first computer programmer. Her deeper influence was to see the technology’s potential.”
Still, I feel a need to tell the background story of why Ada Lovelace was the living embodiment of something that began in my boyhood. This being the case, I will write for next time about the brilliant woman who became The Countess of Lovelace. For Part One, however, I write about Lord Byron.
Next to the swings at St. Mary’s schoolyard in Helena, Montana, I slipped the hand-written paper into Helen Rogan’s hand.
It was Lord Byron’s poem, “She Walks in Beauty”. I deleted any mention of Lord Byron’s name and signed it with my own.
I figured Byron would not mind since he was, well, dead. I do not remember any reaction from Helen. Diana Reber, another classmate, later told me that I was a cute boy then. I also stuttered very badly, and had zero confidence. Helen was gorgeous.
We were both six, maybe seven. That was the start of my puppy love interest in Helen and a fascination with George Gordon, Lord Byron.
Fast-forward to being a teenager. The more Mr. Murphy, English teacher at Power Memorial Academy, expressed disgust for the Romantic poet’s antics, the more I wanted to read Byron. Too, because of one or two great teachers, I also developed an abiding love for anything French. Other than that, I was a nerdy, studious type who thought that athletes were born, not made. The extent of my athleticism was that in the boys’ locker room, I was afraid to get athlete’s foot. And so passed my high school years.
In hindsight, I wanted to be like Lord Byron, who was to the Regency Period what Elvis Presley had become sixty years ago. It wasn’t the celebrity I cared about; I wanted to be like (Byron) because women adored him. I liked that part.
Studying English literature in college, I discovered, to wide eyes and dismay, that Byron, public libertine and rake, could also be a poseur, including when it came to women. And he was bisexual. Lady Caroline Lamb, enthusiastically taking Byron up on his published bodice rippings, sent him some of her pubic hair. That envelope did not open well, what with the conflicted Lord also being a Calvinist. In fact, guilt, Calvinist or not, always seemed to be an unwanted bedfellow. While Lady Caroline expanded through various phases of hysterical love mania, Lord Byron, well, contracted.
Being a libertine, perhaps especially a bisexual one, was a bit of a sticky wicket in the Regency Period. At some point, Byron met and romanced Annabella Milbanke, a gifted mathematician. Suffice to relate that Byron did not recognize her intellectual achievements.
On their wedding night, he did some sexual thing(s) to or with her that, she later intimated, women mathematicians of the time did not calculate. They split, with rancor. Still, a notably good result of their union was Ada Lovelace. Eventually, Byron left England.
Enough ink has probably been spilled about him. Suffice to state that he went to Italy, had a liaison with Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli, and then, finally, on to Greece, where he is still revered as one of that nation’s heroes.
In life, Byron never met his daughter.
NEXT TIME: Part Two: Ada, Countess of Lovelace, a really “Eminent Victorian”.