In Byron’s Wake: The Turbulent Lives of Lord Byron’s Wife and Daughter: Annabella Milbanke and Ada Lovelace

Written by Miranda Seymour
Review by Tracey Warr

Seymour tells the stories of Annabella Milbanke’s short-lived marriage to Byron, and of their daughter, Ada. We are gripped by the spectacle of the intelligent but earnest heiress, Annabella, convincing herself, through youthful romanticism, into marriage with an impecunious, highly capricious and rakish Byron, unaware of his incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Byron had the equivalent of £2.5m debt in today’s money. Annabella started taking legal advice on leaving her husband on the day that she went into labour. The failure of the marriage and the surrounding scandal made Byron a social outcast. He died in Greece a few years later at the age of 36. Annabella dedicated her vast fortune to a life of philanthropy, working for educational reform, the abolition of slavery and a kinder penal system.

Ada, meanwhile, displayed a mercurial character, not unlike her father’s. Her commentary on Charles Babbage’s invention, the Analytical Engine, and her publication of the first algorithm have been hailed as visionary for our own technological age. Both Annabella and Ada feared that Ada’s children might commit incest if left in each other’s company and the neglect of Ada’s children is one of the many sad aspects of this story. Ada’s husband, Lord Lovelace, ruined himself with grandiose building schemes. As Ada lay dying in her thirties from uterine cancer, it was revealed that she led a ruinous horse-betting ring, had borrowed money from shady people and had pawned her diamonds twice. If Ada had lived, she intended to work on light and water next. Her ideas sound like a prelude to spectroscopy, which allows us, now, to measure distant galaxies. This dual biography gives us insight into the lives of two astonishing and unconventional women.