The Enchantress of Numbers

Written by Jennifer Chiaverini
Review by Ilysa Magnus

The only legitimate daughter of George Gordon, Lord Byron, is the focus of Chiaverini’s newest novel. Born in 1815 of a disastrous marriage between the great poet and Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke, Augusta Ada Byron never knew her father. Her mother removed her as a newborn because of her belief that Byron was mad and likely involved in an incestuous relationship with his sister, Augusta.

Lady Byron was an extraordinarily brilliant, intellectual woman, and from the time that Ada was an infant, her sole goal was to prevent Ada from having any relationship with fantasy or fun. Angry and bitter, Annabella believed that Ada was going to fall victim to her “Byron blood,” so she did everything humanly possible to weed out imagination from Ada’s life and education. Annabella surrounded Ada with tutors, governesses and overseers who simply did not tolerate anything but adherence to learning—primarily language and math, a subject in which Ada excelled from a very early age. I personally came to detest her.

But Ada is also a member of the aristocracy, and expected to make an appearance in society. When she does, she meets Charles Babbage, scientist and inventor of the Difference Engine and then the Analytical Engine. Ignoring skeptics and being a brilliant mathematician, Ada attempts to work with Babbage to bring his Analytical Engine to fruition. Alas, politics and personalities get in the way, and Babbage’s dream (and Ada’s) is never realized.

The subject of Chiaverini’s book is a marvel, and I was desperate to know who she was and why. But I could never get close to her and found Ada’s voice to be monotonous, didactic and annoying. Others in Ada’s life—Charles Dickens, Charles Babbage, the great scientific mind, and Mary Somerville (who was a mentor to Ada)—felt more real to me than did Ada.