Best of 2018, Five: Nonfiction, part three – In Byron’s Wake, by Miranda Seymour

December 29, 2018 at 1:52 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books)

  George Gordon, Lord Byron, was indisputably a great poet.

I remember some years ago visiting the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon. Engraved on a wall, I encountered a quotation from Childe Harold, Canto IV (This might not be an exact line-by-line recollection):

THERE is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean,—roll!

Oh, how civilized! thought I. It’s a wonderful place, that aquarium. And the restaurant boasted the most delicious clam chowder imaginable.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand…. As I said, Byron was a great poet. As a husband and father? Not so great. In fact, downright awful. No sooner had Annabella Milbanke married him than she knew she’d made a terrible mistake. The Wall Street Journal review of In Byron’s Wake is entitled “Lout and Ladies.” From that review, written by Abigail Deutsch:

During the couple’s first (and only) year of marriage, Byron took to treating his wife – now pregnant – with such fury that a maid worried “he was likely to put her to Death at any moment if he could do it privately.”

Fearing for her safety and that of her month old baby, Annabella sought refuge in the house of her parents. Neither she nor her infant daughter ever saw Byron again.

Fortunately, Annabella was a strong woman. She went on to amass considerable achievements in the fields of education reform and philanthropy. And Ada, her daughter, grew up to be not just  beautiful but possessed of singular and powerful gifts.

Annabella kept a sharp eye on her daughter’s education. When Ada was not quite out of her teens, she had the good fortune to acquire as a mentor the mathematician and science writer Mary Somerville.  Soon after making the acquaintance of this distinguished scholar, an even more fateful meeting took place:

The following month, Ada – for once, without her mother – attended a party held at the London home of one of Mary Somerville’s closest friends. His name was Charles Babbage.

The rest, as they say, is history, though where Ada is concerned, a sadly abbreviated history.

In Byron’s Wake is the story of fascinating people living in turbulent times. Beautifully written and magnificently constructed, it is a triumph of the art of the biographer/historian.

Miranda Seymour

Dramatis personae:

George Gordon, Lord Byron 1788-1824

 

Mary Somerville 1780-1872

 

Charles Babbage 1791-1871

Annabella Milbanke Byron 1792-1860

 

Ada Byron Lovelace 1815-1852

The library does not yet own this marvelous book, but I do. It is available for borrowing, from me.

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