If you had to guess what would happen to Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of the infamous Lord Byron, the romantic poet described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, you might well imagine that she became a poet, or a notorious libertine (like her famous father), or that she reacted against her father’s life and disappeared into the silence of history. Almost certainly you would not guess that she grew up to be an outstanding mathematician, in an era when women were actively discouraged from obtaining higher education at all, let alone learning math, or that she collaborated with Charles Babbage in the invention of the computer. But in fact, Ada Lovelace earned her fame (or deserved her fame) as a woman with a brilliant mathematical mind, not as the daughter of a wild and dissolute poet.
How Ada turned into what it would not be an exaggeration to describe as the Mother of Computers is the story Jennifer Chiaverini tells in Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace. Ada was fortunate that her mother was a rigorous mathematician in her own right, and a woman determined to protect her from Byron’s influence, and from any possibility that she might turn out to be like her father. That meant Ada was given tutoring in science and math as she was growing up, and kept away from all pernicious subjects like poetry and literature. When she entered London society, Ada met the man who would shape the rest of her life, Charles Babbage, who had already built a prototype of his calculating machine, the Difference Engine, and was working on a more complicated and powerful machine, the Analytic Engine. Ada joined his efforts, determined to help him change the world, and at the same time she pursued her own mathematical studies, fell in love, learned more about her parents’ tempestuous relationship and developed her own fierce imagination.
You don’t have to be a computer nut or a geek to appreciate the world of the 19th century that gave birth to the first computers. You don’t have to be a feminist to appreciate the strength of character that it took for a woman to study math and make a name for herself in the world of science in the 19th century. But if you’re interested in a fun historical novel that will bring that whole world to life, filled with larger than life characters, by all means check out Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace.
As the seasons begin to change, check out the newest historical fiction at the Field Library and take a quick vacation to the end of the American Civil War and the Roaring Twenties in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon).
You wouldn’t think there’s anything new to say about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth, but you would be reckoning without the skill of Jennifer Chiaverini, whose previous bestselling historical novels include Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival, Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, have also explored the period during and just after the American Civil War. Her newest book, Fates and Traitors, takes the somewhat daring and unusual task of looking at the life of John Wilkes Booth, trying to understand him and his terrible actions, and, as is her wont in her historical novels, she looks at Booth through other people, the people who were connected to him during his life. The book starts with the part everybody knows: the fateful shots fired at Ford’s Theater which killed Lincoln, but then backtracks, looking at Booth’s upbringing and his life before the assassination, focusing on his relationships with four important women: his mother (a former flower girl at Covent Garden in London), his sister, Asia (his confidant in many regards), his lover, Lucy Lambert Hale (the daughter of a Senator), and his co-conspirator Mary Surratt (who ended up being hanged for her role in the plot). Will you end up sympathizing with Booth? Probably not. Will you be fascinated by his story and understand him better after reading this book? Quite probably.
For a peek at a different historical period in a very different place, let’s turn to The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jeffries. Gwendoline, a naive young Englishwoman in the 1920’s, marries a widowed tea plantation owner in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Traveling to a foreign country where she knows no one but her somewhat distant husband, and where the customs, especially ones having to do with the divide between the white planters and the natives who work on the plantations, are very strange to her, Gwendoline soldiers on through her pregnancy and the arrival of her husband’s interfering sister, Verity, but questions start to arise about her husband’s past, more specifically the real cause of death of his first wife. It’s not just a clever reworking of the famous Rebecca, but a look at the realities of colonial life, the clashes between British overlords and Ceylonese workers who are tired of being treated like subhumans, a mystery to be unraveled and a vivid picture of a place and time most of us know very little about.