Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Special: In Celebration of Ada Lovelace Day

Unnatural Cousins: Frankenstein, Computers, and Vampires

Dedicated to Kris (Biffle) Rudin and Dr. Linda Keiffer of the Computer Science Department at Eastern Washington University – also Rada, Deborah, Katrina, Angie, Katy, Anna, Ruami, et al at the same institution, with a special mention of computer artist Deena Des Rioux of New York City and Paris, France.

My concept is to wax rhapsodically about the many, sometimes oddball, relatives of Augusta Ada Byron (Countess of Lovelace), her likely half-sister Elizabeth Medora Leigh -- daughter of her father's half-sister Augusta Leigh, and her own half-sister Clara Allegra Byron, daughter of Claire Clairmont, step-sister in turn of Mary Shelley. Some of these relatives are not people, but they are well-known nevertheless.

Ada grew up a prisoner of the mores, morals, and double standards of the English Court. Her absent father Lord George Byron was internationally infamous for flouting every taboo of his class. The constant scandal was probably very hard on her mother Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke, whose own cousin Caroline Lamb suffered repeated heartbreak at Byron's hands ("mad, bad, and dangerous to know") before the philandering rogue formally married Annabella.

Ada and her mother accepted Elizabeth Medora as a sister, but Augusta Allegra died in Italy during an epidemic when she was only five years old. Allegra’s step-aunt Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley had a terrible life, losing three of her four children, plus her beloved husband while they were young and exiled abroad -- but she accomplished much before dying at the age of 53. Mary was Lord Byron's trusted secretary and editor who made sure the mad peer's popular writings got to their publishers intact. She also spent a lifetime gathering the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. We now enjoy the works of two of Romanticism's greatest poets because of her. Besides all that, she helped create a new literary genre by writing two of Science Fiction's first major novels -- The Last Man and Frankenstein.

Ada was certainly familiar with Frankenstein -- the stage play was a huge success throughout the world, and made the novel a perennial best-seller. This gothic tale of science gone wrong resonated in the early Industrial Revolution, and still does today.

Ada's lingering fame rests on her association with the brilliant scientist Charles Babbage -- she championed his causes after his old patron the Duke of Wellington left the scene. The fear of science and technology at the heart of Frankenstein might have played a part in frustrating Babbage's requests for governmental assistance. This fear may also explain some of the legends in Ada's own life, when an unhappy marriage, and an unwise affair, led to rumors of gambling conducted by mathematical witchcraft on her part. The reality was just plain sad -- she died of uterine cancer.

Mary Shelley's only surviving child bore the reputation of a man who distinctively lacked imagination -- perhaps caused by his nurturing at the mercy of an upper class who only grudgingly accepted him, and whose legacies included the Crimean War and Irish Famine.

Everlasting fame awaits the scholar who can prove a link between Swiss scientist Victor Frankenstein of Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley's gothic novel and German alchemist Konrad Dippel (1673 - 1734), who first manufactured Prussian Blue dye. He was also known as Der Frankensteiner, and would sometime add 'Frankensteinensis' to his signature because of his birth at Castle Frankenstein near Darmstadt, Germany. He had a career in Berlin which seemed to have made him some very persistent enemies, since he fled the Prussian capitol, and died a mysterious death on the Rhine.

I believe that Percy Shelley might have known about Der Frankensteiner due to his own enthusiasm for chemical experiments, and that this name might have been tossed about salons of like-minded persons, along with associated dark legends. There WAS an actual Frankenstein Curse -- the real family's firstborn sons died early during a couple of unlucky generations, creating inheritance problems -- but they produced no notorious alchemists, and relinquished ownership of their castle over a century before Der Frankensteiner lived there.

Mary maybe even heard the name Frankenstein at her father William Godwin's house. Dippel wrote controversial religious texts under the name of Christianus Democritus. Alchemists like Parcelcius had popular followings. Hell, Cagliostro's strange career was only a recent memory -- but maybe not. These speculations are my own, and completely unfounded.

So, these family trees combine together in hedgerows of illicit sex, Feminism, Free Thinking, Romantic Poetry, Science, and Gothic Fiction -- producing real live children, unmade machines, reanimated monsters, and more -- in a tangle worthy of the classical Greek Titans.

Our genealogy starts in the XX chromosomes of Great Britain’s upper classes during the second 100 year war with the French Empire. William ”Wicked Lord” Byron had a brother named “Foul Weather Jack” Byron who fathered “Mad Jack” Byron, who had two ‘legitimate’ children by two different women – daughter Augusta with Amelia Osborne, and son George with Catherine Gordon. Baronet Sir Timothy Shelly had a son named Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was bullied by his fellow gentry at Eton, and later expelled from Oxford as an intellectual misfit.

A commoner named William Godwin fathered a son named William Jr. with Mary Jane Vail Clairmont, but that youngster is not part of our story. Godwin was anything but common -- he was an author and iconoclastic thinker who also married feminist writer Mary Wollstonecroft. She’d previously borne a daughter to Gilbert Imlay, named Fanny, who grew up in Godwin’s intellectually-active household. Unfortunately, Wollstonecroft died ten days after she gave birth to Mary Godwin. When William later married Mary Jane, her daughter Claire Clairmont became young Mary’s sister, one of three girls living under Godwin’s unconventional roof.

We start the Romantic generation with Percy Shelly marrying Harriet Westbrooke and fathering Ianthe Shelley. He leaves her pregnant and runs off with young Mary Godwin. This couple has four children, but only Baronet Percy Florence Shelley lives to adulthood. Harriet commits suicide after giving birth to Charles Shelley, who survives the father who abandoned him, but dies from a lightning strike. Ianthe Shelly eventually marries Edward Esdaile, and has two children in relatively blessed obscurity.

All the heterosexual and homosexual affairs of George Gordon Lord Byron are beyond the scope of this article, but he is the ‘legitimate’ father of Augusta Ada Byron with Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke. He is likely the father of Elizabeth Medora Leigh by his half-sister Augusta Byron Leigh, who also had several other children with Colonel George Leigh, her husband and cousin. He first enters the orbit of Percy Shelly when he has a very one-sided affair with Claire Clairmont, and fathers Augusta Allegra Byron in the course of human events.

1816, “the year without a summer,” sees Mary and Percy Shelley sharing Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva with the exiled Byron, Claire Clairmont, and Dr. John Polidori. Among Percy’s ongoing projects is an epic poem called Prometheus Unbound. Tragedy strikes the young family when Fanny Imlay commits suicide and Mary’s first child dies. During one long storm, Lord Byron says “We shall all write a ghost story.”

In the wake of that particular Dark And Stormy Night, Mary publishes her most famous novel Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus in 1819. During that same year, Dr. Polidori publishes The Vampyre, featuring a socially attractive monster named Lord Ruthven – whose name was previously used by Byron’s ex-lover Lady Caroline Lamb in Glenarvon, a gothic novel based on his Lordship’s brutal affair with Lamb.

Ada Byron supports Medora Leigh through torrid love affairs with Henry Trevanion, with whom Medora conceives a daughter named Marie Violette; an un-named Frenchman (Medora WAS a French Lieutenant’s Woman); and said officer’s servant Jean-Louis Taillefer, whom she marries. Together they leave England to raise Marie and their son Elie Taillefer. Neither Ada nor Medora ever meet unfortunate Augusta Allegra.

Ada married William King, Count of Lovelace. Byron’s lordship and title had passed to a male cousin. She had two boys and a girl before her early death, but her most famous issue was the result of her intellectual relationship with Charles Babbage. While translating an Italian treatise on mechanical computation, she speculated how mathematical research could be accomplished with the aid of Babbage’s wonderful Difference Engine, if only it was funded and built. She demonstrated her point by outlining a strategy for investigating Bernoulli numbers – so before there was an actual machine called a computer in existence, there was a computer program, thanks to Ada Lovelace.

As a mathematician in service to Science, Ada’s visions became tangible in the mid-twentieth century. As a novelist, virtual relative Mary Shelley’s writing was more about real human fears re-symbolized in Gothic Literature, rather than physical reality itself. The untamed currents of human emotions were the raw material for her very important work collecting and editing Percy Bysshe Shelly and Lord George Byron in the field of Romantic Poetry. Mary’s labors have endured, and inspired all classes of humanity for two hundred years. Modern society thrives on computational innovations based on the works of Babbage and Lovelace.

Intellectual cousins within the Byron/Shelly family trees include not only Computers and Frankenstein, (arguably the first Science Fiction novel) but Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley’s amazing The Last Man as well, where civilization collapses due to a worldwide plague.

The inhuman computing machine, attended by myopic masters and servants, became a Titanic archetype in its own right, and was often grafted onto the Frankenstein mythos of creations turning on their creators, like HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, or representing deadly societal flaws from the template of The Last Man, like E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops. Science Fiction adopted computers generations before Turing or Von Neumann ever built one. The literary idea of Mechanical Men was spawned by this conceptual family. Karel Kapek created Robots, and Isaac Asimov gave them positronic brains.

Sex always has consequences, even without children, and especially when embittered lovers write books. Byron’s dark personality lives on as a gothic villain, or fatally compelling vampire –- running parallel with the none-too-moral “Byronic Hero.” These further literary cousins haunt dozens of stories and books, not to mention popular media. Frankenstein’s monster and the aristocratic vampire were not only conceived under the roof of Villa Diodati in the haunted summer of 1816, but each had a unique relationship to Death, expressing a mortal yearning to cheat our common fate.

The Computer as Vampire has yet to show up in popular entertainment, but how many hours out of your life have been recently drained in Cyberspace?


  1. Anonymous10:29 AM

    Great article - really loved your last comment/question! :-)

  2. Thanks Kris -- I'm glad you were a part of this whole thang!

  3. Anonymous12:00 PM

    Fascinated by anything Byron..A must read is "The Kindness of Sisters" by David Crane. A study of Annabelle and Augusta's relationship. Most interesting fact learned is that Charles Dickens, a friend of Ada's who actually visited her on her death bed, probably based Ms. Havisham in Great Expectations on Annabella. Lord B's nickname for her was "Pip". Interesting... he began writing the book shortly after her death.