[This is a preprint of an article accepted for publication in the
Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, © 2001. Wiley Press]
Woolley, Benjamin (1999). The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason, and Byron's Daughter.
New York: McGraw-Hill. (xii+416 pp.) ISBN 0-07-137329-2.
Christopher D. Green
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) was, without doubt, one of the most fascinating women of the early Victorian age. What drew the attention of her contemporaries, however, was not that she had learned calculus and the cutting-edge discipline of symbolic algebra from the best English mathematical minds of her day, nor her prescient explorations of the implications raised by the possibility of mechanical computation, published in her extensive "notes" to an article by someone else about Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine. Although these are the aspects of her life that most pique our attention today in an age when computers are everywhere and equality of the sexes in math and science is a "hot button" issue, in her own time her fame -- or was it notoriety? -- sprung primarily from her being the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron.
Although Lovelace has attracted the attention of many writers and artists over the past 25 years -- not just biographers, but also novelists, literary and cultural critics, and at least one feature film maker -- not since Doris Langley Moore's Ada, Countess of Lovelace: Byron's Legitimate Daughter (Harper & Row, 1977) has any book laid quite so much emphasis on her connection to the Byronic legacy as does Benjamin Woolley's The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason, and Byron's Daughter (McGraw-Hill, 1999). Indeed, Ada herself makes only a brief appearance in the first hundred pages the book, which are largely given over to an examination of the courtship, marriage, and separation of her parents, and the truly spectacular public aftermath, not only when Byron was virtually forced to leave England for good in 1816, when Ada was not yet a year old, but again when his body was returned to England for public burial in 1824.
Woolley's book is well-researched and for the most part well-written. Its prose occasionally goes a tinge purple (as when he writes on p. 337 that upon Ada's first visit to her late father's ancestral seat "she could smell her family's past emerge from it like hot, pungent breath"), but this is perhaps to be excused in a book that is expressly not by an academic historian for other academic historians, but rather by a journalist for a popular audience. Because the ground has been covered by so many others already, there is relatively little that is new left to be revealed by Woolley. It is important to note, however, that he deftly avoids most of traps that have been laid during a quarter-century of Lovelace "hagiography" by those who earnestly wish that she had been a budding genius mathematician and proto-computer scientist whose work was suppressed because of her gender. Lovelace's story is far more complicated than this, and Woolley, though he is rarely openly critical of her sometimes downright erratic behavior, is able to bring out many of the complexities of her extraordinary life.
The main problem the book poses is that, because it is written for a popular audience, it will frustrate the academic historian's need for precision and rigor. Woolley provides only very incomplete references for the material he covers, and he often offers only suggestive evidence for some of the conclusions he draws. For instance, in both the introduction and in the epilogue, he makes reference to Ada's having wanted to develop a kind of "poetic science" -- a theme previously explored in Betty A. Toole's Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers (Strawberry, 1992) -- but apart from a passing mention of this phrase in one of her letters, Woolley provides little evidence that this was her primary ambition, and not just one of her many passing moods during the mid-1840s. If one's primary interest is the specific content of Ada's scholarly contributions, Dorothy Stein's Ada: A Life and a Legacy (MIT, 1985) remains the locus classicus, but if one's interest in Ada is somewhat more casual, or more personal, Woolley's biography offers a good, readable account of her life.