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Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace

Review

Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace

Followers of the critically acclaimed PBS historical drama series “Victoria” might recall a brief but captivating encounter where the young Queen of England is introduced to another unusual woman, bravely navigating a male-dominated society in which both were often made to feel unwelcome, isolated and even intellectually incompetent.

That woman who connected with the Queen on such mutual terms was none other than Ada Byron King, Countess Lovelace (1815-1852), the only legitimate child of Britain’s infamously brilliant and unpredictable Romantic poet, Lord Byron, and his estranged wife, Annabella Milbanke.

Jennifer Chiaverini’s ENCHANTRESS OF NUMBERS, subtitled “A Novel of Ada Lovelace,” creates a dynamic and compelling fictional personality around a very real woman whose scientific contributions have never been fully appreciated even to this day. Hailed by fans and supporters as the world’s first true computer programmer --- able to program for devices never fully realized in her own time --- she spent most of her mere 37 years seeking, but never quite finding, the one scientific project into which she could pour her full genius.

"With its Jane Austen-like delicacy of descriptive dialogue and waves of turbulent emotion, Chiaverini’s memorable tribute to an unjustly forgotten star of Victorian science is not only an absorbing read, but worthy of film as well."

With intuitive flair and a genuine sensitivity to the challenges faced by 19th-century women seeking a significant life of the mind, Chiaverini fills in myriad details of the remarkable journey, numerous family obstacles, and precarious fame that led to Ada’s brief but significant presentation at court as an associate of the eccentric “difference engine” inventor, Charles Babbage.

In the television series, we see Victoria and Ada meet as new parents, torn between the demands of motherhood and their respective royal and scientific career aspirations. As they exchange almost identical comments about the difficulty of living simultaneously in two different and competing worlds, we witness a telling pre-feminist “moment” that captures far more than their few scripted lines.

Throughout ENCHANTRESS OF NUMBERS, Chiaverini embraces Ada Lovelace’s all-too-brief “moment” as a successful woman and scientist, filling it with a universe of meaningful and carefully researched detail. And by choosing to tell the story as if it were Ada’s own first-person memoir (ending two years before her tragic death from cervical cancer), she artfully places the present-day reader within a broader historical continuum, filled with actual people, politics, places, social customs and fashions.

In fact, Chiaverini’s composite and fabricated characters seem by far in the minority, although she is very clear in the novel’s concluding notes about how necessary it was to fill gaps in Ada’s life and times with credible connecting players, as well as to put believable words in the mouths of real people and celebrities with whom she was known to have had important relationships. Among them were novelist Charles Dickens, fellow female mathematician Mary Somerville, and notably the mercurial Charles Babbage, whose impatience and short temper repeatedly sabotaged her efforts to promote his amazing calculating machines, the “difference engine” and the “analytical engine.”

While presented as a novel, ENCHANTRESS OF NUMBERS contains at least as much solid history as it does beautifully imagined fiction. With its Jane Austen-like delicacy of descriptive dialogue and waves of turbulent emotion, Chiaverini’s memorable tribute to an unjustly forgotten star of Victorian science is not only an absorbing read, but worthy of film as well.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on February 9, 2018

Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace
by Jennifer Chiaverini

  • Publication Date: December 5, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton
  • ISBN-10: 1101985208
  • ISBN-13: 9781101985205