|This voluminous (448 page) work of historical fiction is told in first person from the perspective of Ada Byron King (Lady Lovelace) herself. Nevertheless, as the author can count on the reader to have a 21st century appreciation of computer science and hatred of sexism, it provides a modern perspective on the life of the 19th century mathematician whom many consider to be the world's first computer programmer. There are, of course, many non-fictional sources that attempt to do the same but the fictional context brings the characters to life and makes them accessible to a wider audience. In that sense, it very much reminds me of Beyond the Limit, a novel which does something similar for Sofia Kovalevskaya. (The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is also a well-researched fictional portrayal of the life of Ada Lovelace, but of course Enchantress of Numbers is much more serious and realistic than that graphic novel!)
This novel does not have much to say about the discipline of mathematics in general. Moreover, it is not possible to learn any specific mathematical ideas or results from reading this book either. (A reader will know no more about the uses of or mathematics behind Babbage's "engines" after reading this book than before.) Rather, the focus is on the people and their interactions, much of it concerning the politics of British nobility and the prejudices that kept women out of math and science. For example, when Ada (now married to the the Earl of Lovelace) obtains the services of the mathematician Augustus De Morgan as a tutor, she writes
|(quoted from Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace)|
With Mr. De Morgan's guidance, I made great progress through differential and integral calculus, with such astonishing speed that he worried that I was studying too vigorously, and that it might prove injurious to my health. With unfortunately timing, I did happen to fall ill in late July, and he promptly wrote to my mother and to William expressing his concern that my constitution might not be robust enough to endure the study of mathematics. When they assured him that he was quite mistaken, he reminded them that he, not they, was the expert in this matter and that he was deeply worried about my "voracious attack" on mathematics. A lady should sit demurely and take instruction respectfully, he wrote, but I questioned him relentlessly, wanting to understand not only how something functions as it did, but why.
"I feel bound to tell you," he wrote to my mother, " that the power of thinking on these matters which Lady L. has always shown from the beginning of my correspondence with her, has been something so utterly out of the common way for any beginner, man or woman, that this power must be duly considered by her friends with reference to the question whether thy should urge or check her obvious determination to try not only to reach but to get beyond the present bound of knowledge."
In other words, I should strive to master only what was already known. I must not under and circumstances attempt to discover something new.
The questions I asked, Mr. De Morgan patiently explained, were simply not appropriate for any woman to ponder, not even Mary Somerville, whose books he used in teaching. The sixteenth-century mathematician Maria Agnesi, who had been appointed to the University of Bologna by Pope Benedict XIV, might have been -- might have been -- one remarkable exception, but otherwise such advanced studies were dangerous to the fragile female form. "No other female mathematician throughout history had wrestled with difficulties and shown a man's strength in getting over them," he explained. "The reason is obvious: the very great tension of mind which they require is beyond the strength of a woman's physical power of application."
As she has done in her other novels, such as the well received "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker", Chiaverini provides a glimpse of what life was like for women in the past. In this case, that woman happens to be a remarkable mathematician whose father was a World-famous poet and whose mother tried to use math to shield her from the dangers of being too creative. If you are interested in her life (and not so much in her math), then this work of historical fiction is one you might want to read.