Like father, like daughter? A Gothic short story by Ada Lovelace

26 November 2020

Literature

This blog includes temporary free access to correspondence published in Nineteenth Century Literary Society: The John Murray Publishing Archive. Click here or on the image below to view this item for free until 26th December 2020.

 

While most of us will be fortunate to earn one genuine ‘claim to fame’ in our lifetime, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (10 December 1815 – 27 November 1852) has two. Best known today for her contributions to the fields of mathematics and computer science, she also happened to be the daughter of a certain George Gordon Byron, the most famous poet of the Romantic era. Today being the anniversary of her death, I wanted to highlight a unique document: a work of fiction, not by Byron, but by his daughter.


Adam Matthew’s recently published resource, Nineteenth Century Literary Society: The John Murray Publishing Archive, includes the Byron Papers, which comprise the largest surviving collection of Lord Byron’s published works, private letters and documents associated with his family. One of the more unusual items in this collection is a commonplace book belonging to a teenaged Ada Lovelace. Written in Lovelace’s hand, the book contains a short story entitled The Neapolitan Brothers: a gothic tale replete with ghosts, skeletons and – in what seems to be a nod to her father’s Eastern Tales – a corsair boat. Incredibly, this document remained in obscurity until uncovered by an archivist at the National Library of Scotland. Published this year by the Bodleian Library with an introduction by Miranda Seymour, The Neapolitan Brothers is the only complete example of Lovelace’s fiction writing known to survive.

Commonplace Book of Ada Lovelace
Image © National Library of Scotland. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


The discovery of a work of fiction by Lovelace seems at first an exciting prospect – could it be that the daughter of Byron, known only for her work in analytical sciences, was actually a literary luminary in her own right? In reality, as Seymour recently wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, a closer reading of The Neapolitan Brothers reveals it to be a translation of part of The Ghost-Seer, an eighteenth-century gothic novel written by German author, Friedrich Schiller. With its Venetian setting and plot details including a dark religious conspiracy and necromancy, the novel proved popular in England, where Gothic fiction had been gaining readers. Unusually for a girl of her station, Lovelace had been learning German, though she was – by her own admission – not a skilled student.

Commonplace Book of Ada Lovelace
Image © National Library of Scotland. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


Byron’s influence on his daughter was limited: he died when Ada was only eight, and her mother had expressly forbidden her from reading his poetry until she was a teenager. Nevertheless, it appears that her choice of The Ghost-Seer as the basis for her own work may be linked to the most celebrated Gothic novel of the day: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, famously composed on a rainy day at Byron’s Swiss villa. As Seymour writes, part of The Ghost-Seer was included with an edition of Frankenstein published in 1831 – around the same date as the commonplace book. In her introduction to this edition, Shelley speaks of having been inspired by nameless ‘German ghost stories’.

Commonplace Book of Ada Lovelace
Image © National Library of Scotland. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

While Lovelace never followed in her father’s footsteps as a writer, she is celebrated as a pioneer in her own field. Nevertheless, as this document – together with the charming little skeleton doodled in the margins – demonstrates, there was more than a little of Lord Byron in his brilliant daughter.


Commonplace Book of Ada Lovelace will be available to access freely until 26th December 2020.

Nineteenth Century Literary Society: The John Murray Publishing Archive is available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions which have purchased a licence.

About the Author

Jade Bailey

Jade Bailey

I joined Adam Matthew's Editorial team in January 2017 and have since had the opportunity to work on projects including Trade Catalogues and the American Home, Colonial America and Service Newspapers of World War II. My academic background is in medieval manuscripts, French literature and the history of language.