Historical Soap Operas

Babbage's difference engine.Image courtesy of Larry Johnson. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

My mother’s memorial service was this past Saturday. That is not what this blog entry is about.

Instead, I want to talk about what I’ve been reading lately. It’s a biography of Ada Lovelace with the delightful title, Bride of Science.

Ada Lovelace, for those of you who spent high school not learning about the history of science, is widely considered to be the first computer programmer in history. She worked out proto-programs for Charles Babbage‘s difference engine, which–for those of you not familiar with it–is what happens when steam punk enthusiasts build a computer. Babbage was never able to build the entire thing, though he was eventually vindicated in 1991 when some English historians built one with the advantage of modern mold casting for the parts (covered in this biography, which I read last year, and which is interesting for that alone).

As the biography points out, in her own day, Ada Lovelace was far more famous for her parentage. She was the daughter of the poet Byron, the rockstar of his day, and her parents’ separation proceedings were the basis for some of the beginnings of what looks–to the modern reader–very much like modern celebrity culture.

I picked the biography partially because I enjoy reading about scientists, particularly women scientists. More than that, though, I have a deep and abiding love for science biographies from right around the time period where Ada Lovelace lived. Because there was So Much Science happening at that time, and scientific circles were confined to a series of fairly related genteel families, there are plenty of fascinating people about whom one can read. And–the part that’s fun for me–they show up in each other’s stories.

Charles Lyell shows up in Bride of Science as a charming young man flirting with the women of the salons. Lyell, a product of the Scottish Enlightenment, gained fame as the major player behind the idea of uniformitarianism (the idea that small changes, over time, lead to huge changes in the landscape). In this book, that’s important because of the close philosophical ties between uniformitarianism and Unitarianism, the religion to which Ada Lovelace (and–important for the divorce proceedings–her mother) belonged. The author quotes the ever-delightful Erasmus Darwin (the grandfather of Charles, and a poet) calling Unitarianism, “a featherbed to catch a falling Christian.”

In another biography, of course, one would focus instead on the fact that Lyell was friends with Charles Darwin, and it was of course the idea of deep geological time that allowed for Darwin to talk about deep biological time–and the gradual accumulation of small changes–as the basis for evolution by natural selection. In fact, while Ada Lovelace was admiring Babbage’s difference engine, Darwin was making the scientific connections that he would need in order to eventually feel comfortable–20 years later–publishing about his idea of evolution by natural selection based on his work aboard the HMS Beagle.

At the same time that all this is happening, there is a mention of Ada Lovelace’s mother (and later Ada) interacting with the Wedgewoods, a family primarily famous for its china production. Emma Wedgewood would, of course, go on to become Emma Darwin, and her conflicted feelings about the religious implications of her husband’s theory had a profound impact on him. He, of course, married her after making the world’s best pro/con list about taking a wife. It was sort of a coin toss between marrying somebody and getting a dog.

I love–and always have loved–characters over plot. The actual history of the Time War is less compelling to me than watching River Song shoot things, I hate Emma because I hate Emma, and my love for Harry Potter is the result of my love for Remus Lupin. This means that I love historical biography for the same reason that some folks love soap operas: a rotating cast of characters, all with distinct personalities, trailing around the peripheries of each other’s lives. It’s the stuff genre fiction is made of.

It is interesting to me that–from what I can tell–biography is one of the few literary places where character-driven books are taken seriously. Character-driven fiction often gets pawned off into genre fiction land, and genre fiction gets ignored as Not Real Literature. This has been on my mind a little more than usual lately, since later this month I’m going to go see Neil Gaiman–a king of genre fiction, some of it still generating cosplay 20 years after it was written–during the Atlanta stop of his last North American book tour. Explaining this to people has been a fun reminder that Neil Gaiman is a Big Deal in some circles of the world (my circles), and a complete unknown in most of it.

I think there is value in character-driven books, though, whether fiction of biography. Empathizing with individuals in literature builds emotional skills. It’s not a coincidence that most young adult fiction is about fairly mundane things happening to memorable characters. Part of teaching literate teenagers to be less terrible is allowing them to walk through the emotional experiences of others. They don’t need the great American novel quite so much as they need A Summer to Die, or The Fault in Our Stars*, or Franny and Zooey.

For me, in an uncertain time of my life, the need is similar. While figuring things out, I don’t need plot books. I need to read about Caroline Lamb sending her bloody pubic hair to Byron, and Emilie du Châtelet fighting with Voltaire in English so houseguests wouldn’t overhear. I need to see Newton poke his eye with a bodkin while stuck at home due to the plague, and poor, sweet Michael Faraday being cast aside by Humphry Davy over plagiarism allegations. I don’t have cable and can’t watch All My Children, but with a library card and some free time I can certainly have my stories.

* Everyone needs The Fault in Our Stars. And yes, it’s about cancer, but more than anything it’s about Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters having cancer.

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