13th October, 2018
Palace Green Library
Review by Amy Strong
Eccentric, brilliant, preeminent and broken: Byron’s talent and influence as a poet is undeniable, but his personal life was scandal galore. A flagrant womaniser, Byron had multiple affairs, but Miranda Seymour focuses her new book, In Byron’s Wake, on just two of the women in Byron’s life: his first and last wife, Annabella Milbanke, and the daughter she conceived with him, Ada Lovelace.
At Durham Book Festival, Seymour discussed with Professor Claire Harman the process of writing this book, from the extensive research conducted to what she wanted to achieve through her work, in which she examines the frustration and predicaments of living in the shadow of such a great and damaged man. For much of the conversation, the notorious – nowadays almost comical – painting of Byron in Albanian dress by Thomas Phillips loomed over the stage. The symbolism was impossible to disregard.
What came out in the discussion was a series of contrasts and similarities: the opposing personalities of chaotic, volatile Byron and his poised and demure wife; the shared genius of Byron and his daughter Ada; and, perhaps most importantly, the disparity in how history has treated Ada compared to her mother. Seymour explained that one of her main aims with this book was to offer a little kindness to Milbanke, a woman whose philanthropy and progressive nature constantly drew her to social causes, such as women’s rights, prison reforms, and the abolition of slavery, but whose name in the history books has been seemingly forever tarnished by her affiliation with Byron. While Lovelace has become the poster-girl for pioneering women in science since she contributed so much to the development of what we now consider ‘the computer age’, Milbanke is rarely discussed beyond her relationship with Byron, perhaps because we often value genius more than altruism.
In this way, Seymour’s book forces us to rethink the characteristics we value as a society, as well as raising questions about how we view and measure women in relation to the men in their lives.
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.