Woman of the Week: Ada Lovelace (née Augusta Ada Byron)

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Ada in 1840 (by Alfred Edward Chalon)

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) is known as the ‘mother of modern computing’, but not by nearly enough of the world. The only legitimate child of the famous poet, Lord Byron, she deserves fame in her own right for her contributions to computing and mathematics, a field vastly different from her father’s.

Ada never knew Lord Byron, thanks in part to his dying when she was just 8 years old, but more specifically due to her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke, maintaining a violent dislike for her husband, who she considered insane. Hoping to discourage any similar tendencies in their only offspring, she encouraged Ada to study mathematics and science, which she believed would help subdue poetic (and thus insane) proclivities.

Whether due to her mother’s grooming or her own natural talent, Ada’s zest for innovation and learning manifested at an early age. When she was just 12, Ada was designing wings to allow human flight, using her anatomical observations of birds to determine the size, shape and materials that would best achieve her goal.

Her education was enhanced greatly by the opportunity of having Mary Somerville, one of the first known female scientists, as a tutor. Becoming close friends with the Scottish mathematician, it was Somerville who both encouraged her studies in higher mathematics and who would eventually introduce her to Charles Babbage in 1833. The 17 year old scholar quickly gained his respect and began an extensive correspondence with him in which they discussed mathematics and Babbage’s invention, an early calculator he called the difference machine. Babbage clearly respected his gifted protégée, coming to refer to her as the ‘Enchantress of Number’.

Ada shed her famous father’s name in 1835, upon marrying William King, later the first Earl of Lovelace. Fortunately, King appears to have supported her scholastic pursuits, and together the couple enjoyed the society of various known academics of the time including Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens. Family life didn’t prevent Ada’s continuing endeavours – in fact, her most famous contributions were made only after the birth of her third and last child.

In 1842, Ada started translating a French work describing Babbage’s newest computational concept, called Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage. However, the notes and algorithms that she added to the basic translation were so abundant that by the time it was published, the work was largely her own.

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Though not visually impressive, the Bernouli algorithm is recognised today as the world’s first computer program

There remains contention regarding whether Ada herself wrote an algorithm intended to compute Bernouli numbers, widely considered to be the first known computer program. While it is certain that she worked on it, some scholars believe that the actual calculations were performed by Babbage, with Ada only editing it and specifically correcting a major error made by the older mathematician. Regardless of the exact details, it was remarkable work for the 26 year old that gives Ada and Babbage every right to their titles as the ‘mother and father’ of computer programming.  In addition, Ada is credited with being the first to recognise the wider application of using algorithms for any sort of information, such as music or language, by converting the data into numerical form. Today, this concept seems meaninglessly abstruse or glaringly self-evident: at the time, it was revolutionary.

“[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations…” – (notes on Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage, 1843)

Sadly, from 1843, Ada’s health declined and she began to drink heavily and rely on opiates prescribed as painkillers, causing her moods to be erratic. Her habit of gambling resulted in huge debts after she tried unsuccessfully to devise a mathematical model allowing for large wins, and this minor scandal was exacerbated by rumours of affairs with various men. She died tragically young in 1852, aged just 36, from uterine cancer.

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A portrait of Ada in 1836, jokingly described thus in a letter: “I conclude [the artist] is bent on displaying the whole expanse of my capacious jaw bone upon which the word Mathematics should be written.” (by Margaret Carpenter)

Woman of the Week: Desirée Clary (née Bernardine Eugénie Désirée Clary)

Desirée Clary (1777-1860) was a woman who knew how to climb the social ladder. Born the daughter of a reasonably wealthy silk merchant in Marseilles, she ended up being the Queen of two nations and a political informant within the French government. That begs the question – well, how? The answer is simple, as technically all she had to do was marry the right man, but the story is far more interesting.

It starts just after the French Revolution, when in 1794 Desirée became engaged to a young soldier from Corse called Bonaparte, but the arrangement was broken off so that Desirée’s older sister, Julie, could marry him instead. A bad deal for Desirée? Not really, considering that the change was suggested by Bonaparte’s younger brother, who had his eye on Desirée himself – another soldier, very recently elevated to the status of general, whose first name just so happened to be Napoleon.

In another turn of events that ended up being a blessing in surprise, Napoleon soon abandoned Desirée to become involved with Josephine de Beauharnais, a wealthy and influential widow in the Parisian ‘set’. Throughout his life, though, he maintained a respect and affection for his one-time fiancée that would give her a unique position within the inner machinations of the French government.

Returning to Paris after a sojourn in Italy with her sister, Desirée soon found herself romantically linked to another French general, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who she married in 1798. Bernadotte was already a well-known and well-liked figure in the military before Napoleon’s rise to power, and was seen by many as the ideal alternative to the despotic Bonaparte. As the wife and ex-fiancee of these two powerful rivals, Desirée had to contend with both factions trying to use her as a political pawn.

Though Bonaparte hoped to end Bernadotte’s military and political influence in 1809, when he stripped the other man of the Marshal’s baton (and rank) that he had bestowed upon him in 1804, a healthy dose of karma helped to balance the scales again. Bernadotte’s benevolent treatment of some Swedish prisoners brought him to the attention of the aging, heirless King Charles XIII of Sweden, who eventually adopted him as his royal heir.

Thus Desirée became the Crown Princess, and inevitably, after the old King’s death in 1818, the Queen of Sweden and Norway. Finding the -20 weather that greeted her upon her first arrival in Sweden to be rather not to her taste, Desirée flatly refused to stay in her adopted kingdom and returned to Paris instead, where she remained for 12 years.

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Desirée as Queen Consort in 1822 (by Fredric Westin)

Whilst there, though her personal relationship with Bernadotte drifted into insignificance, she stayed in close contact with him so as to provide Sweden with the latest political news in Europe and France. By receiving important personages like Talleyrand and
Fouché
, and playing on her lingering intimacy with Napoleon, she helped to mediate political conflicts between the country of her birth and that of which she became Queen, despite a self-professed lack of interest in politics and government.

Though Desirée did eventually move permanently to Sweden in 1823, to remain until her death, the French habits and expectations that she clung to were at odds with Swedish culture, and she never truly adapted to – or was adopted by – the nation with the enthusiasm of her husband.

On Travelling Alone

I used to hate the idea of travelling alone. It seemed so boring, so lonely, and practically a waste of time – who wants to go do anything when you have no one to discuss it with? Where’s the point in looking at a famous church if you can’t inform the person beside you of your opinion on the décor?

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Snapchat helped me share my rage at this sign forbidding you from sitting down in a public square, even if you’re as depressed as the little figure looks

Now, though, I’ve been sightseeing alone in Paris for three months, and I’ve just spent three delightful days as a single traveller in Venice. As it turns out, travelling alone can be tonnes of fun, and even considerably better than travelling with other people. Why’s that? Well, in a word, it’s about freedom.

Plus, I have Snapchat these days, so I can always just broadcast my opinions via low-quality photos with witty* captions.

Even if you get on terribly well with your friend/partner/relative, you’re sure to have a few disagreements, however slight, on how to sightsee or properly enjoy a new place. That’s completely normal: we all have different opinions on what’s important to see or do, and no one can really say what the ‘right’ way to be a tourist is.

Money can be a major issue, whether because of differences in budget or just dispute over what’s worth spending money on – I, personally, love sampling the specialities of any new region, and I’m willing to pay a little more to have the traditional sarda in saor at an authentic, atmospheric cicchetti bar instead of just eating slices of pizza which, though cheap and delicious, can be obtained relatively easily where I live. There’s a million examples, though, like whether you prefer to spend your money on museum entry and go everywhere on foot, or would rather pay for the public transport but content yourself with glancing at the exterior of every famous monument. And how much is too much for accommodation?

It’s obvious why it can feel stifling to holiday with someone with a different budget or just a different sense of value to you, because no one likes to pay for things they didn’t particularly want to do, or, conversely, to feel guilty about putting someone else in that situation. But that’s just one aspect of travelling, and perhaps you and your potential travel buddies are lucky enough to not worry about how much you’re spending. Even then, travelling with anybody else means making compromises between what you want to do, and what they want to do.

I woke up early and left my hostel early to make the most of the light, but some people would rather have slept in, or dawdled over their breakfast or doing their makeup. To me, that seems a waste of time, but they’d probably think the same of me happily getting lost in backstreets and retracing my steps to that pasticceria I saw last night which had such delectable pan del doge in its window.

Travelling alone, though, meant that I could do exactly that, and that I could choose to eat pastries for breakfast every day instead having, y’know, the vaguely healthy option of fruit and cereal and bread rolls that would have cost me the same as my beloved cannolo Sicialiano and espresso shot but wouldn’t have pleased me nearly as much.

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Eating pastries by the lagoon was literally what I came to Venice for, after all.

 

It meant that I could spend as long as I wanted trying to find the perfect postcard, and not worry about being judged for not spending enough time admiring the Tintoretto paintings I’d paid good money to see at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. It meant that I didn’t need to worry about whether my travel companion minded taking a detour to see this basilica I’d heard was kinda pretty, or, alternately, if they’d be awfully disappointed if I couldn’t be bothered going to see Torcello.

I delighted in being left to my own devices because I was the only one to bear the consequences of my

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Buying these, for instance, was definitely the right choice

decisions – that being, in this case, very sore feet after foregoing the expensive waterbuses in favour of walking everywhere and spending the money on obsessively consuming fritelle, a type of fried doughnut often filled with cream, chocolate or zabaglione which I frequently ate in lieu of real meals. They were divine, and I regret none of it. And that is the crux of the matter: I could make choices based entirely around my own impulses, without worrying about inconveniencing others. I had the freedom to do, quite simply, whatever I wanted. And it was wonderful.

 

*witty according to me, whose opinion I value most

 

 

 

Woman of the Week: Elizabeth von Arnim (née Mary Annette Beauchamp)

avt_elizabeth-von-arnim_9068Born at Kirribilli Point, Australia in 1866 to British parents and the little-known cousin of New Zealand poet, Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth von Arnim published her first semi-autobiographical book, Elizabeth and her German Garden, after her then-husband, Baron von Arnim, was imprisoned for fraud and debts. Despite claiming to have no taste for work, indeed, informing us that “There is nothing so absolutely bracing for the soul as the frequent turning of one’s back on duties,” (Elizabeth and her German Garden), from 1898 onwards, she had a reasonably prolific output of more than 20 books, often based heavily on her own life and experiences. Her irreverence towards the private nature of her relationship with her husband, or indeed to appropriate behaviour in general, as well as her disregard for the odd beliefs and biases about love and the sexes that pervaded her era, can be seen from the thick satire ubiquitous in her work.

“But there are no men here,” said Mrs. Wilkins, “so how can it be improper? Have you noticed,” she inquired of Mrs. Fisher, who endeavoured to pretend she did not hear, “How difficult it is to be improper without men?” (The Enchanted April, 1910)

With her first book becoming rapidly popular, Elizabeth was soon associating with the literary names of the time, becoming mistress to H.G. Wells for some years and including E.M. Forster among her children’s tutors. Throughout her life, though, Elizabeth’s cheerfully acknowledged misanthropy, so often alluded to in her work – “It is true she liked him most when he wasn’t there, but then she usually liked everybody most when they weren’t there.” (The Enchanted April) – allowed to be quite capable of contenting herself alone, and indeed she demonstrated her taste for independence with her frequent relocations throughout Europe. To travel so willingly and so much as a single mother was already notable, but showed the strength of her personality even more so when she moved to the United States after separating from her second husband, the second Earl Russell -who  was known colloquially as ‘the Wicked Earl’ due to being tried for bigamy and who she never officially divorced.

Elizabeth’s writing is filled with her original and somewhat cynical opinions on society and the various absurdities she observed within it, delivered with what became a signature style of wit – a kind of flippant satire that makes her characters feel intimately relatable, like a cheerful old friend. After all, who can disagree when Elizabeth warns of the danger of extended family?

“Oh, my dear, relations are like drugs, – useful sometimes, and even pleasant, if taken in small quantities and seldom, but dreadfully pernicious on the whole, and the truly wise avoid them.” (Elizabeth and her German Garden, 1898)

Even in death, Elizabeth entertains us, requesting an epitaph that read parva sed apta (‘small but apt’ in Latin), referencing her rather short stature. Sadly, however, in spite of her impelling honesty and famous friends, Arnim, who preferred to style herself simply as ‘Elizabeth’, though her birth name was in fact Mary Annette, has been largely forgotten by the reading public today.

Famous Works (freely available via Project Gutenberg):

Elizabeth and her German Garden, 1898
Vera, 1931

 

Woman of the Week: Artemisia Gentileschi

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Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (between 1638 and 1639 – Royal Collection, England)

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) was internationally famous in her own time, despite the obvious prejudices of 17th century Europe, being invited personally to the court of English king Charles I and enjoying the patronage of Cosimo II de Medici. Today, she is academically recognised as one of the most accomplished painters of the period, but remains largely forgotten, instead of claiming her place in public knowledge among the likes of Rubens, Caravaggio, or even her father, Orazio Gentlileschi. The first female to be admitted to the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, her fame was partly – and rightly – due to her fascinatingly expressive and skilful paintings, but also to her dramatic personal life, echoes of which reverberate throughout her work.

 

With her father already a famous painter who included Caravaggio, known for his introduction of chiaroscuro to the world of Renaissance painting among his close friends, it was natural that Artemisia began painting at an early age, with

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Susanna and the Elders (1610 – Schonbrön Collection, Pommersfelden)

her first major artwork, Susanna and the Elders, marking her debut onto the painting scene. She was just 17 when the canvas was finished, and already making a name for herse
lf with the controversial subject choice as much as her obvious talent. Unfortunately, she rose to notoriety shortly after for a rather more upsetting reason, when Agostino Tassi, a fellow artist hired to the tutor the young Artemisia, raped the still teenaged girl in her own house. The case went to trial, lasting a staggering seven months, and the entire transcription of the proceedings has been miraculously retained. In it, Artemisia states that she threw a knife at her assailant, shouting ‘I’d like to kill you with this knife because you have dishonoured me’. Eventually, Tassi was found guilty, but the experience, unsurprisingly, had a profound effect on Artemisia’s painting.

 

Many of her portraits are now interpreted as intensely autobiographical, with Artemisia favouring strong female characters from the Bible or popular mythology and depicting them with a sense of agency and emotion practically unseen at the time. One of her most famous pieces, Judith Slaying Holofernes, is largely accepted to represent Artemisia as Judith, finally exacting her revenge on Tassi in the form of Holofernes, an infamous general from the Old Testament. The grim determination of Judith as she saws off the head of a screaming but helpless Holofernes is one of the most chilling examples of Artemisia expressing herself, as a female in an incredibly male-dominated world, through Biblical allegory. Artemisia’s deviation from social expectations in her depiction of women shows, quite clearly, how she defied against a culture inclined to ignore her with the most powerful weapon she had – her art.

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Judith Slaying Holofernes (between 1614 and 1620 – National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples)

 

On Glimpses of the true Paris

I’m currently living in France, ostensibly to learn the language but largely to ensure that I don’t fall into the habit of becoming too entrenched in my Australian habits and can maintain the illusion of being cultured and worldly. After all, if all Australians thought my accent sounded Australian when I am, after all, Australian, how would I live with myself?

After just 3 months, it’s hard to judge how much I’ve changed. I have learned, for instance, not to question the young man with his two freshly-purchased baguettes strapped perpendicularly to the parcel rack of his bike like some delicious, gluten-heavy stabiliser. In fact; I commiserate with him. Baguettes are delicious but terribly impractical for shoving into your hold-all handbag, and so I always glance at the mothers pushing prams with half a metre of bread sticking out of them with a sense of quiet fellowship.

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This is a thing people actually do. Although not necessarily so stylishly.

But I still can’t help but wonder at the well-dressed woman on a bicycle stopping at the red light with her 3 inch shiny black heels just barely touching the ground. Her attire is perfect corporate-elegance, and I’m sure her makeup is impeccable. The neon yellow high-vis vest is the only thing that looks out of place, but I’m glad to think she’s not sacrificing her safety to the ever-greedy fashion gods.

 

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Every so often, I start to feel the dark tendrils of guilt creeping across my soul as I stroll idly about the city, doing little more productive than Snapchatting museum displays and reading Elizabeth von Arnim books at the train station. A few glimpses of what I would like to assume are the true Parisians, though, have reassured me. My favourite instance might be that of the two men I’d call middle-aged to their face but describe as old to my friends, sitting on a bench outside the Pere Lachaise cemetery and drinking a bottle of red wine from disposable plastic tumblers at 11 in the morning. They helped remind that whenever I’m focusing simply on dissolutely enjoying myself, I am, in fact, getting perfectly into the spirit of Paris.

On Feminism and Good Taste

My parents encouraged me to be egalitarian, to care about being kind and fair, and to stand up for what I believe in. These are all excellent qualities to pass on, and are the basis of my feminism today. And yet at the same time as they instilled these values in me, they warned me to not cause scenes, and not get angry at people if they’re doing something wrong. They wanted me to know whatever facts I needed to know about sex, but they didn’t want me to ever, god forbid, mention the topic. Their opinion on the LGBT* community was always simple: ‘I don’t care what anyone else does with their sex life but I don’t want to know about it – it’s just not right to discuss that kind of thing in public!’

I can completely understand why they taught me these rules of society, because they live in a world that considers good taste, politeness and breeding to be very important. I still think those things are important myself, it’s just that I’ve expanded my idea of good taste to include two of most vital components of feminism – unbiased discussion of sex, anatomy and sexuality, and a willingness to dispute the status quo and keep arguing even if it might upset someone.

I’ve never been shy about calling people out for doing something wrong, whether it’s speeding, littering or using offensive language. And yet it’s with feminist issues that people get most upset with me and tell me to ‘be nice’ and ‘not cause a fuss’ if I dare tell someone they’re being rude. It’s weird, really: I get accused of being mean when I’m asking someone to stop doing something that’s hurtful or offensive.

Unfortunately, there’s still this strange expectation that if you’re well-raised, you won’t maintain an argument with someone for fear of upsetting them, and it’s a really poisonous concept because it suggests that a single individual’s feelings are more important than the entire idea of social equality. Of course no one should be rude for the sake of it, or angry if they don’t have to be – but to be told you’re not acting appropriately because you’re standing your ground on issues you care about it is ridiculous.

The other issue with trying to be fiercely feminist while making sure you don’t disappoint your grandmother is, of course, that of polite language and taboo topics. Polite society, apparently, pretends that sex and sexuality doesn’t exist except as a means to make babies. I’m told that ‘you shouldn’t talk about vaginas in public’. I’m told it’s not what nice girls do. But I study biology, and vaginas are totally fascinating. Apart from my own interest, girls absolutely have a right to discuss their own body parts so that they can look after themselves better.

I can’t help but sigh at the craziness of a situation where people accuse me of not being ‘well-raised’ because I’m happy to discuss sex and happy to do battle against sexism. Being well-raised has nothing to do with whether you talk about penises and vaginas or not. As with so many things, it’s about how you do it. Is it conversation based on common interest, on exchanging facts and opinions with each other, or are you just making cruel comments or sexualised suggestions? Are you sharing information, or just perpetuating sexist myths?

In the same way, being-well raised doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be angry at people. It means you should know the right times to be angry. Is the person you’re arguing making a choice that harms others? Or are you just upset over something that isn’t their fault? As long as it’s the former, feel free to keep arguing as much as you’d like.

I find it funny, because I’ve always been a huge supporter of ‘good taste’. I hate to imagine that someone would consider me badly brought up – I want to immediately point out my wide reading, my travels, my good works, my broad perspective. To think that someone would dismiss the positive values and wide experience that govern my life because of something as inane as me using the word vulva makes me first laugh, then sigh when I remember that that’s what does happen. Nonetheless, regardless of whether it makes some people think worse of me, I’m convinced of one thing: being well-raised should never mean you can’t talk about the things important to you, especially if acquiescing to the demands of politeness means perpetuating injustice against yourself or others.