Some people’s stories cast a spell long after their lives are over. Here are three to get lost in, starring Ada Lovelace, Thomas Cromwell and Napoleon.
Celebrity is an ephemeral state, created and destroyed by the public’s fickle interest and short attention span. But some people’s stories cast a spell long after their lives are over.
Take Ada Lovelace. Today there’s a bookstore, cafe and study space in Seattle — Ada’s Technical Books in the Capitol Hill neighborhood — named after a woman who lived 200 years ago, but predicted with uncanny accuracy the power of computers. Lovelace’s life was almost as amazing as her predictive gifts, and the public’s obsession with her and her beleaguered mother, Annabella, rivaled that of any of today’s Twitter sensations.
“In Byron’s Wake: The Turbulent Lives of Lord Byron’s Wife and Daughter Annabella Milbanke and Ada Lovelace” (Pegasus, 544 pp., $29.95), by veteran British biographer Miranda Seymour, is a new biography of the extraordinary mother-daughter pair. Where to start with this irresistible material? With a wedding. The innocent, aristocratic and very wealthy Annabella (1792-1860) was wooed by Lord Byron, the most incorrigible libertine and talented poet of his age. Byron needed a cash infusion, and the moneyed and landed Annabella was his ticket to solvency. A notorious seducer, Byron repaid Annabella’s devotion by carrying on an affair with his half-sister after his marriage.
Annabella and Byron divorced, but they had one child, Ada, Countess of Lovelace, (1815-52), who carried the strain of her mother’s mathematical genius and her father’s brilliance. She teamed up with Charles Babbage, a genius inventor but a lousy communicator, to bring the steam-powered computing machine proposed by Babbage to scientific and public attention. Ada’s predictions of its potential and its computing successors have earned her the title of “visionary prophet of our own technological age.”
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Seymour’s narrative is smooth and engaging, though there may be too much insider English gossip for some American readers’ tastes. She shows an acute understanding of the barriers of convention, sex and class navigated by both women. After her disastrous marriage, Annabella became a philanthropist and educational reformer. But Ada’s potential was never fulfilled; she battled severe mood swings, poor health and the entangling demands of life in Britain’s aristocracy. Who knows what she could have accomplished in another age? Seymour tells her story with wit and sympathy.
Perhaps no monarch on earth has claimed the fascination of the public like Henry the Eighth, the English king who married six times and who split the English church in two by demanding a divorce from his first wife, the Catholic Catherine of Aragon.
Henry’s political fixer, the commoner Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), rose and fell in the wake of Henry’s mercurial career. He has been vilified as a heartless schemer and self-serving greedhead who helped Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, lose her head on the chopping block, and who directed the execution of Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More.
British novelist Hilary Mantel overhauled Cromwell’s image when she came up with her mesmerizing portrait of Cromwell in two novels, 2009’s “Wolf Hall,” and its follow-up, 2012’s “Bring Up the Bodies.” (A third installment is tentatively scheduled for publication in 2019.) Both novels won Britain’s Man Booker prize, and their BBC adaptations are must-watch TV.
Now, acclaimed biographer Diarmaid MacCulloch, a professor of history at Oxford University, has weighed in with a new biography of Cromwell. “Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life” (Viking, 728 pp., $40) is destined to become the go-to biography of Cromwell for a couple of generations.
MacCulloch paints a portrait of Cromwell as a brilliant individualist with a talent for making money, a head for languages, an immoderate love of books and many friends. His life changed when Cromwell was recruited to serve the ill-fated Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, head of England’s church and an inveterate political schemer himself. After Cromwell’s loyalty to Wolsey was noted by Henry, the king pulled Cromwell into his circle and the maelstrom of Tudor politics. Cromwell survived for only a decade, but England would never be the same.
This exhaustively researched account follows Cromwell as he tries to manage the king’s fits of murderous rage and as political maneuvering in the Tudor court escalates into a horrifying litany of torture and executions of believers both Catholic and Protestant. Though Cromwell’s motives were far from pure, MacCulloch makes the case that his moves were more than Machiavellian. He burned with a desire to spread his Protestant faith and destroy the Catholic Church.
The author’s challenge is that most of Cromwell’s correspondence to others was destroyed after his execution, leaving historians to sift for clues in letters others addressed to him by others — Cromwell’s essence remains elusive. Still, this is a landmark portrait of a complex, confounding man.
Napoleon Bonaparte is another historical figure whose image will never fade — his wars of expansion and empire caused between 2.5 million and 3.5 million military deaths, with civilian deaths loosely estimated between 750,000 and 3 million.
I have foundered on the shoals of a couple of door stopper Napoleon biographies. So it was with gratitude that I found “The Invisible Emperor: Napoleon on Elba from Exile to Escape” by Mark Braude (Penguin Press, 384 pp., $28), a suspenseful, fast-paced account of the 10 months Napoleon spent in exile on the island of Elba.
After his allied enemies invaded France and captured Paris in 1814, Napoleon was banished to Elba by the European powers. Transported to the island by the Brits, he was permitted to set up his own kingdom with his own army (and his own favorite warhorses), within easy striking distance of France. One Scottish military officer was assigned to spy on the situation. What could possibly go wrong?
Braude’s prose glints with humor and humanity. We follow the fortunes of the bewildered citizens of Elba, as their beautiful but poverty-ridden island becomes ground zero for international intrigue. We get poignant glimpses of a time when life was shorter and simpler. When Napoleon landed on Elba, his appointed host, head of the Elban mines, realized he had no meat in the house to feed his special guest. So he ran out and caught a fish, “a whopping great porgy.”
Braude portrays Napoleon as a human dynamo ill-equipped to take advantage of the austere charms of the “isle of rest,” as the emperor called his prison. “I have never seen a man in any situation of life with so much personal activity and restless perseverance,” wrote Neil Campbell, the hapless Scotsman assigned to monitor and report on Napoleon’s days. “He appears to take so much pleasure in perpetual movement and in seeing those who accompany him sink under fatigue.”
Campbell, going starkers from his own enforced exile on Elba, spent ever longer interludes on the Italian coast (a beautiful Italian countess helped break the tedium) and missed the signals of Napoleon’s plans for escape from Elba. And Napoleon did break out — he landed his own invading army on the coast of France, and two weeks later, the Bourbon King Louis XVIII fled.
Napoleon’s last war of conquest ended with the battle of Waterloo, where 25,000 of the French died and about 23,000 allied soldiers were killed or wounded. Braude concludes that Napoleon was a deluded egotist at the center of his own epic dream, blind to its consequences: “Tens of thousands died at Waterloo because of one restless, middle-aged man’s crisis of identity, which was, above all, a crisis of vision,” Braude writes. “A failure to see what really mattered.”