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December 14, 2017

Frankenstein, Milton & the Computer

On this day in 1816, the Shelleys, Lord Byron and entourage gathered at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva to tell the ghost stories that would trigger Frankenstein. This most legendary of storm-tossed evenings may or may not have been a literary lightning bolt, as there are conflicting accounts of how Mary Shelley arrived at her idea, or how long she mulled it over. On the other hand, the June 19th evening and the lazy days at Byron's villa that summer inspired more than Frankenstein; and the byways of literature being what they are, the occasion has connections backwards to John Milton, and forwards to the language of computer programming.

Milton had been a Cambridge friend of Charles Diodati, and while touring Europe as a thirty-year-old he had visited Charles at the family villa. By Byron's time, the villa had become a rental, the region a prestigious resort area. When word circulated that the infamous Byron had taken up residence, one enterprising hotelier installed a telescope in order that his guests might get a close-up of the "League of Incest" -- Byron, Shelley, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont (half-sister to Mary, pregnant with Byron's child), John Polidori (Byron's physician) -- in action. One gossipy note sent back to England from a nearby villa testified to Byron cavorting with "another family of very suspicious appearance," though the communicant admitted, "How many he has at his disposal out of the whole set I know not. . . ."

Shelley's first-hand report of Diodati life describes not a harem but "a menagerie, with eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon; and all these, except the horses, walk about the house, which every now and then resounds with their unarbitrated quarrels, as if they were masters of it." Peace and quiet, let alone intimacy, does not seem likely; then again, not only did Mary Shelley find the privacy necessary to start plotting Frankenstein, layering in multiple associations with Milton's Paradise Lost, but Polidori was able to concentrate on what would become "The Vampyre," and Byron himself would write the third canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. This opens with a reference to Ada, his newly-born daughter:
    Is thy face like thy mother's, my fair child!
    Ada! sole daughter of my house and heart?
    When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smil'd, And then we parted. . . .
Their parting had been caused by the rumors of incest surrounding Byron's relationship with his half-sister, and it would prove to be permanent. Ada grew up estranged from both parents, and to be a mathematical genius. She worked with Charles Babbage, whose "Analytical Engine" is widely considered to have been the world's first computer, and her contributions were such that the programming language ADA is named in her honor. She died at the age of thirty-six, the same as her father; in her last years she was like her father in other ways, her difficulties including several romantic scandals, problems with alcohol and opium, and gambling debts.

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