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Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land Paperback – July 3, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. On a stormy night at Lord Byron's Swiss villa, Mary Shelley challenged her host, her husband and herself to write a ghost story. Mary's, of course, became Frankenstein. Byron supposedly soon gave up his—but, Crowley asks, what if he didn't? The result is this brilliant gothic novel of manners enclosed in two frames. In one, Byron's manuscript comes into the hands of Ada, his daughter by his estranged wife. Ada, in reality, became famous as a proto-cyberneticist, having collaborated on mathematician Charles Babbage's "difference engine." In Crowley's novel, Ada ciphers Byron's work into a kind of code in order to keep it from her mother. The second frame consists of the contemporary discovery of Ada's notes on Byron's story by Alexandra Novak, who's researching Ada for a Web site dedicated to the history of women in science. Alex is, a little too conveniently (this novel's one structural flaw), the estranged daughter of a Byron scholar and filmmaker; her interest in Ada dovetails with her father's interest in Byron, and she's fascinated by the notes and the code both. By applying Byron's scintillating epistolary style to the novel he should have written, Crowley creates a pseudo-Byronic masterpiece. The plot follows Ali, the bastard son of Lord "Satan" Sane and an unfortunate minor wife of a minor Albanian "Bey." Sane finds and takes the boy, aged 12, back to Regency England. Ali's life is filled with gothic events, from the murder of his father (of which he is accused) to his escape from England with the help of a "zombi," the fortuitous and critical aid he gives the English army at the Battle of Salamanca and his love affair with a married woman. The myth of Byron's lost papers has a catalyzing effect on American literary genius, giving us James's Aspern Papers and now Crowley's best novel.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Did Byron leave behind a novel? That's the premise of this one, which posits that the manuscript ended up in the hands of his brilliant daughter, Ada. Around 150 years later, Ada's notes on the text, a tantalizing single page of the manuscript, and several pages of numbers are discovered by another brainy daughter, Alexandra Novak, an American who is in London researching the lives of British women of science for a Web site called Strong Woman Story. Alexandra (or Smith, as she is called) enlists the help of her lover Thea, a mathematician, and her estranged father, Lee, once a professor of Byron studies, to unravel the mystery of the novel, which Ada claimed was destroyed. Crowley's use of three different devices--Byron's work, a convincing piece of romantic fiction rich with thinly disguised autobiographical elements; Ada's annotations; and a series of e-mails exchanged in the present day--adds up to an intriguing and multilayered whole. This book should appeal to fans of another literary mystery, A. S. Byatt's Possession (1991). Mary Ellen Quinn
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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For those unfamiliar, one of the first programming languages in data processing in the 1950's was "Ada" so named to honor Ada Lovelace! Ada Lovelace, lovechild daughter of the notorious Lord Byron, wrote the computer logic for friend John Babbage's first computer the Difference Engine, some 150 years before the first completed working computer the Univac! Babbage's first computer was not built by the English government, mostly because of the expense and the friction of the moving parts, wooden and steel gears.
But logically, Babbages computer WOULD HAVE WORKED and the computer age might have started in the 1800s! See the steampunk book "Difference Engine" for a description of how Babbage's computer would have transformed England and the world had the work not been abandoned.
It would have worked and Ada Lovelace's logic and programming ideas would have RUN THIS COMPUTER in the early 1800's instead of waiting for the mid 20th century! True!
Lord Byron, (so far as we know) did not write a novel, but was arguably the greatest poet of his age. The woman he jilted, Ada's mother, hated him and forbade Ada from mentioning his name or ever associating him.
He partied and drank a whole lot and died trying to swim the Hellespont.
But IF he had written that novel and IF it had gone to his daughter after his death and IF she had used a programming language to hide it's content from her hateful overbearing mother, it might have taken till the 20th century and computer programs and code breakers to decipher and reconstruct Lord Byron's Novel!
Now that having been said this is not John Crowley's best. That honor goes to "Little BIG" or the four book "Aegypt" series, or perhaps "Engine Summer".
But this is a very clever effort and a very clever idea.!
Crowley's premise is that Byron did indeed produce a completed novel, The Evening Land, that was suppressed by his estranged wife Lady Byron. Crowley imagined that the novel was preserved by Byron's daughter, Ada Byron King, Countess Lovelace, who is widely acknowledged to be the first computer programmer. Crowley's Lovelace is forced to burn the manuscript of The Evening Land by her mother, but she enciphers it first. Enter Alexandra "Smith" Novak, a web programmer for the website strongwomanstory.org. She and one of the website's benefactors are given a mysterious bequest by a mysterious man. It turns out to be the enciphered novel. Smith engages her own estranged (and notorious) father, a former Byron scholar turned filmmaker exiled from the United States because of a past nearly as sordid as Byron's, and her partner, Dr. Thea Spann, a mathematician, to help her decode the cipher. In the process, Crowley discusses the complex relationships between both fathers--Byron and Lee Novak--and their daughters--Ada and Smith.
This book is an amazing achievement. I've read enough Romantic-era novels and Byronic poetry to hear Byron's authentic voice in the novel uncovered in the frame narrative of its discovery. Even Harold Bloom, that illustrious champion of Romantic poetry (and dead white males) enjoyed the novel and gave it a positive blurb:
"Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land is an extraordinary confluence of High Romanticism and our Information Era: every note in it rings with authenticity. `The Evening Land' is a novel Byron indeed might have written, and his daughter, Ada, as created by Crowley, is vividly memorable, worthy of her exuberant father."
If I can be allowed one quick digression, that last line smacks of all kinds of sexism to me, but that's Harold Bloom for you. The fact is, Crowley's Ada is "vividly memorable," as is her "exuberant father," either written or historically. The novel is a thinly veiled retelling of Byron's own life in many respects, and through her preservation of the novel, Ada comes to make peace with her father. Crowley's story certainly explains one of the great mysteries of Byron's legacy--Why would his daughter, taught to hate her father by a mother poisoned by her own ill will for Byron, wish to be buried beside the father she had never met?
The emails between Lee and Smith, as well as between Smith and Thea, among other letters, form an epistolary frame in which Byron's novel and Ada's commentary are enclosed and share a similar story. Smith, like Ada, rediscovers her estranged father through his work, but the difference is that her father is still alive, and she has, if she chooses, the opportunity to end the estrangement.
I struggled with how to rate this novel because as an authentic Romantic novel, the parts containing Byron's "writing" were dense, overblown, and worthy of Sir Walter Scott. Sometimes I had to plow through those sections even while admiring how much like Byron Crowley managed to write. The emails and letters were, on the other hand, quick reads. I like the format of the novel, the frame narrative and epistolary interchange. In the end, Byron's novel was as good as any other Romantic novel I've read, and that's saying something of Crowley's achievement. I can't think of too many writers who could pull off a feat like this, and whether I was able to put the book down at times or not, I have to tip my hat to his talent.