Thursday, September 22, 2011

Musing on Gardening-Writers: At Ashley Coombe - Byron’s Women in Somerset

Map picture
Reading between gardening and writerly lines and after much research it has become evident that many C18/19 writing women who gardened seemed to have dual interests and preoccupations. Elizabeth Countess of Ilchester and her female relatives were especially prolific on both fronts, with their gardens at their estates at Redlynch, Abbotsbury and Melbury.
‘Though I am planting, I write, which I look on as great merit especially as you have never wrote to me’, Elizabeth, wrote to her husband in the early 1760’s. Her words to her husband indicate that writing and gardening may have been interrelated activities for her.
The women connected with Redlynch are fascinating, both for their gardening and for their writings, but here I want to take a quick look at another infamous family whose members also had links with the Westcountry. Several of Byron’s female descendants had close associations with Somerset.

Ada, Countess of Lovelace’s association with Ashley Combe, which estate is set on the wild and liminal landscapes of the northern Devon-Somerset borders, may not emphasise her own interest there as gardener and, as with other women gardeners, it is hard to assess how much impact she may have had there on the creation of Ashley Combe’s garden. However, all the stories about the poet’s daughter - whose romantically wild imaginative propensity made her, rather than poet, an ‘enchantress of numbers’ - refer to the so-called ‘Philosopher’s Walk’, terraces where Ada and Babbage are reputed to have walked whilst discussing the mathematical principles behind the ‘Difference Engine’. Ashley Combe’s gardens consisted of terraced walks, each backed by a row of alcoves and joined by spiral stairs. Beyond these were more open gardens facing out of the woods down to the stream below. These contained hot-houses. Beyond these again were woodland walks, ornamented by decorative towers, turrets and archways. Tunnels led tradesmen up from the road to the trade entrance of the house so their carts could not be seen from the house (Ada Lovelace and Exmoor). Ada loved to bathe in private and a bath-house was built into the cliff, which was approached by a woodland walk and steps. (Everything Exmoor). It was apparently her husband whose fascination with tunnels led to the estate’s intricate garden construction, yet, Ada’s predilection for outdoor spaces is evident. During one critical and transformative episode of her life when she was visiting Newstead, Byron’s ancestral estate, whilst wandering alone in the garden, she was overcome by ghostly evocations of her father’s past.
According to her biographer, Ada loved Ashley Combe, this ‘little outpost of civilisation on the edge of the vast, empty wilderness of Exmoor’, (The Bride of Science, Woolley 179) where, whenever she could she would ‘take off on an expedition ... over hills, valleys, moors, down, every variety of wild or beautiful country’.

   As a writer of science, Ada’s own ambivalent artistic creativity, which enabled her to traverse boundaries between and through literary generic boundaries, may have been fostered by her roamings along the wild edges of the south-west’s borderline landscapes; along with county boundaries, she could cross over thresholds of place and time, intuiting the area’s ‘intoxicating mix of the sentimental, the supernatural, the passionate, the nostalgic, the wild and the wayward’(Woolley, 182), as well as its associative links with the ethos of the Romantic poets’ engagement with scientific discovery. ‘If you cannot find us it is because we have fallen off your maps’, she wrote. Ada’s own unique contribution to science as writer is summed up here:
‘Louis Menebrea, published a memoir in French on the subject [of the ‘Analytical Engine’].Babbage enlisted Ada as translator for the memoir. When she showed Babbage her translation he suggested that she add her own notes, which turned out to be three times the length of the original published in 1843, she specified in complete detail a method for calculating Bernoulli numbers with the Engine, recognised by historians as the world's first computer program. A software language developed by the U.S. Department of Defense was named "Ada" in her honor in 1979. The computer centre in Porlock is also named after her. Ada also saw wider possibilities for the machine, speculating that such a machine might be used to compose complex music, to produce graphics, and would be used for both practical and scientific use’. 
(Lovelace and Exmoor)

  Ada’s daughter and Byron’s granddaughter, Lady Anne Blunt, following her mother, gained notoriety as traveller and writer. Although her output as writer has tended to be overshadowed by the canon of critical preference for the contributions and alterations to her work by her more outrageous husband, she kept journals and the books Bedouin Tribes of the Euphrates and A Pilgrimage to Nejd are said to be derived from material taken from them. 
It was:
'her clear and accurate narrative [that] formed the whole substance of the book and without her knowledge of Arabic, and the sympathy and understanding with which she conversed with the tribesmen wherever she went, they could not have been written at all',


wrote Mary, Countess of Lovelace, Anne Blunt’s sister in law in a critique of Anne's books. Mary also said of Anne’s exotic travels that ‘to the end of her life the romance and delight of these wild journeys were never far from her memory’. Mother and daughter may have been inspired by the spectacular settings of the romantic childhood gardens at Ashley, which were set within the elemental edge-lands of the moor, sea and county boundaries. 

It was Mary, the 2nd Countess of Lovelace, Ada’s daughter in law, who is still especially remembered for her re-envisionings of the Ashley Combe estate, where with the help of the Arts and Craft architect Charles Voysey, she redesigned the gardens. (See Philosopher’s Garden). Mary Lovelace was herself another writing participant from the female community of Byron’s descendants centred at Ashley Combe. She contributed to the on-going saga of the so-called Byron mystery and wrote a biography of her husband, which includes anecdotal accounts of others in his family, as well as a description of her mother in law. Mary Lovelace also penned various articles.
     The day I first visited Ashley Combe I was only able to view the surrounding landscapes. These are luscious and inspirational to any artist or writer. Next time I go there I shall find the Culbone trail which winds beneath the estate and from where you can see the ruins and relics of this special garden … And therein, towards Culbone, are links with another well-known writerly network, that of the Coleridge/Wordsworth circle …