Sunday, March 19, 2023

“My sin was great, but my punishment was greater”: East Lynne

Mrs Ellen Wood

Mrs. Ellen Wood by Joseph Sydney Willis Hodges, 1875.
Photo credit: Worcester Guildhall, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND. Image source: Art UK

Ellen Wood's East Lynne (1861) is like half a dozen Victorian novels in one. It involves a murder mystery (as in Charles Dickens' Bleak House (1853)), a murder trial (as in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848)), marital misapprehension (as in Emily Eden's The Semi-Attached Couple (1860)), a woman concealing her past (as in Maria Edgeworth's Helen (1834)), female self-sacrifice (as in Gaskell's Ruth (1853)), and not one but two death-bed scenes (as in Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)).

There are two intertwined main narratives in East Lynne. The first is the story of the murder of Afy Hallijohn's father by one of the flirtatious girl's many suitors. ("Afy" is pronounced "Affy"; her full name, fittingly, is Aphrodite.) Suspicion falls on Richard Hare, whose gun was used in the killing and who fled the town of West Lynne the night of the murder and hasn't been seen since. (Or has he?) Richard's father, a local magistrate who is upright to a fault, condemns his own son and vows to send him to the scaffold if he reappears. Believing him innocent, Richard's younger sister Barbara enlists the help of a longtime family friend, conscientious solicitor Archibald Carlyle, to try to clear her brother's name. Complicating matters is that Barbara is deeply in love with Mr. Carlyle, but he doesn't recognize it.

The second narrative concerns Mr. Carlyle's marriage to Lady Isabel Vane (the homophony with "vain," in the senses of foolish and proud, is probably not accidental). Lady Isabel's father died heavily in debt, leaving her "completely destitute." Mr. Carlyle sees her distress, and swayed by her youth, beauty, and "bitter dependence" on unsympathetic relatives, offers her his hand, heart, and comfortable home of East Lynne. Complicating matters is that Lady Isabel loves another man, the handsome but caddish Francis Levison.

. . .her head was aching with perplexity. The stumbling block that she could not get over was Francis Levison. She saw Mr. Carlyle approach from her window, and went down to the drawing-room, not in the least knowing what her answer was to be; a shadowy idea was presenting itself, that she would ask him for longer time, and write her answer.

In the drawing-room was Francis Levison, and her heart beat wildly; which said beating might have convinced her that she ought not to marry another. . .

"Mr. Carlyle. . .seems an out-and-out good fellow, Isabel, and I congratulate you."

"What!" she uttered.

"Don’t start. We are all in the family, and my lady [Lady Isabel's guardian] told; I won’t betray it abroad. She says East Lynne is a place to be coveted; I wish you happiness, Isabel."

"Thank you," she returned in a sarcastic tone, though her throat beat and her lips quivered. "You are premature in your congratulations, Captain Levison."

"Am I? Keep my good wishes, then, till the right man comes. I am beyond the pale myself, and dare not think of entering the happy state," he added, in a pointed tone. "I have indulged dreams of it, like others, but I cannot afford to indulge them seriously; a poor man, with uncertain prospects, can only play the butterfly, perhaps to his life’s end."

He quitted the room as he spoke. It was impossible for Isabel to misunderstand him, but a feeling shot across her mind, for the first time, that he was false and heartless. One of the servants appeared, showing in Mr. Carlyle; nothing false or heartless about him. He closed the door, and approached her, but she did not speak, and her lips were white and trembling. Mr. Carlyle waited.

"Well," he said at length, in a gentle tone, "have you decided to grant my prayer?"

"Yes. But——" She could not go on. What with one agitation and another, she had difficulty in conquering her emotion. "But—I was going to tell you——"

"Presently," he whispered, leading her to a sofa, "we can both afford to wait now. Oh, Isabel, you have made me very happy!"

"I ought to tell you, I must tell you," she began again, in the midst of hysterical tears. "Though I have said 'yes' to your proposal, I do not—yet——It has come upon me by surprise," she stammered. "I like you very much; I esteem and respect you; but I do not love you."

"I should wonder if you did. But you will let me earn your love, Isabel?"

"Oh, yes," she earnestly answered. "I hope so."

He drew her closer to him, bent his face, and took from her lips his first kiss. Isabel was passive; she supposed he had gained the right to do so. "My dearest! It is all I ask." (Ch. XII)

From her tearful confession to her future husband that she does not love him, to her acceptance of his kiss with the thought that "she supposed he had gained the right to do so," this proposal scene is a devastating depiction of Lady Isabel's emotional state as she enters her marriage. But as Mrs. Wood also makes clear, like many women of her time Lady Isabel has few alternatives.

Apart from her lack of romantic feelings for her husband—a condition surely shared by many Victorian wives—the first few years of the marriage involve additional tribulations for Lady Isabel. Although motherhood provides some consolation, the household at East Lynne includes Mr. Carlyle's domineering sister Cornelia, who refuses to yield to her the place of mistress of the house, countermands her orders to the servants, and even interferes in the raising of her children. 

Then Lady Isabel begins to notice that her husband is meeting with the beautiful Barbara Hare in odd places at odd hours. Their semi-clandestine meetings are to discuss developments in her brother's murder case, but of course Lady Isabel leaps to another conclusion. Her jealousy is inflamed by the insinuations of a guest who, at Mr. Carlyle's invitation, happens to be making an extended visit at their home: none other than Francis Levison, for whom seducing vulnerable women is mere sport. Lady Isabel's jealousy of her husband and her still-powerful attraction to the man who is now Sir Francis are a volatile combination.

Mr. Carlyle may be sincere, but he is not very perceptive of the feelings of the women in his life. He does not realize how upset Lady Isabel is becoming at his rendezvous with Barbara. Nor is he aware of Barbara's feelings—until one night as he is walking her home, when she can no longer keep them in check:

Her throat was working, the muscles of her mouth began to twitch, and a convulsive sob, or what sounded like it, broke from her. Mr. Carlyle turned his head hastily.

"Barbara! are you ill? What is it?"

On it came, passion, temper, wrongs, and nervousness, all boiling over together. She shrieked, she sobbed, she was in strong hysterics. . .Barbara struggled with her emotion—struggled manfully—and the sobs and shrieks subsided; not the excitement or the passion. . .

"Are you better, Barbara? What can have caused it?"

"What can have caused it?" she burst forth, giving full swing to the reins, and forgetting everything. "You can ask me that?"

Mr. Carlyle was struck dumb; but by some inexplicable law of sympathy, a dim and very unpleasant consciousness of the truth began to steal over him.

"I don’t understand you, Barbara. If I have offended you in any way, I am truly sorry."

"Truly sorry, no doubt!" was the retort, the sobs and the shrieks alarmingly near. "What do you care for me? If I go under the sod to-morrow," stamping it with her foot, "you have your wife to care for; what am I?"

"Hush!" he interposed, glancing round, more mindful for her than she was for herself.

"Hush, yes! You would like me to hush; what is my misery to you? I would rather be in my grave, Archibald Carlyle, than endure the life I have led since you married her. My pain is greater than I well know how to bear."

"I cannot affect to misunderstand you," he said, feeling more at a nonplus than he had felt for many a day. . ."But my dear Barbara. I never gave you cause to think I—that I—cared for you more than I did."

"Never gave me cause!" she gasped. "When you have been coming to our house constantly, almost like my shadow; when you gave me this"—dashing open her mantle, and holding up the locket to his view; "when you have been more intimate with me than a brother."

"Stay, Barbara. There it is—a brother. I have been nothing else; it never occurred to me to be anything else," he added, in his straightforward truth.

"Ay, as a brother, nothing else!" and her voice rose once more with her excitement; it seemed that she would not long control it. "What cared you for my feelings? What recked you that you gained my love?"

"Barbara, hush!" he implored: "do be calm and reasonable. If I ever gave you cause to think I regarded you with deeper feelings, I can only express to you my deep regret, my repentance, and assure you it was done unconsciously."

She was growing calmer. The passion was fading, leaving her face still and white. She lifted it toward Mr. Carlyle.

". . .If she had not come between us, should you have loved me?"

"Do not pursue this unthankful topic," he besought. . .

"I ask you, should you have loved me?" persisted Barbara, passing her handkerchief over her ashy lips.

"I don’t know. How can I know? Do I not say to you, Barbara, that I only thought of you as a friend, a sister? I cannot tell what might have been."

. . .Arrived at the back gate of the grove, which gave entrance to the kitchen garden. . .Mr. Carlyle took both Barbara’s hands in his.

"Good-night, Barbara. God bless you."

She had had time for reflection, and the excitement gone, she saw her outbreak in all its shame and folly. Mr. Carlyle noticed how subdued and white she looked.

"I think I have been mad," she groaned. "I must have been mad to say what I did. Forget that it was uttered."

"I told you I would."

"You will not betray me to—to—your wife?" she panted.


"Thank you. Good-night."

But he still retained her hands. "In a short time, Barbara, I trust you will find one more worthy to receive your love than I have been."

"Never!" she impulsively answered. "I do not love and forget so lightly. In the years to come, in my old age, I shall still be nothing but Barbara Hare." (Ch. XVII)

Mr. Carlyle's emotional obliviousness will ultimately bring tragedy to his marriage.

Ellen Wood, 1814-1887

Ellen Wood (née Price) did not become a novelist until she was in her mid-40s. She was the daughter of a Worcester glovemaker, Thomas Price, and his devout wife Elizabeth. When Ellen entered her teens she was diagnosed with curvature of the spine and confined to bed for four years. This treatment, unsurprisingly, did not correct the curvature; as an adult she could not stand fully upright and was less than five feet tall. In 1836 at the age of 22 she married Henry Wood, a businessman four or five years her senior, and the couple moved to Dauphiné in southeastern France.

The family returned to England in 1856 after Henry's business failed. Ellen had begun anonymously publishing short stories a few years previously, and initially she didn't receive any payment. By the late 1850s, though, she could no longer afford to work for free. She wrote her first novel Danesbury House (1860) in response to a contest sponsored by the Scottish Temperance League, and won the £100 first prize. However, after the novel was published she received no further recompense.

Her next novel, East Lynne (1861), was rejected by the publishers Chapman and Hall due to a poor report by their reader, George Meredith, who may have found that the story of a wife tempted by the prospect of an adulterous affair hit too close to home; just a few years earlier Meredith's wife had left him for another man. Wood's novel was also rejected by Smith, Elder & Co., publishers of Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell.

When East Lynne was offered to Richard and George Bentley, though, they anticipated strong sales; its serial publication in The New Monthly Magazine beginning in January 1860 had significantly boosted that periodical's circulation.

First installment of East Lynne in The New Monthly Magazine, v. 118, 1860, p. 28. Image source:

For the right to publish the novel in book form Bentley and Son paid Mrs. Wood £600, about four times the usual fee for a novelist without proven popularity, and ordered a substantial first print run of 2750 copies. (By comparison, publisher Thomas Egerton paid £110 for the copyright of Jane Austen's second novel, Pride and Prejudice (1813), and it had a first print run of 1,000 copies.) Unusually, the Bentleys also agreed to give Mrs. Wood half of the profits realized from sales of the novel. In exchange they asked Mrs. Wood to revise or remove certain "objectionable" scenes, a request she politely but flatly refused. She knew the worth of her work, and despite her image of demure gentility, drove a hard bargain.

Title page of the first edition of East Lynne. Image source:

Bentley and Son had, if anything, underestimated East Lynne's sales potential. In the ten years after its initial publication it went through 24 editions, and by 1901 it had sold more than half a million copies. [1]

Over the next 7 years Mrs. Wood would produce another 15 novels, often having two serializations running at once. By 1867 her writing had generated enough income for her to purchase The Argosy magazine and take over as its chief editor. In the first years of her editorship she provided at least half of the content of each issue of the magazine, much of it anonymously, while continuing to publish an average of two books per year under her name.

Title page of The Argosy, Volume VII, 1869. Image source:

By the time of her death in 1887, Ellen Wood had published more than 40 books of fiction (several more would be published posthumously) and her writing generated an exceedingly comfortable income of £5–6,000 per year. Denis Goubert writes that "her books enjoyed a greater circulation than those of Trollope, and brought her a great deal more money." [2]

The influence of East Lynne was international. Leo Tolstoy had a copy in the library at his estate Yasnaya Polyana, and as Goubert has shown, likely drew from it in writing Anna Karenina (1878). Mrs. Wood was one of four English novelists that Tolstoy in an 1891 letter said had greatly influenced him; the others were Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope. [3]

In the late 19th century Mrs. Wood's popularity exceeded that of at least two of the other three English writers on Tolstoy's list. She also received critical recognition: East Lynne appears on the Daily Telegraph's 1899 list of the "100 Best Novels in the World," along with five novels by Dickens, one by Eliot, and one by Trollope. [4]

East Lynne on stage and screen

Shortly after East Lynne was published, multiple dramatic adaptations appeared, and they continued to be staged for decades; although Mrs. Wood received no royalties from the play versions their success likely helped to sustain the sales of the novel. In the early decades of the 20th century, several silent film versions of East Lynne were produced, one starring Theda Bara as Lady Isabel. Note that the poster states that the film is based on "the internationally famous stage success"; Mrs. Wood's name does not appear.

Poster for the silent film version of East Lynne (1916) starring Theda Bara. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1931 a Pre-Code sound film starring Ann Harding as Lady Isabel came out; it was nominated for Outstanding Production (the early version of Best Picture) at the 4th Academy Awards, losing to Cimarron. (The actual best picture of 1931 was Chaplin's City Lights, although it was not even nominated; it wouldn't be the last time the film that should have won was overlooked.)

Poster for the 1931 film version of East Lynne starring Ann Harding. Image source:

The film was sufficiently popular that a Photoplay edition of the novel was issued. But the cover of the Photoplay edition, like the film poster, omits Ellen Wood's name or any mention of the novel. Although Mrs. Wood does receive credit inside the Photoplay edition, it is "fictionized by Arline De Haas" from the screenplay by Bradley King and Tom Barry.

Cover of Photoplay edition of East Lynne (1931). Image source:

The history of East Lynne on the big screen may also include the 1969 Indian film Aradhana (Adoration), starring Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore. Although ostensibly based on the Hollywood film To Each His Own (1946) starring Olivia De Havilland, Aradhana contains scenes of maternal self-sacrifice for which East Lynne seems the more direct inspiration.

Poster for Aradhana (1969). Image source: TMDB

A BBC-TV adaptation of East Lynne from 1982 dates from a period before rising budgets brought a glossier look to BBC productions. Philip Mackie's script takes chunks of dialogue from the novel but omits some key scenes (Lady Isabel never confesses to her husband-to-be that she doesn't love him) and truncates others (Barbara's revelation to Carlyle of her feelings for him ends before she tells him that she will love him forever). Director David Green's pacing is stiff and stagy, as are many of the actors' line readings (not to mention the rustic characters' fake beards). The actor playing Archibald Carlyle, Martin Shaw, has a flat affect throughout; whether this is the fault of his acting or of Green's direction isn't fully clear.

With such major flaws it almost doesn't matter that small details are also off; in the novel Lady Isabel Vane is described as having "dark shining curls," Francis Levison as having "black hair," and Barbara Hare as "very fair, with blue eyes" and "light hair"; in the BBC adaptation Lady Isabel (Lisa Eichhorn) is blonde, Levison (Tim Woodward) has light brown hair, and Barbara Hale (Gemma Craven) has dark brown hair. (One reason this is worth noting is that when Lady Isabel reappears at East Lynne late in the novel, she is unrecognized due to the disfiguring effects of an accident, the tinted glasses she wears, and because her hair has turned gray—a greater contrast with dark hair than blonde hair.) This is a rare BBC adaptation to be avoided.

Ellen Wood today

Tolstoy's influencers Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope continue to be widely read and taught, are the focus of a sizeable scholarly literature, and each has been the subject of more than one biography. As the omission of Mrs. Wood's name from the publicity materials of the films may signal, as the 20th century progressed Mrs. Wood's readership and literary reputation went into steep decline, particularly after the 1930s. In the 21st century she has fallen into such obscurity that e-book versions of her novels, including East Lynne, are sometimes attributed to "Henry Wood," dropping the honorific "Mrs." and so suggesting that it was Ellen's husband who wrote her books.

Cover of East Lynne by "Henry Wood" downloaded from Apple Books.

Perhaps, though, there are signs of a revival of interest in Mrs. Wood. A scholarly edition of East Lynne was issued by Broadview Press in 2000, and the first book-length biography of Mrs. Wood, by Mariaconcetta Costantini, was published in 2020.

Victorian critic Alexander Japp wrote that Mrs. Wood "combined in a remarkable degree these two powers or qualities—realistic portraitures of men and women, with invention, construction, and surprises. She successfully used sensational elements for moral ends." [5] As Japp points out, most of Mrs. Wood's characters (Francis Levison perhaps excepted) are "realistic portraitures" rather than cardboard heroes or villains. Mr. Carlyle is a respectable solicitor, and yet into his home and into close contact with his family he invites a wanted man, and later welcomes a notorious rake who is dodging his creditors. Barbara Hare, a candidate for the novel's heroine, expresses jealousy and resentment (as seen above). And Lady Isabel makes several poor choices, but her excessive suffering makes her the focus of the reader's sympathies.

Of course, the plot of East Lynne features some conspicuous implausibilities, and our moral judgments no longer closely align with those of Mrs. Wood's time. However, the narrator's comments that appear throughout the novel function, in my view, not to reinforce our moral judgments against Lady Isabel, but to call them into question. As she tells her husband, "My sin was great, but my punishment was greater." East Lynne deserves a contemporary readership for its compelling story (including a jaw-dropping plot twist two-thirds of the way through) and its multilayered characters. They, like ourselves, act out of a mixture of motives, and discover that actions taken in the heat of an impulsive moment can bring lasting regret.

  1. Jennifer Phegley, "Domesticating the sensation novelist: Ellen Price Wood as author and editor of the Argosy Magazine," Victorian Periodicals Review, Summer 2005, Vol. 38, No. 2, Interdisciplinary Work and Periodical Connections: An Issue in Honor of Sally H. Mitchell, pp. 180-198.
  2. Denis Goubert, "Did Tolstoy read East Lynne?" The Slavonic and East European Review, January 1980, Vol. 58, No. 1, pp. 22-39.
  3. The list of influential novels that Tolstoy shared in his letter was published in the New York Times, 2 April 1978: According to Denis Goubert (see note 3), the 1939 edition of Tolstoy's Works states that his library held eight novels by Mrs. Wood, including East Lynne. A manuscript catalogue dating from the half-decade or so after his death lists only six.
  4. The Dickens novels included on the list of the "100 Best Novels" are Martin Chuzzlewit, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Dombey and Son, and Oliver Twist; not included are David Copperfield, Bleak House, Great Expectations or A Christmas Carol. The Eliot novel is Scenes of Clerical Life; not included are Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda, or Middlemarch. The Trollope novel is Orley Farm, not included are any of the Chronicles of Barsetshire, the Palliser novels, or The Way We Live Now.
  5. Quoted in Phegley, p. 194.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

The Look of Love

Mark Morris Dance Group, The Look of Love. Image source: The Look of Love

In the summer of 1993 a good friend invited me to go see the opening night of soul legend Jerry Butler's five-night stand at the Kimball's East nightclub in Emeryville, a small city on San Francisco Bay wedged between Berkeley and Oakland. Butler, of course, had hits with "For Your Precious Love" (with the Impressions), "He Will Break Your Heart" (with Curtis Mayfield), "Never Give You Up," "Only the Strong Survive," and many other songs, and co-wrote Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)." But the mid-90s were three decades past Butler's 1960s peak, and at the start of his 75-minute set his voice was a gravelly echo of the mellow baritone familiar from his classic records. It was great to see him in such an intimate club, but it seemed like the voice might no longer be fully under his command.

But it only took a song or two for his voice to warm up, and soon the years had fallen away. Midway through the set he sang a song that wasn't familiar to me, but the power and emotion of his performance brought us all to our feet. Here is Butler's original recording from 1962:

I later learned that "Make It Easy On Yourself" was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. This was Bacharach and David? I had always thought of them as the Kings of Easy Listening, writing songs that seemed wilfully disconnected from the musical and social currents of their time.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s as rock 'n' roll, doo wop, R&B and Motown were surging onto the pop charts, Bacharach was churning out bland Brill Building pop for Frankie Avalon, Perry Como, Bobby Vinton, and Andy Williams. A few years later, around the time of the release of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the blistering sets by Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival, Bacharach and David were writing the score of the painfully unfunny James Bond spoof Casino Royale for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. [1]

In 1969, the year of Woodstock and Altamont, B.J. Thomas had a hit with "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," one of my least favorite Bacharach/David songs (and one that makes no sense in its original context in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). The following summer, The Carpenters' version of "Close To You" spent more weeks at number one (four) than The Beatles' final single, "The Long and Winding Road" (two) or Edwin Starr's "War" (three). [2]

After hearing Butler's stunning performance of "Make It Easy On Yourself," though, I clearly needed to reassess Bacharach and David. And I soon discovered that I'd dismissed their music far too quickly. Songs like "Anyone Who Had A Heart," "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," "Always Something There to Remind Me," and "One Less Bell To Answer" are miniature pop symphonies, with complex melodies that incorporate wide vocal ranges, unexpected key changes, shifting time signatures, and unusual syncopation. They are memorable but intricate; try singing along with any of them and you'll encounter surprises.

Of course, Bacharach and David's greatest exponent was Dionne Warwick:

Mark Morris's The Look of Love (seen at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, 19 February 2023), choreographed to Bacharach/David songs, is a follow-up to 2017's Sgt. Pepper homage Pepperland. Once again, instantly familiar music from the 1960s is defamiliarized by the jazzy, frequently off-kilter arrangements of MMDG Music Ensemble's director and pianist Ethan Iverson; once again, the dancers wear brightly colorful 1960s-Pop-inspired costumes (this time by Isaac Mizrahi channeling Pepperland's Elizabeth Kurtzman channeling Carnaby Street's Mary Quant).

Seeing the Mark Morris Dance Group is always pleasurable, but the elements of this piece didn't quite cohere. Morris's choreographic invention did not seem to be at its peak in this work; some of the elements and gestures seemed either borrowed from earlier pieces, or too directly illustrative of the lyrics (although it would be difficult to resist having the dancers all point in the same direction during "Do You Know The Way To San Jose?" or walk past each other in "Walk On By"). "Thin" is the way my partner described it, not a word we usually associate with Morris.

One danger in using such well-known music is that comparisons with the original versions are inevitable, and in this case did not favor the MMDG Music Ensemble. Iverson's stripped-down arrangements for piano, trumpet, bass and drums meant that the orchestral lushness of many of the songs was missing, and from our seats at the back of the mezzanine trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson was consistently too loud in the mix. Lead vocalist Marcy Harriell's bright soprano was at times noticeably flat (this was the third performance in a three-performance run, and a matinee after an evening performance, so she may have been a little tired; also, she was competing with our memories of Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield). Iverson's spiky arrangement of "Raindrops," like his deconstruction of "When I'm Sixty-Four" from Pepperland, helped us hear overfamiliar music in a fresh way, and "Do You Know The Way To San Jose" and "I Say A Little Prayer" are pretty irresistible in any form. But after the show we wondered whether we would have gone to a club to hear this music performed by the band alone, and the answer was no.

But at least The Look of Love sent me back to Bacharach's music and to the exploration of the riches of YouTube—such as this performance of "I Say A Little Prayer" by the incomparable Aretha Franklin: [3]

  1. For some context, here are signature songs by Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival. 
  2. "Close to You" was originally recorded in 1963 by Richard Chamberlin. A warning: once Chamberlain's version is heard, it can't be un-heard.
  3. I can't resist linking to another live version of this song, which is notable both for another remarkable performance by Aretha, and also because the cameramen and director are clearly enamoured of her gorgeous backup singers.

Monday, February 20, 2023

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

Sydney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Pantheon, 2015). Image source: The Beat, the blog of comics culture

It's an uncanny feeling to open a book and have the sense that it was written specifically for you. I had that feeling almost continuously while reading Sydney Padua's The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Pantheon, 2015).

Augusta Ada Byron King, Lady Lovelace, was the daughter of Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke and the poet Lord Byron. Ada's mother separated from Byron after a year of marriage and raised her daughter to have an anti-Byronic cast of mind: rational, scientific, mathematical. Before their marriage Byron called Annabella "my Princess of Parallelograms"; afterwards he called her the "Mathematical Medea."

Annabella Milbanke by George Hayter, 1812, three years before her marriage to Byron. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Lady Byron's plan to suppress her daughter's imagination through rationality, however, was destined to be foiled by how truly strange math is. One of Ada's tutors, William Frend (who had also taught Annabella as a young woman), refused to believe in the existence of negative numbers, because how could anything be less than nothing? Numbers can also be irrational (if they can't be expressed as a ratio of two integers, such as π) and even imaginary (if they involve the square root of a negative number, such as i, where i2 = –1). Ada outpaced most of her teachers.

Ada Byron at 16, 1832, artist unknown. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

In June 1833, at age 17, Ada met the mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage, then the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. [1]

Engraving of Charles Babbage, 1832 (age 40) by John Linnell, published by Paul and Dominic Colnaghi & Co., 1 January 1833. Image source: National Portrait Gallery NPG D16124

In a letter dated Friday 7 June 1833 to Ada's tutor Dr. William King, Lady Byron wrote:

Ada was more pleased with a party she was at on Wednesday [5 June], than with any of the assemblages in the grand monde [Ada had been presented at court on 10 May and had since attended several court balls]—she met there a few scientific people—amongst them Babbage, with whom she was delighted—. . .Babbage was full of animation—and talked of his wonderful machine (which he is to shew us) as a child does of its plaything. [2]

Babbage was working on a mechanical calculator he called the Difference Engine, and had produced a small working prototype which he demonstrated for Ada and her mother. In a letter to King on Friday 21 June, Lady Byron wrote,

We both went to see the thinking machine (for such it seems) last Monday [17 June]. It raised several Nos. to the 2nd & 3rd powers, and extracted the root of a Quadratic Equation.—I had but faint glimpses of the principles by which it worked.

Sophia Frend, William's daughter, also attended the demonstration and later wrote that in contrast to Lady Byron, "Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working, and saw the great beauty of the invention." [3]

"Portion of Babbage's Difference Engine," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. XXX, No. CLXXV, December 1864, p. 34, digitized from the collections of the University of California Berkeley. Image source:

In 1834, with the Difference Engine still far from completion, Babbage began working on an even more sophisticated device he called the Analytical Engine. He envisioned a punchcard control system that would specify the mathematical operations to be performed. The principle was similar to the way punchcards controlled the mechanical Jacquard looms used to weave complex patterned cloth (and which had been the targets of the Luddite weavers who had been thrown out of work).

Portion of the mill of the Analytical Engine with printing mechanism, designed by Charles Babbage and under construction at the time of his death, London, 1834-1871. (Trial model). Image source: Science Museum Group Collection Online

In 1835 Ada Byron married William King (a different William King than her tutor). Thanks to Ada's family connections—her mother was the cousin of the prime minister, Lord Melbourne—William was created the first Lord Lovelace in 1838, and so Ada became Lady Lovelace. [4]

Ada King by Margaret Carpenter, 1836. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Motherhood, family concerns and social demands took Ada away from her mathematical studies, but after the birth of her third child in four years of marriage she was eager to resume them. She began a correspondence with the mathematician Augustus De Morgan, husband of Sophie Frend and friend of Charles Babbage. De Morgan later wrote to Lady Byron:

But I feel bound to tell you that the power of thinking on these matters which Lady L. has always shewn from the beginning of my correspondence with her, has been something so utterly out of the common way for any beginner, man or woman. . .Had any young beginner, about to go to Cambridge, shewn the same power, I should have prophesied first that his aptitude at grasping the strong points and the real difficulties of first principles. . .would have certainly made him an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence. [5]

In 1840 Babbage gave a lecture on the Analytical Engine in Turin; mathematician (and future prime minister of Italy) Luigi Menabrea attended, and two years later published an article describing the machine in the journal Bibliothèque universelle de Genève—the first publication about the Analytical Engine.

L.-F. Menabrea, "Notions sur la machine analytique de M. Charles Babbage." Bibliothèque universelle de Genève, Nouvelle Série, tome XLI (Sept.-Oct. 1842), pp. 352-376. Image source:

Shortly after it appeared Ada began working on a translation of Menabrea's article; her translation was published the following year in Richard Taylor's Scientific Memoirs, Vol. III, Part XII. The 25-page-long "Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage, Esq." by Menabrea was accompanied by 41 pages of "Notes by the Translator," signed A.A.L. (for Augusta Ada Lovelace). [6]

Ada shared the notes with Babbage as she was writing them, but was understandably exasperated if he made revisions without her agreement. As her drafts were traveling back and forth between their houses she wrote him, "I am much annoyed at your having altered my Note. You know I am always willing to make any alterations myself, but that I cannot endure another person to meddle with my sentences." [7]

A.A.L., "Notes by the Translator" [to accompany L. F. Menabrea, "Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage, Esq." (pp. 666-690)] in Richard Taylor, ed. Scientific Memoirs, Selected from the Transactions of Foreign Academies of Science and Learned Societies, and Foreign Journals, Vol. III, Part XII (Aug. 1843), pp. 691-731. Image source:

Ada's notes to Menabrea's article include instructions for the calculation of Bernoulli numbers by the Analytical Engine, an algorithm that has been called the first computer program.

Sydney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Pantheon, 2015), p. 25 (detail). Image source: Goodreads

Ada's copious Notes, which often themselves have footnotes, were clearly an inspiration for the format of Thrilling Adventures. Marketed as a graphic novel, it's a hybrid mix of graphics and text: virtually every page features extensive footnotes, and, in a droll touch, the footnotes have even more extensive endnotes (which, like Ada's "Notes by the Translator," also have footnotes). The fascinating dual subjects of the book deserve that extensive scholarly apparatus, even if its purpose is partially parodic. As someone who writes blog posts whose footnotes are sometimes longer than the post itself, I felt an immediate sympathy. [8]

Sydney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Pantheon, 2015), p. 22; right-click to enlarge. Image source: Science Museum Group Journal

In her Notes Ada had made a huge leap; she'd recognized that the Analytical Engine could perform operations on any data to which an algorithm could be applied:

The operating mechanism. . .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, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine. [9]

With this insight Ada anticipated the development of the modern computer a century later.

Ada Lovelace, daguerreotype by Antonie Claudel, ca. 1843. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Babbage teased Ada (who was slight of build) by calling her a fairy; in a letter to him as she was working on the Notes she embraced that supernatural identity:

That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show; (if only my breathing & some other etceteras do not make too rapid a progress towards instead of from mortality). Before ten years are over, the Devil’s in it if I haven’t sucked out some of the life-blood from the mysteries of this universe, in a way that no purely mortal lips or brains could do. [10]

It was not to be. Instead of plumbing the mysteries of the universe, Ada used her mathematical talents to develop a betting system for horse racing. Initially both her husband and Babbage joined her in placing bets using the system. However, when it became clear that the system didn't work, the men stopped using it. Ada continued, disastrously, and fell deeply in debt; she secretly pawned her jewels, twice, and had to ask her mother to redeem them.

As the reference to her breathing in the letter above suggests, Ada's health was also not robust. Victorian doctors prescribed opium in various forms (pills or dissolved in alcohol as laudanum) for a host of maladies, including to ease the breathing difficulties whose actual cause was likely the thick pall of London coal and wood smoke. The inhibition-lowering properties of opium may have played a role in her reckless gambling, although high-stakes betting seems to have been endemic among the British upper classes.

Sydney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Pantheon, 2015), p. 28 (detail). Image source: Pinterest

Ada was also frequently in pain, and in mid-1852 she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Perhaps as a memento, her husband commissioned a final portrait of her by the artist Henry Wyndham Phillips; despite her condition, she sat for the painting throughout August. On 13 August Lord Lovelace recorded in his diary that "the suffering was so great that she could scarce avoid crying out"; although she was in agonizing pain, "she sat at the piano some little time so that the artist could portray her hands." [11]

Daguerreotype by an unknown photographer of a portrait of Ada Lovelace by Henry Wyndham Phillips, 1852 (detail). Image source: Bodleian Library

Babbage was forbidden by Lady Byron from visiting Ada after mid-August. After months of suffering Ada died on Saturday 27 November 1852, two weeks before her 37th birthday.

In the decades following the publication of Ada's article, Babbage made few advances toward building the Analytical Engine. Progress remained stalled pretty much as described by an anonymous article entitled "Addition to the memoir of M. Menabrea on the analytical engine" published in The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science in September 1843 (immediately after the publication of Ada's translation and Notes in Scientific Memoirs). The article, almost certainly written by Babbage, states:

The present state of the Analytical Engine is as follows:—
All the great principles on which the discovery rests have been explained, and drawings of mechanical structures have been made, by which each may be carried into operation. . .
Mechanical Notations have been made both of the actions of detached parts and of the general action of the whole, which cover about four or five hundred large folio sheets of paper.
The original rough sketches are contained in about five volumes.
There are upwards of one hundred large drawings. [12]

The plans for the Analytical Engine were clearly of daunting complexity, and it's no wonder that they were not realized. Babbage was a spiky personality and an eccentric polymath, and spent a good deal of time and energy not only on other projects, but pursuing cantankerous campaigns against street musicians, hoop-rolling, and other public nuisances. At the time of his death in 1871 a partial model of the Analytical Engine was still incomplete (see above).

In 2009 over a beer at a pub animator Sydney Padua was commissioned by Suw Charman-Anderson, who was planning the first annual Ada Lovelace Day, to produce a short web comic on Ada's life. In the preface to Thrilling Adventures Padua writes, "Lovelace died young. Babbage died a miserable old man. There never was a gigantic steam-powered computer. This seemed an awfully grim ending for my little comic. And so I threw in a couple of drawings at the end, imagining for them another, better, more thrilling comic-book universe to live on in" (p. 7).

Sydney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Pantheon, 2015), p. 32. Image source: The Beat, the blog of comics culture

Those "couple of drawings" grew into the 300-page Thrilling Adventures. Each adventure takes place in a steampunk alternate universe in which a full-scale Analytical Engine has been built. Over the course of Thrilling Adventures Lovelace and Babbage encounter the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Queen Victoria, the novelist George Eliot, the logician George Boole, and the world of the Alice stories written by Lewis Carroll. [13]

Padua's Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is an exhilaratingly witty and imaginative journey through computer history and the Victorian scientific, political, and literary worlds. It is also an illuminating portrayal of Ada Lovelace, whose pioneering work, while still underappreciated, has begun to receive the attention it deserves. The annual Ada Lovelace Day, on the second Tuesday in October, is now a global grassroots celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics; in 2023 the 15th annual Ada Lovelace Day will take place on 10 October. [14]

And in the alternate universe of Thrilling Adventures, there is a happy ending for Lovelace and Babbage, as the Analytical Engine is completed and they can spend many contented hours in conversation and calculation:

Sydney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Pantheon, 2015), pp. 286-287. Image source: Mark Riedl,

  1. Lucasian Professors have included Isaac Newton (1669–1702) and Stephen Hawking (1979–2009). ^ Return
  2. Quoted on p. 299-300 in Velma R. Huskey and Harry D. Huskey, "Lady Lovelace and Charles Babbage," Annals of the History of Computing, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 299-329, Oct.-Dec. 1980, doi: (subscription or institutional access required). ^ Return
  3. Quoted in Huskey, p. 300. ^ Return
  4. William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, was the widower of Caroline Lamb, who had been the lover of Ada's father, Lord Byron, before his marriage to Annabella. For details, see An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England. ^ Return
  5. Quoted in Huskey, p. 326. ^ Return
  6. Notes A - F are signed A.A.L.; Note G is signed A.L.L., likely a typographical error for A.A.L. The suggestion for signing the notes with her initials came from Ada's husband. ^ Return
  7. Quoted in Huskey, p. 316. ^ Return
  8. In Thrilling Adventures Sydney Padua offers the following footnote: "Lovelace added seven footnotes to her translation of Menabrea's Sketch of the Analytical Engine; they are a little over two and a half times longer than the original paper. . .Together they take up 65 pages of the September 1843 edition of Taylor's Scientific Memoirs, a journal dedicated to publishing English translations of work from continental Europe" (p. 25).

    This isn't quite right. Lovelace's "Notes by the Translator," lettered A. to G., are endnotes, not footnotes (Ada also added footnotes on 10 of the original article's 25 pages); the notes are two-thirds again as long as the original article (41 pages of notes to 25 pages of article), not over two and a half times longer; together with the original paper they take up 66, not 65, pages of Vol. III of Taylor's Scientific Memoirs, each volume of which was published in parts, not "editions"; and finally, Part XII of Scientific Memoirs, according to the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 4, No. 28 (Jun. - Dec., 1843), p. 19, and Ada's correspondence as quoted in Huskey, was published in August, not September, 1843.

    There are some other minor errors as well. In the first footnote on p. 22 (see above) Padua writes "Babbage was forty-two and Lovelace eighteen when they met." Babbage was born on 26 December 1791, and Lovelace on 10 December 1815; in June 1833 his 42nd and her 18th birthdays would still have been six months away. ^ Return
  9.  A.L.L., "Notes by the Translator," p. 694. ^ Return
  10. Quoted in Huskey, p. 315. ^ Return
  11. Ursula Martin, "Only known photographs of Ada Lovelace in Bodleian Display," Ada Lovelace: Celebrating 200 years of a computer visionary, ^ Return
  12. [Charles Babbage,] "Addition to the memoir of M. Menabrea on the analytical engine. Scientific memoirs, vol. III. Part XII. p. 666," The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, Vol. XXIII, No. CLI, September 1843, pp. 235-239. ^ Return
  13. Thrilling Adventures is also a corrective to the sexualized and misogynistic treatment of Ada in the 1990 William Gibson and Bruce Sterling novel The Difference Engine, in which a steam-powered computer revolution based on Babbage's Engines takes place in Britain in the mid-19th century. In that novel "persistent sexual slurs" are used to describe Ada; "the insistence on misogynistic imagery. . .perpetuates rather than interrogates nineteenth-century stereotypes" (Jay Clayton, Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 112).  ^ Return
  14. For information about Ada Lovelace Days, see the website Finding Ada. ^ Return

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Dido & Aeneas: A brief survey

La Morte di Didone (The Death of Dido) by Guercino, 1631. Image source: Classical Inquiries

Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1688?), the greatest opera in English, was written for parents' night at a girls' school. Possibly as a result, the original performances—there is evidence suggesting that there were at least two, one in 1688 or earlier and another in 1689—were only about 75 minutes long, including a prologue and the recital of a poem after the end of the opera (for details, please see The Mysteries of Dido and Aeneas). The music to the prologue has been lost, and we no longer recite poems after the curtain has come down; the surviving music can be performed in about 50 minutes.

The opera's tunefulness and brevity (it can fit on a single LP, and easily on a CD) has made it an irresistible recording project for several decades, and the role of Queen Dido of Carthage has been sung by a long list of renowned singers, including:

  • Kirsten Flagstad (conducted by Geraint Jones, 1951),
  • Teresa Berganza (Pierre Dervaux, 1960),
  • Janet Baker (Anthony Lewis, 1962),
  • Victoria de los Angeles (John Barbirolli, 1965),
  • Tatiana Troyanos (Charles Mackerras, 1967, and Raymond Leppard, 1977),
  • Emma Kirkby (Andrew Parrott, 1981),
  • Lynne Dawson (René Jacobs, 1998),
  • Susan Graham (Emmanuelle Haïm, 2003),
  • Julianne Baird (Valentin Radu, 2007),
  • Sarah Connolly (Steven Devine & Elizabeth Kenny, 2008).

On MusicWeb International you can read Ralph Moore's survey of 30 Dido recordings (his tastes aren't quite mine); the Dido discography on Wikipedia lists nearly 50 versions.

I'm going to do nothing so ambitious as Moore or Wikipedia. Instead, I'm going to offer notes on six recordings involving period-instrument ensembles and their HIP conductors (that's "historically-informed performance," although not everything HIP conductors do is historically justified, as we will see).

My mini-survey was inspired by my previous post on Venetia Murray's An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England. That post included a caricature by James Gillray in which the Prince of Wales is cast as Aeneas and his mistress Mrs. Fitzherbert as Dido:

"DIDO FORSAKEN. Sic transit gloria Regina [Thus passes the glory of the Queen]." George, Prince of Wales: "I never saw her in my Life." Steersman Charles Fox: "No, never in all his Life, Damme." Frederick North: "No, never." Edmund Burke: "Never." Caricature by James Gillray, published by Samuel William Fores, 21 May 1787. Image source: National Portrait Gallery NPG D12994

(For a fuller explanation of the historical circumstances of the caricature, please see An Elegant Madness; for a discussion of its imagery, please see that post's footnote #4.)

The story being referenced in the caricature is from Virgil's Aeneid. The Trojan hero Aeneas, escaping from the destruction of Troy with a few ships and a few dozen men, finds shelter at Carthage, ruled by the widowed Queen Dido. At a court banquet Aeneas tells the harrowing story of the fall of Troy and his escape from the burning city. Dido, to her dismay, finds herself falling in love with the hero. Aeneas' fate, though, is to sail to Italy and found Rome, and when the gods send Mercury to remind him, he abandons Dido. She kills herself with a sword Aeneas gave her as a gift; as his ships sail away, Aeneas sees the smoke from Dido's funeral pyre rising behind them.

Nahum Tate's libretto for Purcell's opera alters Virgil's epic by removing the gods as agents of Dido's destruction and substituting a sorceress whose hate for Dido inspires her to send a spirit ("in the form of Mercury") to command Aeneas to leave Carthage. Dido does not commit suicide but dies of heartbreak. Schoolgirls could hardly depict self-murder, although the implication that Dido and Aeneas consummate their love at some point between the Palace and the post-coital Grove scenes (Aeneas sings "one night enjoy'd/the next forsook") is certainly eyebrow-raising—perhaps it was acceptable for unmarried young women to enact Dido's story as a cautionary tale. For more on the opera, please see Opera Guide 1: Dido and Aeneas.

In Gillray's caricature, the dialogue of the men in the boat and its repetition of "never" is likely a reference to the First Sailor's song from Dido and Aeneas:

Come away, fellow sailors, your anchors be weighing,
Time and tide will admit no delaying.
Take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore,
And silence their mourning with vows of returning,
But never intending to visit them more,
No never intending to visit them more,
No never, no never intending to visit them more.

Discovering the caricature and its apparent quote from Dido and Aeneas sent me to listen to opera once again, and in choosing the link to the First Sailor's song I began to make comparisons among several performances. I limited myself to period-instrument versions of the opera, and ultimately chose six to survey, given in the table below:

Role Arkiv Produktion, 1988 L'Oiseau-Lyre, 1992 Harmonia Mundi, 1993 Erato, 1994 Chandos, 1995 Rhombus Media, 1995
Dido Anne Sofie von Otter Catherine Bott Lorraine Hunt Véronique Gens Maria Ewing Jennifer Lane
Aeneas Stephen Varcoe John Mark Ainsley Michael Dean Nathan Berg Karl Daymond Russell Braun
Sorceress Nigel Rogers David Thomas Ellen Rabiner Claire Brua Sally Burgess Jennifer Lane
Belinda Lynne Dawson Emma Kirkby Lisa Saffer Sophie Marin-Degor Rebecca Evans Ann Monoyios
Second Woman Sarah Leonard Julianne Baird Donna Deam Sophie Daneman Patricia Rozario Shari Saunders
Witches Elizabeth Priday
Carol Hall
Elizabeth Priday
Sara Stowe
Christine Brandes
Ruth Rainero
Sophie Daneman
Gaëlle Mechaly
Mary Plazas
Pamela Helen Stephen
Shari Saunders
Meredith Hall
Spirit Kym Amps Michael Chance Christine Brandes Jean-Paul Fouchécourt James Bowman Meredith Hall
First Sailor Nigel Rogers Daniel Lochmann Paul Elliott Jean-Paul Fouchécourt Jamie McDougall Benjamin Butterfield
Conductor Trevor Pinnock Christopher Hogwood Nicholas McGegan William Christie Richard Hickox Jeanne Lamon
Orchestra The English Concert The Academy of Ancient Music Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra Les Arts Florissants Collegium Musicum 90 Tafelmusik Orchestra
Chorus Choir of The English Concert Chorus of The Academy of Ancient Music Choir of Clare College, Cambridge Soloists, plus Steve Dugardin (alto) and Jonathan Arnold (bass) Collegium Musicum 90 Choir Tafelmusik Chamber Choir

This is not an exhaustive list of period-instrument versions by any means. But just as I prefer the sound of historical instruments in this music, I favor a particular voice type in the role of Dido, which eliminated several possibilities.

Dido is a sorrowful figure from the first moments of the opera: the words of her first aria, addressed to her sister Belinda, relate her torment and grief at the love for Aeneas that as queen she must conceal. A young woman might be joyful at newfound love; Dido, older and wiser, understands that falling in love could be disastrous (as, indeed, it turns out to be).  Singers performing this role must combine both depth of emotion and nobility of expression. The role also spans a wide range, and requires a strong lower register.

So I prefer a mezzo-soprano Dido; high sopranos Emma Kirby for Andrew Parrott, Lynne Dawson for René Jacobs, and Julianne Baird for Valentin Radu have the wrong sound, to my ears, and so those recordings were not included in the survey. (I made an exception for Véronique Gens, one of my favorite singers, with William Christie.) I also prefer a baritone Aeneas and a mezzo-soprano or alto Sorceress, although having another voice type in those roles did not automatically eliminate a recording. (After all, we have evidence that at the original performances at Josias Priest's school Aeneas was sung by a young woman.)

Finally, the surviving music is scored for strings and continuo. Adding winds (as do both Jacobs and Emmanuelle Haïm) has no specific justification. Nor does repeating the first section of the overture (as do both Jacobs and Haïm), which has no repeat sign in the early scores. I far prefer versions that rely on the existing musical evidence over interventionist approaches that attempt to "improve" Purcell.

Taking my selections in chronological order:

The English Concert & Choir conducted by Trevor Pinnock. Image source: Presto Music

For Trevor Pinnock's version on Archiv, Anne Sofie von Otter has the requisite regal gravity. But at the words "Remember me" in her final aria von Otter sings "Remombah mah!," calling attention not to the despair of the character, but to the difficulty of singing the highest notes of the role. In his survey linked above, Ralph Moore says that "Von Otter’s final scene is up with the best." This pronunciation flaw is so obtrusive I can't agree; your judgment may differ.

Stephen Varcoe in the bass-baritone role of Aeneas sounds quite similar to tenor Nigel Rogers' Sorceress. While it could be a dramatic choice to depict both Aeneas and the Sorceress as linked agents of Dido's destruction, this feels more like Pinnock was simply following the tradition established in the 18th and 19th centuries for a male Sorceress. As for Rogers, according to Ellen Harris' Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, 2nd edition (Oxford, 2018), the earliest surviving manuscript of the score, from 1700, sets the Sorceress's part in the mezzo-soprano range; in later 18th-century sources the part is written for bass. I prefer a woman in this role; in any case, here I agree with Moore about Rogers that "there is little of menace or the macabre in his threats—he just sounds like a bloke singing the Sorceress' words."

Pinnock's tempos are stately, and as a result this version feels sluggish and lacks dramatic drive at key points. (Characteristically, Pinnock's overture takes 2:20, versus 2:04 for Hogwood, 1:54 for Christie and Hickox, and 1:51 for McGegan.) Taken together these issues are sufficiently bothersome for me to recommend against this version. However, Matthew Boyden in The Rough Guide to Opera, 3rd edition (2002), selects it as one of his top choices.

Chorus and Orchestra of The Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Christopher Hogwood. Image source: Presto Music

Speaking of blokes singing the Sorceress' words, bass David Thomas on Christopher Hogwood's L'Oiseau-Lyre version is even worse than Rogers. Singing in an exaggerated, affected way, Thomas sounds like a pantomime dame. Here is the Sorceress's first appearance, "Wayward sisters":

The witches have also been directed by Hogwood, unsuccessfully, to camp it up (Stowe in particular just sounds excessively nasal). Hogwood makes another odd choice: the First Sailor, Daniel Lochmann, is a boy treble, making incongruous his admonition to his fellow sailors to "take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore." If David Thomas evokes a panto dame, the First Sailor sounds like he's wandered in from a production of Oliver. John Mark Ainsley is a tenor Aeneas, and although he has a good voice, I prefer a bass-baritone in the role.

Finally, Catherine Bott's mezzo-soprano is not particularly rich or resonant, particularly in the role's lower range, and her manner is strangely detached: when she sings "I am press'd with torment," she hardly sounds it, nor does her final scene sound like a woman facing the end of her hopes, and her life. (Bott does sing a beautifully floated and correctly pronounced "Remember me!"). With these substantial problems, I can't recommend this version either, although it is given an "Outstanding" rating in the Gramophone Classical Good CD Guide 2004.

The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Image source: Presto Music

I confess that I can't be fully objective about Nicholas McGegan's version on Harmonia Mundi: McGegan and his Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra were in the pit for our first performances of the opera by the Mark Morris Dance Group, our Baroque opera conversion experience, and his was the first recording of this work we heard.

McGegan does make two missteps, in my view, which I'll address straight away. The first is casting contralto Ellen Rabiner as the Sorceress. Her pronounced vibrato and Wagnerian vocal style set her apart from the rest of the cast. Rabiner is a significant improvement over either Thomas or Rogers, and casting a low female voice in the role of the cave-dwelling Sorceress is a choice that could have worked extremely well. However, I regret that McGegan didn't opt for Jennifer Lane (who sings the dual roles of Dido and the Sorceress for Jeanne Lamon on the DVD of the Mark Morris production) or Judith Malafronte (who sang Dido and the Sorceress for McGegan when we saw the Mark Morris production live).

McGegan's second misstep is to immediately follow the final scene of the opera with Purcell's music for The Gordian Knot Unty'd. This is clearly done to fill out the CD, which would otherwise be only 50 minutes long. The contrast, though, between the moving final chords of Dido's death scene and the dance-filled incidental music to The Gordian Knot Unty'd is jarring. Fortunately this is a fault easily remedied by CD programming, playlist editing, or just hitting the stop button. Dido does not need any fillers.

The performances of the witches and sailors (soloists and chorus) are quite characterful. The witches have a kind of wild, sinister hilarity, and Paul Elliott's First Sailor is sung as an authentic-sounding Jack Tar. This theatrical approach may bother some listeners, but I find that (unlike Hogwood's) McGegan's direction doesn't go over the top, but rather enhances the flavor of the proceedings—this is, after all, a stage work.

But the glory of this set is Lorraine Hunt's Dido, a role perfect for her plangent mezzo-soprano. Hunt is regal and conveys deep feeling; a better embodiment of the tragic queen is impossible to imagine. Helped by McGegan's urgent pacing, Hunt also summons fierce anger in Dido's final confrontation with Aeneas, when she rejects his last-minute change of heart and promise to stay. And her sorrowful closing lament simply stops time. We are fortunate indeed to have this record of Hunt's performance.

Dido's first aria, expressing her foreboding about her developing feelings for Aeneas, "Ah! Belinda, I am press'd with torment":

Hunt's performance makes this version my first choice. Hunt would go on to powerfully portray other tragic women, including Medea (Charpentier's Médée, recorded with William Christie in 1994), Irene (Handel's Theodora, recorded with William Christie in 1996), Phédre (Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie, recorded with William Christie in 1997), Empress Octavia (Ottavia in Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea, at SF Opera in 1998), and Berlioz's Dido (Didon in Les Troyens, at the Metropolitan Opera in 2003). Her death from breast cancer at age 52 in 2006 was a profound loss.

Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie. Image source: Presto Music

Given the French influences on Stuart society in the 1680s—the mother of James II, Henrietta Maria, was French, and as a young man James served in the army of Louis XIV—it is certainly defensible to perform Dido and Aeneas in French style. And William Christie's version on Erato has many virtues. As with McGegan's recording, Christie's benefits from extensive experience in staged opera, and offers dynamism and drama (at 45 minutes it's the shortest version in this survey). It also has the suitably heroic Aeneas of Nathan Berg, and the excellent Sophie Daneman as Second Woman and First Witch. The Second Woman's recounting of the tale of Diana and Actaeon, "Oft she visits this lone mountain":

However, there are also some noteworthy issues. Most of the cast (the British Daneman and the Canadian Berg aside) sing their English lines with light but detectable French accents. (Of course, French, Italian, and German audiences must frequently listen to non-native opera singers outright massacre their languages, so being bothered by this seems unfair; still.) Claire Brua's Sorceress "is a splendidly insinuating conception, with a slithering melodic style," according to the Gramophone guide; you may feel, as I do, that her sliding around the notes is overdone, as are the witches' sneering voices. As Dido, Véronique Gens has a lovely voice and beautifully expresses the tragic nature of character, but the role lies a bit low for her pure soprano. She isn't quite able to offer the vocal richness of Lorraine Hunt (see above) or Jennifer Lane (see below), particularly in the role's lowest range. 

Finally, Christie's chorus seems to be largely made up of the soloists. While this was a common practice in Italian opera seria, which typically only had one short final ensemble, it would probably not have been the case for this opera, where the chorus has such a prominent role and is onstage simultaneously with the principals. Not only does Christie's small chorus lack the impact of a larger group, but as Ralph Moore points out in his survey, their voices don't blend particularly well. 

I find these drawbacks to be significant; however, my reservations are not shared by the Gramophone guide, which gives it a "Recommended" rating.

Collegium Musicum 90 conducted by Richard Hickox. Image source: Presto Music

Richard Hickox's recording on Chandos served as the soundtrack for a BBC film of the opera directed by Peter Maniura, broadcast on PBS in 1996. In the film the setting was shifted from ancient Carthage to the Renaissance, with Hampton Court picturesquely serving as Dido's palace. Apart from giving the filmmakers the opportunity to raid the BBC's vast store of sumptuous costumes, the film's main virtue is to give Maria Ewing's Dido a visual dimension. She was one of the great singing actresses of her generation, and seeing her performance (despite the occasional lip-synching problems) adds to its impact. 

The visual dimension doesn't hurt the handsome Karl Daymond's portrayal of Aeneas, either. And having an Aeneas that is visibly younger than Dido works well dramatically: it implies that Dido sees in Aeneas her last chance of a great passion.

On CD, as a purely aural experience, Ewing's operatic vocal style, and particularly her prominent vibrato, is more bothersome. Here is "Your counsel all is urg'd in vain," Dido's final confrontation with Aeneas after she learns that he is leaving:

Ewing's dramatic engagement is not in question, but her vibrato is a matter of taste, and I prefer other singers in this role. But what's also apparent from this excerpt is that, perhaps due to his relative inexperience with opera, Hickox takes this dramatic scene at far too slow a pace; McGegan's and Christie's versions are both well under four minutes long, while Hickox takes nearly four and a half minutes. Although I think the film version is worth seeing, the combination of the slack pacing and Ewing's vibrato rule out the CD version of this performance for me. In his survey Ralph Moore disagrees, calling it "a top contender" and "highly recommendable."

Tafelmusik Orchestra and Chamber Choir conducted by Jeanne Lamon. Image source: Mark Morris Dance Group

This video preserves Morris' performance in the double role of Dido and the Sorceress in what is perhaps his most moving work. Jeanne Lamon's conducting emphasizes the opera's tragedy with slow tempos, perhaps to enable the dancers to more easily execute the gestural choreography. But as a purely musical experience it lacks the headlong, inexorable rush towards the final tragedy that McGegan's or Christie's version provides. 

Vocally, Jennifer Lane and Russell Braun are an excellent central couple. And, paralleling Morris' double role, Lane sings both Dido and the Sorceress (she is easily the best Sorceress in this survey). The double roles suggest that, as Joan Acocella writes in her great book on Morris (FSG, 1993), the Sorceress is "an anti-Dido," just as her coven of witches is the evil mirror image of the courtiers who surround the queen. The double casting may also suggest that the Sorceress is a self-destructive aspect of Dido. As Roger Savage has written:

It can be argued that. . .all the [female] characters in the opera are really personified aspects of Dido: Belinda and the Second Woman projections of her yearning towards erotic fulfillment, the Sorceress a formidable anti-self embodying all her insecurities and apprehensions of disaster contingent on her involving herself in any deep personal relationship, and the two solo witches nightmarish shadows of Belinda and the Second Woman. [1]

Barbara Willis Sweete's direction is sometimes distracting—we don't really need to see the singers floating on and off the screen again after their first appearance—but this film is an invaluable record of one of Morris' greatest works.

Highly recommended: McGegan, Harmonia Mundi; Lamon, Rhombus Media

  1. Roger Savage, Producing Dido and Aeneas: An investigation into sixteen problems. In Michael Burden, ed. The Purcell Companion, Amadeus Press, 1995, pp. 445-468.